Cast & Crew
Near the Pennsylvania coal mines, Wanda Goransky is staying with her sister, resentful brother-in-law and their several small children. Wanda, who has recently abandoned her husband and two children, has no money and so borrows from neighbors to attend her divorce hearing. At the court, she agrees to all her husband's charges and, stating that the children are better off with him, voices no objection to the divorce. She returns to the clothing factory where she worked a few days, and even after learning that almost her entire salary was deducted for "taxes," asks for more work. The owner, however, brusquely informs her that she works too slowly, and sends her away. Dejected, Wanda goes to a local bar, and after a traveling salesman buys her a beer, she goes with him to his motel. The next morning, he deserts her at an ice cream stand. After wandering the city streets for hours, she goes to a movie, where her money is stolen after she falls asleep. Later, Wanda enters a closed bar to use the restroom. Mr. Dennis, a robber whom Wanda mistakes for the bar owner, demands that she leave as she attempts to wash up. Stepping into the main room, she asks him for a towel and a drink, failing to notice the bar owner tied up on the floor. Dennis sees someone outside and, nervous about exiting alone, drags Wanda with him to the nearby diner, where he buys her dinner. Despite his silence, she accompanies him to his hotel and sleeps with him. Afterward, Wanda, who calls him "Mr. Dennis," asks if he wants to know her name, but he says no and refuses to answer any questions. Later, he instructs her to bring him some food, and after she leaves, looks at the pictures in her wallet of her husband and children. Dennis is infuriated when he sees Wanda on the street talking to a man and later, when she wanders the hallway calling his name, having forgotten their room number, he slaps her. In the morning, however, he brings her along as he steals a car, and as they drive, he demands that she read the newspaper story about the bar robbery. Although she can barely read, she realizes what Dennis has done and questions him. In response, he commands her to get out of the car, but when she quietly refuses, he allows her to stay. They drive to see his longtime accomplice, but the man, afraid of the risk, backs out of their planned bank robbery. On the road again, Dennis' migraine headaches plague him, but with Wanda at the wheel, he is finally able to sleep. Later, they rest in a field. As Dennis drinks, he grows more voluble, and suggests that she wear a hat to cover her lank hair. When she responds that she has no money, he states, "If you don't want anything you won't have anything, and if you don't have anything, you're as good as dead." As men nearby fly their model airplanes overhead, Dennis climbs onto the car roof to shout at them happily. Hours later, Wanda manages finally to rouse the sleeping Dennis and they drive to a store. After instructing her to buy a hat and dress, he steals from parked cars in the lot. Driving away, he throws her slacks and curlers out the window, declaring they makes her look "cheap." As they rifle through a pile of stolen clothes, Dennis asks Wanda about her husband, and she states that she was "no good" at being a wife or mother. They continue driving, and although he still refuses to answer her questions, he caresses her legs. Some time later, they reach Dennis' target, the Third National Bank. After checking out the interior, he goes to the nearby church where his father is attending services. His father tells Dennis that he is a "good boy" who only needs a job, but when Dennis tries to give him money, his father refuses it. Soon after, Dennis asks Wanda to pose as pregnant and be his accomplice. Just before the day of the robbery, she tries to back out, but he reassures her she must go through with the plan. Dennis rehearses with Wanda, who can barely keep track of his simple instructions. The next morning, after Wanda vomits out of fright, they reach the house of bank manager Anderson, where Dennis trains his gun on him. When Anderson fights back, Wanda grabs the gun and subdues him. As she ties up Anderson's teenaged daughters and wife, Dennis arms a bomb and promises that as long as they return with the money in one hour and fifteen minutes, he will dismantle the explosive and no one will be harmed. Dennis gets in the car with Anderson, with Wanda set to follow them and drive the getaway car. Before driving off, she and Dennis exchange a few tender words. On the way to the bank, Wanda makes an illegal u-turn and is stopped by the police. Forced to go on without her, Dennis reaches the bank and ties up the guard and staff, as Anderson opens the safe. Unknown to Dennis, however, the police have been alerted, and as he fills his bags with cash, the police surround the bank. Finally Wanda finds her way back to bank, but cannot enter, as it is blocked by policemen and a crowd of spectators. Standing in the mob, Wanda watches in horror as Dennis' body, shot down by the police, is borne away. Later, she sits at a bar in shock, listening to a television newscaster announcing that Dennis has died, the bomb was a dummy and the Andersons are all safe. After a soldier buys her drinks, Wanda leaves with him, but when he tries to have sex with her in his car, she attacks him and runs away through woods, collapsing in tears. She walks on to a roadhouse bar, where a kind woman takes pity on her and introduces her to a large, raucous group. Surrounded by celebratory strangers, Wanda sits in tortured isolation.
