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Overlooked In The '70s, 'Wanda' Finally Gets Her Due

Barbara Loden wrote, directed and starred in Wanda, a 1970 film about a drifting woman.
Courtesy of Criterion
Barbara Loden wrote, directed and starred in Wanda, a 1970 film about a drifting woman.

It is the dream of every neglected artist that their work will be redeemed by posterity. And sometimes it is. Back in 1970, for instance, the big movie was Patton — a box office hit that won the Best Picture Oscar. But today, it's overshadowed by another film from that year that almost nobody saw, a gritty story about a drifting woman.

The film is called Wanda, and it was written and directed by its star, Barbara Loden. Based on the true story of a crime gone wrong, Wanda — which is just out in a restored version from the Criterion Collection — is now reckoned a cinematic landmark. It boasts a legion of champions, including Yoko Ono, Isabelle Huppert, John Waters and Rachel Kushner, and it inspired a splendidly idiosyncratic book, Suite for Barbara Loden, by the French writer Nathalie Léger.

Wanda begins amid the slagheaps of Pennsylvania coal mining country, where Wanda Goronski — played with eerie authenticity by Loden — is being divorced for being a lousy wife and mother, a charge she freely admits. Possessed of little money and fewer plans, she picks up a traveling salesman in a bar — he sleeps with her and dumps her — beginning an apparently aimless journey that will lead her to other bars and other dire men.

The most important of these is Mr. Dennis — played by Michael Higgins — a gruff, mustachioed crook who hits her, orders her not to look "cheap" and dragoons her into helping him rob a bank. She tries to resist, but, as usual, lets events carry her along.

Now, Wanda is an unforgettable movie but not an especially alluring one. You have to be in the mood. Made for a paltry $115,000 — $750,000 in today's money — Wanda's raw style finds Loden leaning in to her taste for Andy Warhol and documentary realism.

Intimate but unsentimental, the story reveals its meaning obliquely, in the expressions flickering across Wanda's face and in slow, long-distance shots of our heroine inching her way across the bleak landscape — a metaphor for her life's passage toward a different life.

Although Wanda won the award for best foreign film at the Venice Film Festival, not everyone loved it. Critic Pauline Kael admired Loden's integrity but said the film's drab realism made novelist Émile Zola — a very grim realist — "look like musical comedy." Wanda also horrified some viewers by creating, in those early days of Women's liberation, an uninspiring heroine who had no fight.

But later feminist critics like Amy Taubin, who wrote the essay for this Criterion edition, led a reappraisal. They grasped that Wanda's passivity caught the reality of countless women who had so thoroughly internalized male expectations that they didn't know what they wanted or who they were.

Which doesn't mean that Wanda is willing to settle. In the iconic 1953 movie The Wild One, Marlon Brando's motorcycle hoodlum is asked, "What're you rebelling against?" And he replies, "Whaddya got?" Wanda's behavior strikes me as a recessive blue-collar woman's version of that same idea. She may not know what she wants, but she sure knows what she doesn't.

In fact, Wanda refuses to embody any of the female images she comes across in the film — mothers, sweatshop seamstresses, fashion mannequins, streetwalkers. Nor does she want to sleep in dingy hotel rooms with ugly-souled men. You see, just because she can't articulate her desires, doesn't mean she doesn't yearn for something more.

For Loden, such inarticulate rebellion was less ideological than profoundly personal: The film is her own emotional autobiography. She fled an abusive North Carolina childhood to become first a dancer at the Copacabana nightclub in New York, then an actress who would marry the acclaimed director Elia Kazan, a difficult man who both adored her and bossed her around. Having spent years being defined by and trading on her femininity, Loden once said that she had hit 30 as a compliant woman with no clue to her own identity or goals.

Making Wanda was her declaration of independence — from being known as "Kazan's wife," from playing roles written for her by others, from the plush Hollywood filmmaking she thought an outdated lie.

Her freedom was short lived. Unable to find backing for another film — she wanted to adapt Kate Chopin's The Awakening — Loden died of cancer at age 48. But her legend continues to grow. On the basis of a single movie, posterity has made her a symbol of all the women filmmakers who might have had great careers but never really got the chance.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

John Powers
John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.