Before Liza Minnelli Won an Oscar, She Got Serious With ‘Sterile Cuckoo’ and ‘Junie Moon’

Pat Saperstein
·4-min read

Liza Minnelli was born into show business royalty on March 12, 1946, and pressed into service onstage at the tender age of 14 months by her singer mother Judy Garland and director father Vincente Minnelli.

According to a short 1947 mention in Variety titled “In Ma’s Footsteps,” “Liza Minnelli, 14-month-old daughter of Judy Garland, makes her acting bow in Metro’s ‘The Pirate,’ which her father is directing.” It didn’t take long for her to move up to a film credit. Her first credited film role was at 3 years old, appearing briefly in “In the Good Old Summertime” alongside her mother.

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And though her biggest wish when she was young was to be a dancer, Minnelli ended up doing back-to-back serious dramatic roles before winning her Oscar for her irrepressible performance as nightclub singer Sally Bowles in “Cabaret.”

“I always wanted to be a dancer. I remember going to dancing school because I asked my dad. I went all my life. And then, I was always hoping that I’d get to be in the yearly show. Twice I didn’t make it. But the third time, I got it,” she told Variety last year.

But after winning a Tony at 19 and singing her way around the world, her first significant film role came in the British comedy “Charlie Bubbles.” Albert Finney directed and starred as the title character, and though largely forgotten now, Finney’s only feature film as a director was high-profile enough to win a slot at the Cannes Film Festival, where it screened just before the festival was shut down during the 1968 demonstrations.

Having mastered singing, dancing and comedy, the versatile EGOT then had her eye on the lead role in Alan J. Pakula’s directing debut, the 1969 teen drama “The Sterile Cuckoo.” Luckily, Pakula was a family friend, she explained.

“I read the book ‘The Sterile Cuckoo,’ and I said to my father, ‘Daddy, if they ever make anything out of this, I want to play the girl Pookie Adams.’ Then the director Alan Pakula announced he was making it. My dad knew him really well. He would come over to the house all the time. What I remember is Daddy saying to him, ‘Liza wants to play Pookie Adams.’ I said I’ll audition. And I did,” Minnelli told Variety.

The off-beat drama was a hit, and the kudos parade for the young performer continued, with a best actress Oscar nomination for her role as an eccentric college freshman. In his review, Roger Ebert insinuated that the vigorous Oscar campaign for the film would pay off well. “It will probably win Miss Minnelli an Oscar. She works for the largest and most powerful agency in Hollywood, and they’re spending a lot of money hailing it as great art. It is damned good, as I’ve said, but I think they’re overselling it,” he wrote.

A year later, she took on a bold role as a teenager who had been viciously attacked by her boyfriend in Otto Preminger’s “Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon.” Based on a popular novel, it confronted subjects like assault and disability that were rarely seen on screen, but “Junie Moon” didn’t see the same success as “Sterile Cuckoo.”

Garland died in London of an overdose just before production started in June 1969, and Minnelli started filming soon afterward. During production, Minnelli and Preminger were cited with a misdemeanor for filming a nude scene in a graveyard. The charge of “desecrating a grave” was brought by a relative of someone interred in the Massachusetts cemetery and was ultimately dismissed, but the entire imbroglio had a slight scent of publicity stunt, Variety implied at the time.

By the time “Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon,” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1970, Minnelli was already looking ahead to “Cabaret.” She had auditioned for the Broadway premiere of the show, but despite having already won a Tony, she didn’t get the gig. After putting several more meaty roles on her resume, producer Cy Feuer brought her on for the film adaptation, which became her role of a lifetime. Bob Fosse’s “Cabaret” was released in 1972, the same year as “The Godfather,” making for an extremely competitive Oscars race. And though “The Godfather” went on to take the top prize, “Cabaret” won eight Oscars, holding the record for the most wins by a film that didn’t win best picture.

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