There is a moment in Barbara Loden’s only directorial effort, “Wanda,” when our titular protagonist removes the onions off of the burger she was ordered to get her newest man, Mr. Dennis, that sums up this film well. You see, Wanda (also played by director Loden) has met our Mr. Dennis (Michael Higgins) just the night before while he was robbing a bar, and they are now on the lam, shacked up together in a dingy motel room when he lashes out at her for forgetting the one item he desperately wants off of his food order, the onions. It is a sad moment, but Wanda quickly performs this task soon after going out to get the food in the middle of the night and makes up for her mistake in the exact same way, with a tired resolve and dead eyes.
Wanda has recently left her husband and children in a mining town somewhere in rural Pennsylvania; she didn’t want that life anymore nor a life with the first man she jumps in bed with after her husband or the man after him. In fact, it’s made pretty clear that her lot in life traps Wanda. She is a poor, pretty, and not very bright young woman who like Sissy Spacek’s Holly in “Badlands,” is just willing to tag along for lack of anything else to do, but unlike Badland’s Holly, Wanda is emotionally numb and frankly just stupid enough to believe that she can handle what is about to go down.
There is much to be admired of “Wanda,” the first theatrically released featured film to be simultaneously written, directed, and starred by a woman here in the United States. “Wanda” has a raw, improvisational style of acting that heightens the realism of the performances and a well-matched low budget stretched 16mm cinematography by Nicholas Proferes. There are no long gorgeous shots during “magic hour” here, where the cold shabbiness of the visuals add to the hollow desperation of the film’s leads. After “Wanda,” Proferes, would go on to lens her husband, Elia Kazan’s 1972 film, “The Visitors.” Kazan, the brilliant director of “On The Waterfront,” claims to have little to do with “Wanda” during its production but would go on to say that Loden and Proferes would combine to make an excellent team by bouncing ideas off one another.
What I found to be the key in the success of “Wanda” is that Loden never betrays her two lead characters. The film is never sentimental or heroic, for Wanda and Mr. Dennis would not be heroic by any means in real life. As you go deeper into their relationship you see the shell of two very broken people, who have been told by those around them that they would never amount to much, and, despite any effort, they never will. You somehow know that the big job that they are going to pull is not going to work. A grand end just cannot happen, as that would be out of line with their life paths. It is a nihilistic yet entrancing film that steps into darker territory with each scene, culminating with one of the most soul crushing endings this side of Jeanne Dielman. But, in the end, we do not have a modern feminist hero nor an anti-hero for that matter; we only have another walking causality who will fade into nothingness.
Director Loden Speaking with Mike Douglas About “Wanda”
Shortly after winning the International Critics Award at the Venice Film Festival for “Wanda,” director Barbara Loden, who was born in Marion, North Carolina, told film critic Michel Ciment about her hometown: “If I had stayed there, I would have gotten a job at Woolworth’s, I would’ve gotten married at 17 and had some children, and would have got drunk every Friday and Saturday night. Fortunately, I escaped.”
It has been said of Barbara Loden that she was a shy and soft-spoken loner, like her character in “Wanda.” Sadly, Loden and her real life husband Elia Kazan would become estranged after she received many accolades for her directorial debut and only film, and they would remain estranged her until her death in 1980 at the age of 48 from breast cancer.