Wanda: A Miracle

A few weeks after Barbara Loden, the writer, director, and star of Wanda, died at age forty-eight after a long battle with cancer, Elia Kazan, her widower, was interviewed by Marguerite Duras for Cahiers du cinéma. It was 1980, and Kazan was in Paris for the rerelease of two of his films, but Duras wanted to talk about Wanda, which had won the International Critics’ Prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1970 and then pretty much disappeared from sight. She wanted to make sure, she said, that the film reached French audiences. “I think that there is a miracle in Wanda. Usually there is a distance between the visual representation and the text, as well as the subject and the action. Here this distance is completely nullified; there is an instant and permanent continuity between Barbara Loden and Wanda.” 

I first experienced that miracle in June 1972, when I saw Wanda at the First International Festival of Women’s Films. I thought it remarkable, in part for the very reason many in the audience dismissed it: Loden’s Wanda was anything but a feminist role model. Rather, she was a version of the characters Loden had been playing on and off Broadway, on television—notably as the pratfall “girl” on the daily comedy series The Ernie Kovacs Show—and in a few Hollywood movies. She had been typecast as the kind of all-American beauty who believes that male desire is the only measure of her value, and necessary to her survival. In those early days of the second wave of feminism, the movement was divided as to whether it should be focusing its energies on the liberation of all women or, more pragmatically, on that of the exceptional ones, or at least the ones who were clearly motivated to become exceptional. Although this split still exists—the #MeToo movement was begun by working-class women, but its media identity is almost exclusively focused on women in the entertainment industry—there is pressure today for feminism to be more inclusive, particularly when it comes to race and nonnormative gender identity. Wanda inspired back then, and continues to inspire today, some uneasiness because of how passively the title character allows herself to be mistreated. Responses to the film when it was first released were mixed, with two prominent critics (Pauline Kael and Rex Reed) referring to Wanda as a slut and expressing their annoyance at having to spend time on a movie with such a negligible protagonist. When I first showed Wanda in my feminist film classes in the mideighties, the reaction of most students was similar. They could not perceive the ways in which the film, and Loden’s performance in it, illuminated Wanda’s humanity and that of most women all over the world, who have internalized the misogyny of family, church, and state so thoroughly that they are not able to conceive of a way to fight back. But in recent years, reaction to the film has seldom been dismissive. Thanks to the feminist energy that has continued to evolve as it has seeped into the culture in the decades since the film’s release, Wanda can now be appreciated as a portrait of a kind of woman who, being no man’s fantasy, had almost never been seen on the screen before.

Loden’s investment in documentary truth—which is not the same as realism—was part of her desire to show a world that she knew, without homogenizing it.

Loden arrived in New York as a teenager in the late forties and soon got a job in the chorus line at the Copacabana. Her most notable screen role before Wanda was the promiscuous, alcoholic flapper in Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass (1961). Given her long-legged, beauty-contestant body and her childlike vulnerability, it was all too easy to categorize her as a sex kitten. She won a featured-actress Tony Award for her performance as the Marilyn Monroe avatar in Arthur Miller’s After the Fall in the 1964 Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center production directed by Kazan. Reading the play against the grain when I went to see it during this run, I found Loden heartbreaking in her struggle to break free of the prurience and condescension with which Miller and Kazan treated the character. But she never had another major role onstage, or in the movies, either, until Wanda.

Instead, she began to write screenplays. The character of Wanda had its source in an article Loden read in the New York Daily News in 1960 about a woman who was an accomplice in a bank robbery that went bad. The woman’s partner was killed, and she was sentenced to twenty years in prison. At her trial, she thanked the judge who sentenced her, effectively guaranteeing her a bed and food every day in exchange for the freedom that is—you know the lyrics—“just another word for nothing left to lose.” In her research for her wonderful monograph/memoir Suite for Barbara Loden, Nathalie Léger found the news article and learned that the woman, Alma Malone, was the same age as Loden, had a similar early history (they were both born to poor southern families), and had been released on parole in 1970, the year Wanda was a winner in Venice. While she was preparing the film, Loden had tried to visit Malone, but the prison authorities denied her request. 

In the late seventies, when I had just started my first professional film-critic job, at the SoHo Weekly News, I contrived to interview Loden. I can’t remember what the hook for the piece was, and I can’t find a copy of it. I do know that I asked her about a very early sequence in Wanda, when the camera follows, from a great distance, the tiny figure of Wanda as she walks across a bleak landscape, cratered by coal mining. The shot alienated some viewers from the get-go; they found it boring. Loden’s explanation: “I wanted to show that it took a long time to get from there to there.”

