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Portrait of A Woman Lost: Barbara Loden’s Wanda

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A white figure in the distance roams across what looks like mounds of soot. The way it’s shot and the pacing of this moment feel like we’re watching a European film, but what we’re actually looking at is the underbelly of America. Shot in the coal mining regions of Pennsylvania, Barbara Loden’s Wanda is a landmark film for a variety of reasons.

Loden is a director akin to Charles Laughton, the character actor who directed The Night of the Hunter, now considered by critics to be one of the greatest films of the 1950s. It was the only film he would ever direct. For Loden, who also started out as an actress before becoming a director, Wanda was her sole feature film directing credit. Yet it went on to become the only American film to be accepted at the Venice Film Festival in 1970, where it won Best Foreign Film.

Loden, whose own life was cut short a mere 10 years after Wanda was released due to breast cancer, had had other movie aspirations. But she was never able to get another independent feature film financed. 

With these artists, one is haunted by what else they might have contributed to cinema history if they had had the time or the resources to continue their work. Their single contributions to cinema become bittersweet.

Loden is considered by some to be the female equivalent of independent film pioneer John Cassavetes. To say there wasn’t a wealth of independent female directors in 1970 is an understatement. There wasn’t a wealth of female directors, period. (Sadly, we are still climbing out of this deficit in 2023.) To say that this may have had an impact on the representations of women in film we see throughout movie history is also an understatement. Historically, it’s rarer to see women of a certain age appear in film as more than just someone’s (perfectly put-together) object of desire or love interest.

Whatever you might think of Paul Feig’s 2016 Ghostbusters reboot with the all-female cast, it was sadly refreshing to see a gang of women in jumpsuits — not being sexualized or fought for or looking fetching — who just get to run around and fix things, and do stuff, like whole people.

In over a century of film history, particularly American film, it’s depressingly less common to see women who are just “doing stuff,” helming a film – let alone women who are flawed, aimless, adrift, and imperfect. Fifty-three years ago, in 1970, this must have been even more surprising. Barbara Loden was, in fact, a naturally beautiful woman, but Wanda wanders aimlessly alongside her title character. It allows her to be quietly flawed without condemnation.

Part of this could be attributed to the documentary style in which it was made. Cinema verité, Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, and the films of Andy Warhol were all influences.

As a young person, Loden actually claimed she hated film, stating, “People on the screen were perfect and they made me feel inferior.” Starting out in an industry where, as a young woman, she was exploited entirely for her looks, in her directorial work she chose to subvert mainstream Hollywood and these norms.

In 1971, she told The New York Times, “I really hate slick pictures. They’re too perfect to be believable. I don’t mean just in the look. I mean in the rhythm, in the cutting, the music — everything. The slicker the technique is, the slicker the content becomes, until everything turns into Formica, including the people.” With Wanda, she intentionally went in another direction.

Director Elia Kazan, Loden’s husband for the last 13 years of her life, described Loden’s protagonist in Wanda for Cahiers du Cinéma shortly after she passed away in 1980: “She plays a character we have in America, and who I suppose exists in France and everywhere, that we call floating, a wanderer. A woman who floats on the surface of society, drifting here or there, with the currents.”

Wanda’s passive protagonist moves through life with a lackadaisical approach to survival. Going off with any man she meets by chance, men seem more like flotation devices than they do objects of desire or even genuine interest.

This character for Loden harkened back to her own youth. “I sort of made my way up, but I know if I had stayed where I came from, I would just be a wasted person.” Said Loden about her title character in 1971, “It was sort of based on my own personality… A sort of passive, wandering around, passing from one person to another, no direction. I spent many years of my life that way and I felt that…well, I think that a lot of people are that way. And not just women, but men too. They don’t know why they exist.”

Loden grew up in rural North Carolina in the 1930s and ’40s, and one begins to wonder if this film is a metaphor for the kinds of choices women had in a certain era, or up until a certain era. For Wanda, the iconic line from Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, “I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers,” seems to take on new relevance. It’s a sentence upon which she seems to place her sole survival.

Perhaps, at her core, Wanda is just looking for somewhere to go and something to do. A bank robber called Mr. Dennis (Michael Higgins) comes into her life for a brief time and offers one solution.

They don’t have the warmest relationship — he is single-minded and self-obsessed, primarily just ordering her around — yet she suddenly seems to feel needed instead of just used and discarded. Mr. Dennis gives her life a purpose. 

