Wanda Now: Reflections on Barbara Loden’s Feminist Masterpiece

Wanda Now: Reflections on Barbara Loden’s Feminist Masterpiece

On Film / Features — Jul 20, 2018

American audiences weren’t ready for Barbara Loden’s Wanda when it premiered in 1970. A stark portrait of a working-class woman (played with raw conviction by Loden herself) who breaks free of a miserable marriage, only to find herself on the lam with an abusive bank robber, the film was a far cry from the Hollywood and Broadway productions that had kicked off Loden’s acting career in the 1960s. “I really hate slick pictures,” the writer-director-star declared in an interview about the movie, and such staunch anti-commercialism shines through in its dingy locations, unpredictable rhythms, and combustible emotions. Though Wanda’s unsparing view of life in rural Pennsylvania did win over some cinephiles in Europe, where it picked up a prize at the Venice Film Festival and earned praise from the likes of Marguerite Duras (“I believe there’s a miracle in Wanda,” she said), its theatrical release in the U.S. came and went with little fanfare.

Few films that start out so neglected can hope to be as fiercely beloved nearly half a century later. In recent years, Wanda has emerged as a major inspiration for a new generation of artists, serving as the subject for French author Nathalie Léger’s 2012 book Suite for Barbara Loden and making a brief appearance in Rachel Kushner’s 2013 novel The Flamethrowers. Even as it’s continued to be largely unavailable, Loden’s one and only feature-length directorial achievement is now widely acknowledged as a masterpiece of independent cinema, and also as a cornerstone of women’s filmmaking—a burst of creative autonomy from a time when female directors were few and far between. Part of its power lies in how candidly it reflects Loden’s own enigmatic life, which began amid the economic desperation of rural North Carolina and ended, at the age of forty-eight, in a state of marginalization.

With a new restoration premiering today in a weeklong run at New York’s Metrograph theater, we asked some of our favorite writers and artists to tell us about their memories of first encountering Wanda and how it has continued to haunt them. The range of responses speaks to the force of Loden’s uncompromising vision and the long, unsteady road it has traveled since its initial release.

Amy Taubin, critic:

I originally saw Barbara Loden’s Wanda in 1971, when it showed in the First International Women’s Film Festival—and the event was indeed the first of its kind—held at New York’s long-gone Fifth Avenue Cinema. The program consisted mostly of contemporary films, although there were films from as far back as the 1920s (by Dorothy Arzner, Germaine Dulac, and Lotte Reiniger), and encompassed almost every genre: mainstream and art-film narratives, experimental work including video, and documentaries about women’s lives and modes of representation. (Paul’s Film, a short documentary I had made about an African-American lesbian just released from prison, was included, much to my surprise.) 

Wanda was a revelation, and not just because I had previously seen many of the other great films in the festival. I knew Loden’s work as an actor on the stage, notably as the Marilyn Monroe character in Arthur Miller’s infuriating After the Fall. But nothing had prepared me for her performance—or for the film itself. Here was an American movie that picked up where Italian neorealism had left off, applying its moral principles and aesthetics to rural American backwaters, with an absence of the sentimentality that had derailed so many postwar European films. Here was an American depiction of outlaws that refused to glamorize (think of Wanda as Loden’s retort to Bonnie and Clyde and to Faye Dunaway’s Bonnie as a fashion icon). And most importantly, here was a feminist film that made visible a woman who had internalized society’s contempt for her so deeply that it was impossible for her to speak or act for herself.

At that moment in the early 1970s, the feminist movement was split over whether its political imperative was to secure the liberty of all women or, more practically, to throw its weight behind the talented, the ambitious, the already privileged. There was—and continues to be—discomfort around Wanda because the central character is not a role model. I’ve shown Wanda in my feminism and film classes at School of Visual Arts for more than thirty years. Until about ten years ago, the response was largely negative. Students resented having to spend nearly two hours watching a character who is so passive, who allows herself to be so mistreated. They could not see how the film and Loden’s performance spoke to Wanda’s humanity and to that of the majority of women worldwide who can’t envision a way to fight back.

In recent years, however, something has changed. And the reason can’t be simply that I now have a good DVD to show, or that Isabelle Huppert made the film her cause, or that I can recommend Nathalie Léger’s great monograph Suite for Barbara Loden.  The change in the attitude of young women toward Wanda preceded #MeToo, but it came out of the change that made #MeToo possible—specifically fifty years of feminist energy seeping into the culture. The pity is that Loden never saw how her courage in making Wanda, and the courage awakened for an instant in the character toward the end of the film, would be embraced by a generation that can see through Wanda’s eyes and understand that no one can afford the luxury of being “postfeminist.”

Illeana Douglas, actor and writer:

Barbara Loden once wrote, “I tried to be independent and to create my own way. Otherwise I would have become like Wanda, all my life just floating around.”

