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On location in Rome with Pookie and Pakula

Rome, New York -- So you tell me: How you gonna explain to the kids a statue of two boys being nursed by a wolf? The chamber of commerce of Rome (Italy) sent this statue of Romulus and Remus, the city founders, being nursed by a wolf as per the legend.

But the city fathers of Rome (N.Y.) could see right off the bat that you couldn't put a thing like that in a public park, so they sent it out to Pat Desito to put in front of his restaurant, the Beeches, where maybe kids would see it but at least it was on private property.

The Desito family owns a couple of places in town where they serve a good steak, and this night Liza Minnelli was sitting at a table in the Beeches bar saying: "Well, it seemed like we waited all night, and finally we kept awake by having a happening. I did a droopy cloud, droopy-droop, and a babbling brook. Babble-babble."

Now the problem with quoting Liza Minnelli is that you can't get the inflection of her voice into print. So likely you thought that was a stupid thing for her to be saying, and indeed it reads that way. Quotes like that are what interviewers use to crucify their victims. So let's start out with the revelation that Liza pronounced those words in just such a way as to establish her own distance from happenings, droops and babbles.

She was also the one who told the Romulus and Remus story. In the three or four weeks she'd been in Rome filming "The Sterile Cuckoo," she picked up a lot of lore about Rome and Ithaca and that section of New York, enough to wince when a New York City radio announcer said the film was being shot in "upstate New York." Not upstate, baby -- Rome. It makes a difference to the Romans.

The film is about a girl named Pookie Adams who is, and I quote from Alvin Sargent's screenplay, "18 or 19. Not pretty. Not homely. Sort of special to look at. Her face always alert, wide eyes, constantly searching and making mental notes. She's a lanky thing, put together with loose hardware that allows her to move in a way most people haven't moved since they were kids."

At midnight, walking back from the Beeches to the Paul Revere Motel with the rest of the company, Liza Minnelli moved just that way, in a comic, gangling walk, shoulders not on a level, Chaplinesque, put together with loose hardware. That's what you'd think, in fact, if you'd never seen her dance. Ichabod Crane. And this was Sleepy Hollow country. When she dances, that's something else.

Pookie Adams meets a boy named Jerry on a bus. Jerry is on his way to college Upstate. Pookie is going to a girl's college nearby. She's clownish, appealing, strange. Over the course of that autumn and winter they're drawn to one another, and make (as the saying goes) their first tentative exploration of love.

The film is based on a novel by John Nichols published three years ago. It's being shot on and around the campus of Hamilton College, which in fact is where Nichols went to school. About 80 percent of the film involves the boy and girl characters alone -- they're both sort of isolated from society -- and the rest, the scenes on campus, are being cast entirely from the Hamilton student body and the locals.

That approach is insisted upon by Alan J. Pakula, who is directing his first film but has been the producing half of a partnership with Robert Mulligan for 10 years. They did "To Kill a Mockingbird," "Love with the Proper Stranger," "Up the Down Staircase" and others, including the underground favorite (and box-office flop) "Inside Daisy Clover."

One of the joys of "Up the Down Staircase" came from the large number of unprofessional actors cast in important roles. For "The Sterile Cuckoo," Pakula's big scene with amateurs will be a typical college beer bash. The problem is going to be convincing the students they're at a party and not in a movie.

Pakula's preference for unknown actors has extended even as high as the leading roles. Cast opposite Liza Minnelli, as Pookie's boyfriend, is a 21-year-old San Franciscan named Wendell Burton, who is making his film debut. It's only his second professional role, and he never intended to be an actor in the first place. Pakula did three weeks of rehearsals with Burton and Miss Minnelli in Los Angeles, and then moved the entire company to Rome for the shooting.

And that is where we join them, on an overcast Saturday morning the day after the Romulus and Remus episode. Pakula is shooting on location several miles outside Rome, on Onida Lake. There's a summer resort there known lyrically as Sylvan Beach. But in autumn, the beach is bare except for a layer of wet leaves, and this morning there is a persistent drizzle falling.

That's fine with Pakula. Huddled in his windbreaker, he says, "This tourist camp is better than any set. Look at this place. We found this whole world here, waiting for a movie to be shot in it."

