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By her own confession, Barbara Loden (1932-80) was ignorant of the women’s liberation movement when she wrote, directed, and starred in her pioneering indie drama Wanda (1970). But no one has to be aware of an ideology or a social position to represent it truthfully.
Just by living an unheroic life as millions of others live it, and by conveying its condition, a maker of art can show what’s wrong with a society or culture. This is what Loden does brilliantly in her story of a woman who doesn’t belong anywhere, for whom traditional roles have no meaning.
An attractive, thirtyish wife and mother of two, Wanda is first seen waking on her sister’s couch in a cramped house adjoining a range of slag heaps in Pennsylvania coal country. Listlessly, her curlers fixed in her blonde hair, she makes away across the stark terrain—Loden films her progress in a protracted long shot that registers Wanda’s insignificance—to a courtroom where a divorce proceeding is taking place.
Wanda’s husband has already told the judge that she doesn’t do anything for himself or the kids but just lazes around. After telling Wanda to extinguish her cigarette, the judge asks her if what her husband says is true. “Listen, Judge, if he wants a divorce, just give it to him,” Wanda says.
A little while later, penniless Wanda tries to get a job in a sewing workshop where she’s worked before. The boss tells her there’s work available, but that she’s too slow. She winds up in a bar and then in a hotel bed with the man who bought her a beer. Wanda may not want a husband, kids, or domestic responsibility, but she does want to be needed—and whatever shreds of love she can find. When the man tries to sneak out of the hotel room, she wakes up, dresses hurriedly, and virtually hurls herself into his car. It doesn’t take him long to dump her at a gas station.
So Wanda goes into another bar, mistakes a cash register robber for the barman, and takes up with him. They hit the road together. The man, Norman Dennis (Michael Higgins), forbids her to ask any questions. He clearly despises her, but it doesn’t stop him putting his hand between her legs. He barks at her and insults her eating manners and her slacks. Perpetually passive, Wanda buys feminine clothes with money he gives her. He continues to order her around, and at one point, he hits her. Wanda sucks it all up. Why she is so primed to be dominated isn’t clear, but the rumored violence in Loden’s upbringing possibly explains it.
Nathalie Léger, author of a lyrical memoir-cum-critique of Wanda called Suite for Barbara Loden, provides some insight into Wanda and Dennis’s abusive relationship: “There is nothing easily recognizable between them: neither lust nor passion, no exchange, no offering. In this hotel room, with its green walls and flowery curtains, on this bed with sheets rumpled from heat and mutual incomprehension, a hackneyed scene of humiliation and submission is being played out, the silent withdrawal of one into another.”
Dennis eventually leads Wanda on a bank robbery, but she messes up her part in it. Wanda falls under the charge of a pleasant-seeming law-enforcement officer, who visits on her a degradation worse than verbal humiliation.
Léger’s book is a search for the autobiographical elements in Loden’s Wanda, with whom the French author herself partially identifies. Shy, sexy, and easily cowed, Wanda is Loden’s portrait of herself, sort of, minus the kind of resolve and gutsiness it must have taken to get a film like Wanda made in 1970.
Why “sort of”? Wanda was inspired by a real woman who went to prison after getting involved with a bank robber, but Loden pours her own emotional experience into the character. Léger explains it thus, enjoying the tangle she gets herself in:
“A woman [Loden] is pretending to be another [Wanda], in a role she wrote herself, based on another… playing something other than a straightforward role, playing not herself but a projection of herself onto another, played by her but based on another.”
Who was she, this astounding but publicly reticent actress-filmmaker? Loden’s resume tells us a little. Raised by her grandparents after her parents split, she had a harsh upbringing in rural North Carolina. She moved to New York when she was 16 and became a pin-up model and chorus-line dancer at the Copacabana Club. She studied at the Actors Studio and worked as a sidekick in The Ernie Kovacs Show.
Loden and the director Elia Kazan began an affair when both were married to other people, and in 1960 he cast her as Montgomery Clift’s secretary in Wild River. She then played Warren Beatty’s wild sister—the black sheep of the family—in Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass (1961). Under Kazan’s direction, Loden won the 1964 Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play for her portrayal of Maggie—the Marilyn Monroe-like character—in Arthur Miller’s After the Fall. She married Kazan in 1967.
Wanda was shot on 16mm in a raw cinéma véritè style—Loden deplored cinematic artifice—on real Pennsylvania and Connecticut locations by cinematographer Nicholas T. Proferes, who was also the film’s editor. A little like a John Cassavetes film, it was the only one Loden directed, though she continued to write screenplays until her death from cancer at the age of 48.
Hated by feminists when it opened, Wanda is hard to square away these days as a progressive text, given its lead character’s complete lack of agency or conscious desire for change. Wanda seeks nothing material but desires an attachment to a man, if not Dennis specifically.
Wanda may not know what she wants, but she knows what she doesn’t want: the bill of goods that was handed to most women in the era that Betty Friedan wrote about in The Feminine Mystique. The reason Wanda should be regarded as a feminist heroine, or a heroine for anyone dissatisfied with socially prescribed living, is that—without thinking too much about it—she breaks out of her trap.
At the end, Wanda has rejoined society but her future is uncertain, as it is for her fellow wanderers, Natalie (Shirley Knight) in The Rain People (1969) and Maria (Tuesday Weld) in Play It as it Lays (1972), the latter based on the Joan Didion novel. Blessed with more instinct than intelligence and prone to disaster, Wanda at least learns that depending on a man is not the answer to her woes—for men increase and exacerbate them. If she can survive and stay out of jail, and even if she has to keep drifting, she will have to look within herself to find some volition, as Loden did when she made her priceless gem.
Wanda opens at the Metrograph in New York on July 20.