This misplaced work of art, written by, directed by, and starring a misplaced actress and female artist—how lucky you are to see it, perhaps for the first time! I can tell you that watching Wanda is not a happy experience, but it’s a memorable and necessary one. The first time I saw it, I found the protagonist’s miserable existence at the hands of her drifter boyfriend—“No slacks!” he yells at her—so disturbing, I had to stop watching it.

Wanda gets under your skin. The memorable look and feel—it’s like old Polaroids. The grimy hotel rooms, bar rooms, and bathrooms scattered across Pennsylvania, and the unbathed rawness of Barbara Loden’s gut-wrenching performance will not leave you, no matter how many showers you take.

It’s important to note that Loden made Wanda after being fired from a leading role in Frank Perry’s The Swimmer. The unique circumstances of her dismissal—her then-husband Elia Kazan looked at a rough cut with Burt Lancaster and deemed her work unworthy, she was then replaced by Janice Rule, and her scenes were reshot by Sydney Pollack—have been subjects of great debate. But it was Kazan who further submerged Loden into obscurity when after her death he took credit for Wanda, writing, “It was like a favor I was doing for her, to give her something to do.” As you will see, part of the beauty of this strange and forgotten film is that Barbara Loden and Wanda are one and the same. Even Wanda’s strange attachment to her bank-robbing boyfriend who mistreats her could be a metaphor for her relationship with Kazan. Somehow I see him yelling at her, “No slacks!”

Loden was trying to regain control by taking her art into her own hands. She communicated her feelings of desperation by playing this aimless and lost soul. She rescued herself by writing, directing, and starring in her own film. She was a quiet feminist, and Wanda is a testament to her struggle to find her own voice.

Kate and Laura Mulleavy, fashion designers and filmmakers:

Loving hard-to-find films allows one to be part of a cool, hidden club. Wanda was released in 1970, about thirty years before we viewed it, a time when the internet was not quite as navigable as it is now and was not yet a friendly place for knowledge and discovery of the obscure. And because film critics overlooked Loden's artistic vision in its time, discovering Wanda felt like a secret. The film itself is a triumph, and it felt like it was ours to love. It captures the beauty of imperfection through its cinematography, the grain of the celluloid and the impressionistic style. Perhaps, had we not more recently read that it was Barbara’s intent to capture the feeling of a documentary—she believed it to be the most truthful form of expression and that perfection only leads to disingenuous and false truths—we would mistake the style of filmmaking for being just part of the story and its feeling of wild abandon. But in fact it is a decisive and deliberate brushstroke of intent and artistic direction. Over the years, our experience of this film has been as grainy and ephemeral as a memory.

Wanda made the impact that it has had on us because very rarely do you see the words “Written and directed” by followed by a woman’s name. Her work is vital within the artistic community—it completely shattered the constructs of femininity and feminism. Wanda herself, as Loden said, is a representation of her own emotional state. Loden manipulated her life into this fascinating character. It is curious to think about what would go into making a film so invested in uncovering truths so small that cinemahas often overlooked them. The banal moments and details within Wanda’s story help the viewer understand her inability to find her place. Wanda is lost . . . but what is it that she wants? Why is she incapable of achieving what she wants? What is holding her back? These are questions we’re led to believe are important to ask of a story’s protagonist. But the questions that linger within each frame of this film are more deeply existential. Wanda wants to know who she is. She asks the question “Who am I?”, and that was groundbreaking for women in cinema. 

Traditional happier endings often define a female protagonist’s journey, but astoundingly Wanda remains lost throughout the entirety of the film, trapped in a narrative filled with male archetypes. But Wanda is never defined by her relationships with men; her very being is a complete rejection of their need for control. She does not adhere to their rules or to society’s constructs of femininity and passivity. What she gains throughout the narrative is a voice—a voice through which Loden tells us her story. Her agency becomes powerful, powerful enough to make an ending that might seem like a defeat feel like a triumph.

Durga Chew-Bose, essayist:

“Did you want that piece of bread?” she asks, before mopping up his leftover spaghetti sauce. “That’s the best part,” she says, smiling, chewing. Smoking Marlboros. Her blonde hair is pulled up and tied into a top-pony. Like a fountain but sort of sloppy. Her shirt looks like pajamas. Her flushed face and entire pleased-with-oneself-ness, totally testing and perhaps even conquering his surly, cigar-puffing impatience. Their body language—hers, eager and satisfied; his, edgy, tightly wound but eased by Wanda’s pure spaghetti-delight—perfectly suits the cozy, cooped-up tension of a restaurant booth. One person’s pleasure—seen, for example, in how she chugs her beer from a flute—can counter the severity of another person’s bulk or the boyish, mid-tantrum demeanor of a man turned to the side and making little eye contact. He’s a bank robber on the run, and they haven’t known each other long, and yet isn’t it somehow lovely how Wanda and Mr. Dennis look like they’re on a date thirty years into a marriage?