It looks like a location for "Bonnie and Clyde." There is a ramshackle row of tourist cabins with a "For Sale" sign on them, next door to the Sylvan Beach Union Chapel, which advertises services for all denominations in season. Across a gloomy park, a restaurant is open to serve the bystanders who have come to watch the movie. The restaurant is named Eddie's Original Hot Ham on a Toasted Bun. It is across the street from a building with a sign advising: "Yager's Lounge - Legal Beverages."

"Does that mean," Liza wondered, "that the beverages are legal, or that they only sell them to people of legal age?"

"Either," said Wendell Burton. "Or neither."

The scene to be shot this Saturday morning is an important one. Pookie and Jerry have known each other for several weeks, and they decide, with great awkwardness, to spend a weekend in a motel (neither one quite admitting, to himself or the other, why they might want to do such a thing). The shot will show Jerry's old red Volkswagen chugging down the road, stopping, and Jerry getting out to rent a cabin.

"Who could expect to find such a motel next to such a chapel?" Pakula said. "I wouldn't dare put it there if it weren't already there; people would think it was phony."

"You should see the inside of the tourist cabin," Wendell Burton said. "There's a picture of the Maine -- remember the Maine? -- and an old iron bed, and an enormous diamond shaped mirror, cracked. It looks so much like the cabin Nichols has in his novel that it's uncanny."

"Maybe this is the same place," someone said.

"No," Pakula said, "we checked and it isn't."

Wendell looked exactly like a college freshman, which was the idea. "Pakula goes for a natural approach in everything," he said. "This jacket is mine, the sweater is mine, and the shoes are mine."

He is still surprised to find himself in a movie opposite Liza Minnelli.

"In high school," he said, "I took one drama class. We had a Shakespeare festival and I did a scene from 'A Midsummer Night's Dream.'

"In college, I enrolled in a public-speaking class and the teacher talked me into trying out for a play. So why not? And I got the lead in 'Oh Dad, Poor Dad.'

"Well, our stage manager's brother was the director of 'You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown,' and she talked me into trying out for that, and I'll be damned if I didn't get the part. So I played Charlie Brown in San Francisco for 15 months. That was my first professional role, and this is my second."

That puts him a distance behind Liza Minnelli. As the daughter of Vincente Minnelli and Judy Garland, she grew up in an atmosphere saturated with show business and has emerged, in the last three or four years, as a remarkable talent. Her first film role was as Albert Finney's mistress in "Charlie Bubbles," a good performance in a fine movie that audiences inexplicably avoided. Now, at 22, she is starring in her second drama.

"I wonder when I'll make a musical," she said, munching unenthusiastically on a tuna salad sandwich at Eddie's Original Hot Ham on a Toasted Bun. "Still I think this is going to be a good thing, this movie. The script is good. I mean, it rings true. It's a story that hasn't been done honestly before, about a boy and a girl who fall in love and are kind of ill-at-ease and clumsy and... you know."

"The title stumps a lot of people," she said. "So what's a sterile cuckoo? It comes from a poem that Pookie Adams recites in the book:

Oh, hi ho in the lavender wood A sterile cuckoo is crying. Oh, hi ho in the lavender snow A sterile cuckoo is dying. In the darkness of her heart It is always three o'clock in the morning.

Liza grinned. "Well, the ending is corny, yes," she said, "but the poem is the sort of thing Pookie would like. It's half Pookie Adams and half F. Scott Fitzgerald - or 'F. Fitz,' as Pookie calls him."

The tuna sandwich consumed, it was time to begin the afternoon's shooting. "It's a nice little scene today," Liza said. "The other day, we had to wade out into the lake. You can wade out 100 yards before it gets over your head. But it's polluted. We were kind of gingerly picking our way through the dead fish..."

"Okay, into the VW," Pakula said. While Wendell and Liza were driving down the street, he sat on a packing crate and said, "This is the kind of scene I like, where the characters develop in movements instead of a lot of words. I try for the subjective point of view, and I don't like a big budget. We're spending as much as we need, yes, but I'm after personal revelation, and you lose that when you start spending too much money trying to get it."

By now the Volkswagen was in position, ready to drive back down the rainy street toward the camera. Pakula gave a signal and his assistant director waved the car ahead.

"Are we rolling?" Pakula asked his cameraman.


"I didn't say action," Pakula said. "Action."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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