Barbara Loden’s first and only feature film, Wanda (1970), is an existential outcry inspired by one woman and manifested by another on behalf of man women everywhere. Released during the early stages of the second-wave feminist movement, Wanda is a deep and thoughtful self-analysis of feminine existence and agency while living along the margins of society.
Loden, who wrote, directed, and starred in the film, considered the story of Wanda as semi-autobiographical. The narrative was inspired by a newspaper article that outlined the details about a case regarding a woman named Alma Malone who was kidnapped by a bank robber and became his accomplice. Once she was convicted of her crimes, she thanked the judge after he sentenced her to 20 years in prison. This story deeply resonated with Loden, triggering feelings and memories of her own experiences from her life growing up in North Carolina and navigating a life that depended upon her femininity to get by, which is phenomenally projected within the subtext of the film.
Loden was born in 1932 in Ashville, North Carolina, where she lived until she fled to New York when she was 17. She felt that if she continued her life in Ashville it would be a stifling one. She believed that she would’ve been married off to someone quickly and have a few children, only to drink away her weekends for the rest of her life. Once she arrived in New York, she became a dancer at the Copacabana, a popular night club of the likes of many mobsters and Hollywood celebrities. It was at the Copacabana where she met her husband, director Elia Kazan, who helped jumpstart her career by having her act in some of his films. For a large part of their relationship, Loden’s identity was attached to her being “Kazan’s wife.” Well into adulthood, she felt that she had been a compliant woman, obeying to the demands of others, especially those of men, without any recognition of her own identity or any intentional application of meaning to her own existence, a sentiment shared by many women of that era.
The story of Wanda follows Wanda Goronski (Loden) as she drifts and wanders around a small American working-class town. Along her journey, she falls into a lifestyle of consequences and circumstances until her stoic attitude is shattered and she ultimately breaks down. The film opens with a sequence that establishes the bleak and apathetic quality of the town that mirrors Wanda’s own passivity towards her existence. A wide shot of the mounds of coal is followed by a wide shot of a shabby-looking house. Inside, an elderly woman rubs her rosary, and a baby starts to cry. We meet a disheveled Wanda, abruptly woken up after sleeping on her sister’s couch, where she appears to not be wanted. Wanda leaves her sister’s home and is captured in an extreme wide shot that slowly zooms in enough to identify her walking across the cold and rural landscape over mounds of coal and dirt. She is a little white speck against the dark waves as she moves across the screen in isolation.
Aesthetically, the film adopts a cinema verité style. Shooting on grainy 16mm film with a shaky handheld camera, cinematographer Nicholas T. Proferes creates an illusion of authenticity while maintaining the film’s cinematic edge resulting in a documentary-like intimacy. Before Wanda, Proferes had shot documentary footage that was featured in D.A. Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop (1968) which attracted Loden. She wanted a cinematographer who could capture her characters as human beings rather than caricatures to maintain a level of legitimacy to the representation of a true story.
Wanda appears to not know what she wants or where she is going, essentially lacking any discernable agency that can be identified with her character. At the same time, however, she always seems to be walking away from something. The early scenes of the film establish Wanda’s rejection of and disinterest in the traditional roles that are expected of her. The traits of domesticity and the responsibilities of matrimony and motherhood seem to be of no concern to her. With an indifferent and stoic attitude, she shows up late to the courthouse as her soon-to-be ex-husband enumerates all that she does wrong from having to make his own breakfast in the morning to her laying on the couch all day, leaving their young children left to their own devices to run amuck.
Like Malone’s, Wanda’s journey relatively begins after she accidentally falls hostage to a robber named Mr. Dennis (Michael Higgins Jr.). After a lonely day of wandering around the town’s shops and theater, she walks into a familiar bar to use the restroom, where she finds Mr. Dennis in the middle of conducting a robbery. Unaware, she casually makes herself comfortable, and from this scene on, Wanda is stuck with him, answering to his every demand and becoming a naïve accomplice to his crimes. Their relationship mirrors the existential passivity of a complicit life to a man in charge. She does as she’s told. If she suggests something different she is shot down, hit, and manipulated.
Wanda doesn’t exert any explicit agency or control over her decisions until the film reaches its own climactic conclusion. After Mr. Dennis’s failed bank robbery, Wanda is left at the hands of another strange man who attempts to rape her. As she is being attacked, we see her fight for the first time. An exertion of agency and power is released when she is able to escape his grasp and run to the trees. For the first time, we witness Wanda alone in a storm of emotion and vulnerability as she sobs on her knees, releasing a palpable sense of anger and frustration that had been built up to the brink since the film’s opening credits. This is an exorcism not just for Wanda, but for Loden and so many other women who have felt marginalized in their relationships, their communities, and beyond. While Wanda was a rather unpopular film when it was released 50 years ago in the United States, the film did very well in Europe, winning at the 1970 Venice Film Festival for Best Foreign Film. Today, it is regarded as one of the best American independent films and holds a prestigious legacy as a highly valued and critical piece of filmmaking history.