Bérénice Reynaud, scholar:

I first saw Wanda as a very young woman, in a special event on “Women and Cinema,” organized at the 1980 Edinburgh International Film Festival. The screening was tinged with sadness, as it was announced onstage that the director had just died of cancer. The film made a strong impression on me, with its structure made of precious moments that did not add up to a completely coherent narrative. At the time I was mostly interested in experimental cinema, so the strategy Loden used spoke to me. It was, however, nearly impossible to see the film again, so I didn’t revisit my first impressions of it until Alex Horwath, then the director of the Viennale, included Wanda in a series called The Last Great American Picture Show he curated in 1995, and asked me to write about it (Kent Jones, now the director of the New York Film Festival, lent me a VHS copy he had taped late at night off the now-defunct Z Channel for Martin Scorsese’s archives). Eventually published as “For Wanda,” in a collection edited by Thomas Elsaesser, Alexander Horwath, and Noel King and published by Amsterdam University Press, as well as in Senses of Cinema, the text gave me opportunities for extended interviews with actor Michael Higgins, who played Mr. Dennis, and DP Nicholas Proferes, who was Loden’s close collaborator for many years, opening a vista not only onto the film but also onto the life and personality of its director.

In March 2007, I organized a special screening of a non-restored copy of Wanda at REDCAT in Los Angeles, in collaboration with one of Loden’s two sons, the folk singer and composer Marco Joachim, who flew from New York for the event. He brought an unexpected treasure, his eighty-one-year-old father, a very sprightly Larry Joachim, who had been Loden’s first husband. During the Q&A, father and son regaled us with stories of how spirited, funny, generous, and no-nonsense the Barbara they knew was. Larry Joachim—who in the 1970s became famous for distributing Hong Kong kung fu films (including some starring Bruce Lee) in the U.S.—had swept Barbara off her feet by taking her to a restaurant in New York’s Chinatown and paying with IOUs he had collected. She had been a chorus-line dancer at the Copacabana, and he introduced her to The Ernie Kovacs Show and eventually to Elia Kazan.

Even after marrying Kazan, she never took herself seriously as Hollywood royalty. When attending an official function, if a woman was admiring her dress, she would simply say that she “had bought it at Woolworths,” the five-and-dime department store that closed in 1997. Loden’s heartfelt impersonation of a Pennsylvania coal miner’s wife drifting through depressed landscapes represented a side of herself—what she could have become had she not run away to New York City. Through Wanda, she remained connected with her marginalized “sisters.” Yet her other side—the fiercely independent director, the witty moralist, the rigorous artist, the inspired visionary who knew how to get the best out of professionals such as Higgins and Proferes—also shines through the film as it did through her life before her untimely death. Meeting Larry Joachim filled in a missing connection in Loden’s biography, one I will always be immensely grateful for.

Molly Haskell, critic:

I met Barbara Loden around the time she made Wanda: we were on several panels together, and bonded as women and Southerners. It was an exciting time on the filmmaking scene as women were questioning traditional roles, straining against the shackles of domesticity without having quite arrived at firm notions of self-determination. A flurry of movies—call them the neo-woman’s films or the mad housewife genre—addressed women’s roles with a kind of probing, baffled ambivalence.

These were roughed-up versions of the old women’s films: movies that pivoted on women dropping out, exiting wobbly marriages, or resisting traditional roles of handmaiden or sex object. A little nudity, a lot of profanity, a bit of sleeping around and, above all, no lighting camera men focusing on the best angles, the hollows and planes of a particular star’s face.

The domestic refuseniks weren’t going to take it anymore, but if they renounced romantic love, if they weren’t going to live through and for husband and family, who were they? This was the question mark hanging over the heroines of such emblematic films as Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970), The Rain People (1969), Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970), Klute (1971), Play It as It Lays (1973), and, in 1974, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and A Woman Under the Influence.

The shaggiest, boldest, and most extreme in its portrayal of a kind of despair that owes nothing to Byronic romanticism and everything to firsthand knowledge of marginalized, working-class women was Barbara Loden’s Wanda, featuring the actress-turned-director in a bleakly original cinematic ballad rooted in the poor mining country of her upbringing. As she embarks on an aimless pilgrimage through a blue-collar world of bars and sex, the camera captures her on the margins of life, a lone figure crashing in someone’s house, picking up a guy, traversing a vast industrial landscape.

I was staggered by the brutality of the vision (no “positive role model” here!) and what she must have come through to make such a film, whose pitilessness may strike a more responsive cord in viewers today.

With her hair in rollers or flowing waywardly like some untrammeled river, and with her shy, child’s voice, it’s as if she’s always waiting to be told what to do, and will try her best to do it, but that best won’t be very good. (She had played another needy blonde as the Marilyn Monroe character in Arthur Miller’s After the Fall.) So concentrated and intuitive is Loden’s performance—she once said she’d learned from psychotherapy that she played the role of victim and orphan throughout her life—that there’s only a sliver of light between actor and role.

Wanda never falls prey to self-pity, or the chic despair of some of the woman-adrift films of the period.  There’s a kind of raw energy in the journey’s very futility. And in the fact that she remains mysterious and unknowable, reminding us afresh of the inadequacy of the categories by which we find meaning—and an illusion of mastery—in experience.