M. L. Kennedy
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
Although the onscreen credits include a copyright statement for Foundation for Filmmakers, Wanda was not registered for copyright. The crew credits read, in their entirety, "A film by Barbara Loden with Nicholas T. Proferes." As noted in a February 1971 Hollywood Reporter news item, Harry Shuster formed Bardene International Films, Inc. specifically to distribute Wanda. Although most reveiws stated that the the film was unrated, Filmfacts listed the rating as GP, while the April 3, 1971 LAHExam review listed it as R.
Loden (1932-1980), who grew up in Asheville, NC, began her career as a model. After performing small roles in Broadway plays and films, Elia Kazan cast her as "Ginny Stamper" in his film Splendor in the Grass (1961, ) and later as "Maggie" in the Arthur Miller play After the Fall. Although both roles won her critical acclaim, in 1968 she semi-retired from acting after marrying Kazan. Wanda was her debut as a producer, director and writer.
In contemporary interviews, Loden described the process of producing Wanda, which she called an autobiographical film. After writing the screenplay in 1962, she tried without success to interest studios and directors. When Shuster agreed to finance the film, as Loden noted in a February 1971 Los Angeles Times feature, Loden decided to shoot it herself, using a crew of three. Although Schuster put up the financing, he only received 1/3 interest in the film. The other 2/3 was owned by the nonprofit Foundation for Filmakers, which was composed of Loden, Kazan and attorney Milton Kazan, according to an April 1971 Daily Variety news item. Once Schuster was paid his share, the rest of the profits was to go into a fund for future films. She stated in that article that she paid herself union scale and costumed co-star Michael Higgins in Kazan's old clothes.
As noted in a January 1971 London Times Saturday Review article, the story was originally set in the South, but the cost of shooting there, and the need to be near the New York process labs, necessitated a switch to Carbondale and Scranton, mining towns in Pennsylvania. Shot in 16mm, the film cost around $115,000. As noted in a March 1971 New York Times article, Loden and Proferes edited the footage at her home. In several contemporary sources, she listed Andy Warhol as a inspiration, and stated that although Kazan had little involvement with Wanda, the process inspired him to shoot his own low-budget, small-crew production, 1972's The Visitors.
Critics responded positively to Loden's self-professed attempt to buck Hollywood tradition and feature "an ordinary person without any redeeming qualities." Wanda was chosen as the only American entry in the 1970 Venice Film Festival, where it won the International Critics' Prize for Best Film. It then won acclaim at the London and San Francisco Film Festivals, as it did upon its national release in February 1971. In addition to praise for Loden's naturalist directing techniques, both she and Higgins were lauded, with the Los Angeles Times reviewer stating that they "deserve to be remembered in the next year's Oscar race." Despite the almost universally laudatory reviews, Loden never made another film. She died of breast cancer at age forty-eight.
Released in United States 1971
Re-released in United States July 20, 2018
Released in United States August 21, 1970
Released in United States 1996
Released in United States 2015
Released in United States 1971
Re-released in United States July 20, 2018
Released in United States August 21, 1970 (Shown at Venice Film Festival August 21, 1970.)
Released in United States 1996 (Shown in New York City (Film Forum) as part of program "Out of the Seventies: Hollywood's New Wave 1969-1975" May 31 - July 25, 1996.)
Shown at Venice Film Festival August 21, 1970.
Released in United States 2015 (Masters)