Loden said that Wanda and the other films she was trying to make (including a screen adaptation of Kate Chopin’s protofeminist novel The Awakening, whose protagonist, like Wanda, walks out on her husband and children) were psychological studies set in a specific milieu. Among her influences, she counted cinema verité, Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, and films by Andy Warhol. She wanted fiction films to be more like documentaries. As a child, she hated movies, because the perfect faces of the actors made her feel inferior. She liked it when people on the screen talked over one another; she didn’t think it was necessary for the audience to hear every word. The “bad” sound in Warhol’s movies seemed closer to what listeners hear in actual life than the crystalline sound of Hollywood movies, and those kinds of imperfections gave her the courage of her own vision. Given that Wanda was made on a budget between $100,000 and $200,000, imperfection was not only an aesthetic choice, it was a necessity. But Loden’s investment in documentary truth—which is not the same as realism—was part of her desire to show a world that she knew, without homogenizing it. Wanda can be read as a corrective to the glamour and romanticism of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967), which, like Loden’s film, is about a couple—in this case, played by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway—who rob banks. But Wanda’s strip-mall cotton shift and flower hair “accessory” never became fetishized fashion objects the way that Dunaway’s beret did. (Dunaway, who had been Loden’s understudy in After the Fall, became a star with Bonnie and Clyde, and was then cast by Kazan in his 1969 adaptation of his best-selling, semiautobiographical potboiler The Arrangement, in a role that was as transparently based on Loden as the character Loden played in After the Fall was based on Monroe.) It’s no wonder that Loden was drawn to the newspaper account of the woman who thanked the judge for her sentence; she understood that if chance events hadn’t brought her to New York, where she could turn raw talent and beauty into a career, she may very well have ended up in jail or dead. But it’s also obvious that her ambition to make Wanda into a more honest version of a crime movie was complex in its motivations, among them her need to represent her own story, and the story of kindred women, more truthfully than it ever could be represented in star-driven Hollywood.

Loden’s discipline, in speaking honestly for Wanda and all her unrepresented sisters was, in American movie history up to 1970, a complete anomaly.

When asked about Wanda, Loden often responded that she used to be just like her: “Until I was thirty, I had no identity of my own.” The correspondence at every moment of the film between the character of Wanda and the actor who plays her is what Duras found miraculous. It’s something that we don’t expect when we watch movies—the fusion between an actor and a fictional character—because it so seldom happens. And when it does, the actor, more likely than not, is a “nonprofessional.” But Loden was an experienced actor—and no longer without an identity of her own—when she took on Wanda, a character she had created out of her memories of not being present to the world or to herself. How can such a character hold our attention on the screen and carry us through the narrative of a movie? In part, she does so precisely by being such a revelation. Loden’s discipline, as a writer, director, and performer, in speaking honestly—without sentimentality or exaggeration—for Wanda and all her unrepresented sisters was, in American movie history up to 1970, a complete anomaly. And to a great extent, it still is. We’ve seen other actors playing so-called sluts and so-called stupid girls and victims of abuse. But compared with Wanda, those characters seem like caricatures. In Europe, in the years after Wanda, there were a handful of movies made by directors with goals similar to Loden’s, notably Agnieszka Holland’s A Woman Alone (1981) and Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975). But Holland’s film was a black comedy that did not empathize with its abject protagonist as much as it attacked the cause of her abjection in corrupt Eastern European communism. And Delphine Seyrig’s detached performance in Akerman’s masterpiece, as moving as it is, may have been on Duras’s mind when she talked about the distance between actor and character that Loden alone had erased.

Loden had two well-chosen male accomplices in the subversive move against the institutions of both Hollywood and independent cinema that she was making in Wanda. Her collaborations with Nicholas T. Proferes, Wanda’s cinematographer and editor, and with Michael Higgins, who plays Mr. Dennis, the bank robber whose foolhardy mission drives the second and most of the third acts of the film, are active in a way that Wanda cannot be. Proferes, who had worked with Direct Cinema pioneer D. A. Pennebaker, has the documentary cameraman’s gift for finding, in the moment that it happens, what is most expressive in a scene and moving in with the camera, sometimes with the zoom lens, which Proferes employs here with great discretion. Often, his focus is on Loden’s remarkable face, on which tiny transformations play out—reactions of bewilderment, hurt, and fear or, occasionally, tentative attempts to smile, in the hope that if she tries to be nice, nothing terrible will happen. The rhythms of the camera and of Proferes’s decisive editing—all straight cuts, with incalculable ellipses between scenes so that we are as bewildered as Wanda about the direction her life is taking—give the film its spare, even elegant, shape. What begins as aimless wandering becomes a road movie and then a heist movie, tension accumulating along the way until Wanda, breaking loose from an unbearable indignity, finds what Duras termed redemption, and what I see as a fighting chance.