Wanda, the only film directed by actress Barbara Loden, was released in a limited theatrical run in New York City in 1971. Though it was praised in Europe and won the International Critics' Prize at the Venice Film Festival, it languished in obscurity until 2003 when it was re-issued to theaters in France. Actress Isabelle Huppert had long been an admirer of Wanda, and she was behind the film's resurfacing, giving it a second life. A DVD release followed, first in France and then in the U.S. In 2010, a new 35mm print was struck from the newly discovered 16mm original rolls, and the film was re-released to specialty venues in the U.S.
Loden starred in the title role as Wanda Goronski, a working class woman born and raised in a Pennsylvania coal town. Uneducated and without the means and opportunity for economic advancement, her only hope for a better life is marriage to a man who works in the mines and draws a good salary. But, as the film opens, audiences discover that she has failed at marriage, and she lives on the fringes of an already marginalized region. In court to finalize her divorce, Wanda willingly gives up her two children to their father noting that they are better off with him. "I'm just no good," she confesses in a matter-of-fact monotone. With no emotional ties, Wanda drifts along with the wind, becoming further alienated from mainstream society with each misadventure. Picked up in a bar by a salesman, she wakes up in his motel room the next morning as he is trying to sneak away. She catches him just as he gets in his car, but he dumps her unceremoniously in front of a Dairy Queen. She wanders around town, falling asleep in a movie theater only to discover upon awakening that her money has been stolen. Wanda walks into a near-empty beer joint to use the restroom, not realizing that it is in the process of being robbed by the tightly wound man behind the bar. They leave together, and she ends up in his broken-down motel room.
Wanda joins the thief, whose name is Mr. Dennis, on the road for no other reason than she has no place else to go. Along the way, he steals cars, clothes, and food. Eventually, Mr. Dennis takes a passing interest in instructing Wanda on how to dress and wear her hair--trying to provoke her into bettering herself. "If you don't want anything, you won't have anything, and if you don't have anything, then you're as good as dead." But, Wanda is spiritually and psychically numb from the totality of her existence up to this point, and she remains passive, inarticulate, and goalless. When Mr. Dennis slaps her across the face, she registers a blank look for a second, before she finally realizes, "Hey, that hurt." Hoping to make one last score via a bank robbery, Mr. Dennis tries to train Wanda to be his accomplice after his partner drops out. Wanda and Mr. Dennis's bad end is telegraphed by the film's relentless melancholy mood and her inability to master her part in the scheme.
Nominally, Wanda belongs to the road genre, which was fashionable during the 1960s. The road movie was the genre of choice for a generation of young directors flirting with the counterculture. They could depict mainstream characters breaking the chains of the establishment with its conformity and hollow middle-class values to find their destinies or themselves. Films such as The Rain People (1969), Easy Rider (1969), and even Bonnie and Clyde (1967) didn't always have happy endings, but at some point, they validated the characters' choices and romanticized the idea of rebellion against the establishment. Wanda differs because the main character's actions, or lack of them, lead her to an isolation and alienation that will devour her, and there is nothing about Wanda and Mr. Dennis's journey across Pennsylvania that is romanticized. The utter bleakness of Wanda's predicament and her complete lack of options led many reviewers to describe the film as "realistic," "authentic," or marked by "verisimilitude." However, Wanda is way beyond realism; it is a raw, uncompromising depiction of working class women from a part of the country seldom portrayed on the big screen with compassion or understanding.
Even in an era of experimentation and risk-taking in Hollywood, no studio stepped up to give Loden a chance to make her film. She had completed a draft of the script in 1964, but it took six years to find financing to make the film. Eccentric investor Harry Shuster put up the $115,000 budget for a one-third interest in the film. The Foundation for Filmmakers, an organization founded by Loden and her husband, Elia Kazan, owned the other two-thirds.