He sends her to get him hamburgers in the middle of the night, and she scrapes the condiments into the hotel trash can for him after botching up the order. He merely exclaims, “I thought I told you no garbage!” When he speaks to her at all, it is mostly to bark orders, and yet she has a place to be and someone to tell her what to do. In a life that is completely unmoored, this seems for her something of a comfort. 

It’s touching and revealing to see how much his approval means to her when she is able to win it. Said Loden, “At least it was a form of attention, and someone cared what she did, and that meant a lot to her.”

Something about the relationship between Wanda and Mr. Dennis feels more realistic than it would in a typical Hollywood film. Although they share the same seedy motel beds, there is a complete absence of romance between them. It was an intentional choice of Loden’s to not fall into the Hollywood movie cliche of unlikely instant romance. At one moment, Mr. Dennis, standing in the middle of their hotel room fully dressed, hits the table, hard, awakening Wanda, who sits up naked in bed, startled. This single exchange is a beautiful character study. Mr. Dennis seems driven by a singular force, scheming, self-preserving, always moving desperately towards his own survival. In her need to be needed, Wanda follows along quietly by his side, however ridiculous the situation becomes.

Michael Higgins, who plays Mr. Dennis, was an interesting figure in his own right, and it is sad he is not more well known. He had an acclaimed career onstage: doing Shakespeare and winning Obie Awards for playing John Proctor in The Crucible and for his work with David Mamet. He appeared in more than 50 films with supporting parts in The Conversation and Angel Heart and lived to the age of 88 after being married to the same woman for 63 years — something of an abnormality in Hollywood. He also fought in WWII, earning both a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star Medal. 

Loden and Higgins were the only two professional actors in the film, and a lot of the script Loden had written was thrown out, rearranged, or otherwise improvised upon in order to better accommodate her non-actors. She’d originally written it in 1962 with the intention of finding someone else to direct but slowly came to the realization that no one else understood the material to the extent that she did — least of all her male directorial counterparts. 

Loden based the idea for the film on a newspaper article she’d read in the New York Daily News in 1960, where a woman was an accomplice to a bank robbery after getting involved with the wrong man. After the judge sentenced her to 20 years in prison without appeal, she thanked him. 

I once saw a documentary piece on a women’s prison — possibly some footage of Eve Ensler doing writing workshops there. What was most memorable was that the majority of the women in incarceration had ended up there due to some man they had been romantically involved with. While I have not conducted greater research on this topic, this really struck me at the time, and I wondered statistically how often the reverse is true. 

Reports vary, but Wanda was made for somewhere between $100,000 and $200,000 in seven weeks, with what amounted to a four-person crew. The cinematographer, Nicholas Proferes, reported a decade later that he’d never worked with someone as closely as he had with Loden.

Something else that jumps out when rewatching Wanda, is that it would make a good companion piece with British director Mike Leigh’s 1993 film, Naked: another film with a morally questionable, similarly homeless protagonist who surfs from person to person, using them as floatation devices or in any other way he can, before moving on. If Wanda is the embodiment of the classical, stereotypical feminine, though, passively wandering the Earth, Naked’s Johnny seems more stereotypically masculine and aggressive in his wanderings. Both films follow lost and wandering protagonists of questionable morality who are nevertheless compelling to watch.

With her film, Loden seems to be making a comment about a class and a personality type — an underbelly of society — that was not as often represented in the film of her era. Nor were stories typically about lower-class women in general. Said Loden of her title character, “She’s trapped, and she will never, ever get out of it and there are millions like her.”

Loden said it was easier to be both lead actress and director because it was such a passive role. The way Wanda goes through life is reminiscent of a lost domesticated animal who is looking for an owner — the way people pick her up and take her in for brief periods also harkens back to Naked.

As previously stated, Wanda feels a lot more like a European film that happens to be set in an unglamorous region of America, amongst drifters and people in trouble. It feels akin to the German directors of the ’70s and ’80s who shot art films in desolate American landscapes, showcasing America’s squalor yet keeping with their European sensibilities. Both Werner Herzog’s Stroszek and Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas come to mind as examples of this.

But Wanda was made by a singular American woman with too much talent to burn and not enough opportunity. It was made by a woman in a time where a woman helming anything, let alone a feature film, was rare. It features a flawed female protagonist, and it was made outside of the bounds of the Hollywood system. For all of these reasons, Loden was a trailblazer.

Wanda screens starting Monday, April 10th at The Frida Cinema.
Monday, Apr 10 – 7:30pm
Tuesday, Apr 11 – 7:30pm


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