Cinematographer Nicholas Proferes, who had worked with documentary filmmakers D.A. Pennebaker and the Maysles Brothers, served as Loden's director of photography. Loden and Proferes worked together closely as a team: She directed the performances and he took charge of the film's style and cinematography. Proferes used most of the techniques associated with cinema verite and direct cinema to fashion Wanda's brutally realistic style. The handheld camerawork gives the film a sense of tension and immediacy, such as the scene in which Mr. Dennis walks quickly down a street checking car doors hoping to find an unlocked car to steal. Later, when Mr. Dennis visits his father one last time, a handheld camera follows the pair unobtrusively as they visit a tourist site tellingly called The Tower of God. The camera peers at the pair from behind pillars and walls like a voyeur as we overhear a conversation that is private and painful. The natural lighting adds a textured realism, making central Pennsylvania look bleak and uninviting. Reviewers who were unfamiliar with the vast territory between America's two coasts described the typically green Keystone State as "parched" or "desolated," perhaps not realizing they were responding to Proferes's cinematography. Proferes favored long shots of Wanda as she meanders through the film's locations, including the coalfields, shopping malls, empty lots, and seedy towns, visually suggesting that she is a product of her environment. The film features only cuts, with no dissolves or fades to soften or romanticize the content.
Loden took risks in directing the performances. She cast non-actors in small roles, adding to the film's authenticity. In addition, she and costar Michael Higgins, who played Mr. Dennis, improvised or freely deviated from the script during filming. In one scene, Wanda and Mr. Dennis pull off the main road to relax near an open field. While shooting the scene, some local boys wandered into the area, flying a motorized model plane. Still in character, Higgins stood on the car, waving his arms at the plane, bringing the real-life incident into the fiction of the film.
In interviews, Loden offered one of two explanations for her interest in the character of Wanda. Sometimes, she claimed she had been intrigued by a newspaper story about a woman found guilty of a crime who then thanked the judge for sending her to jail. In other articles, she declared she wanted to make a road movie that was the opposite of the glamorized Bonnie and Clyde. After Loden's death in 1980 at age 48, Proferes revealed a more plausible reason: "She was driven to overcome her past." Born in tiny Marion, North Carolina, in 1932, Loden was raised by her strict grandparents after her parents divorced. Desperate to escape her impoverished, loveless home, she moved to New York City at age 16. She worked as a pin-up model and nightclub dancer before catching the eye of Larry Joachim, a film producer (Murder, Inc.; the original The Green Hornet) who got her a recurring slot on The Ernie Kovacs Show as his go-to girl for comedy bits and stunts. While studying acting at the Actors Studio in 1957, she was discovered by Elia Kazan, who was enamored with her uncultivated beauty and hardscrabble background.
Kazan cast her in small but showy roles in two of his films. In Wild River (1960), she played Montgomery Clift's cold-hearted secretary, and in Splendor in the Grass (1961), she played Warren Beatty's promiscuous sister. The high point of her acting career occurred in 1964 with her performance as the Marilyn Monroe surrogate in Arthur Miller's After the Fall, for which she won a Tony Award. After the play, Loden became disillusioned with most of the roles offered to her. She married Kazan in 1967, and though the relationship was sometimes strained, they remained together until her death from cancer.
Wanda was Loden's only film as a director, and in retrospect her erratic career tends to be discussed in context with Kazan's. The great director alleged in his autobiography that Loden had asked him to direct Wanda but he had found the material uninteresting and sentimental, an odd statement considering the film's reputation for gritty naturalism. In a condescending tone, he claimed to have written the first draft, with Loden rewriting it until she made it her own. Yet, the film's connection to Loden's own experiences, and her identification with the character of Wanda Goronski, make Kazan's version of events suspect. Apparently, Loden's experiences with Wanda did influence Kazan to work with a small crew and attempt a grittier visual style on The Visitors (1972) but with less-than-successful results.
Ultimately, Loden did not need her famous husband to make her mark in American cinema. Not only is Wanda an early example of true independent filmmaking, its documentary-like style and less-than-sympathetic protagonist anticipated the visual and narrative experimentation of the 1970s.
Producers: Harry Shuster and Barbara Loden
Director: Barbara Loden
Screenplay: Barbara Loden
Cinematography: Nicholas T. Proferes
Editor: Nicholas T. Proferes
Music: Dave Mullaney
Cast: Wanda Goronski (Barbara Loden), Mr. Dennis (Michael Higgins), Soldier (Frank Jourdano), Girl in the Roadhouse (Valerie Mamches), Wanda's Sister (Dorothy Shupenes), Wanda's Brother-in-Law (Peter Shupenes), Wanda's Husband (Jerome Thier), Miss Godek (Marian Thier), Traveling Salesman (Arnold Kanig), Mr. Dennis's Father (Charles Dosinan), Mr. Anderson (Jack Ford), Mrs. Anderson (Rozamond Peck).
by Susan Doll