Director: Barbara Loden
Screenplay by: Barbara Loden
Starring: Barbara Loden, Michael Higgins, Dorothy Shupenes, Jerome Thier, Peter Shupenes, Marian Thier
Country: USA
Running Time: 103 min
Year: 1970
BBFC Certificate: 15

Barbara Loden came from a rural, puritanical background but moved to New York when she was 16 and found work as a pinup and showgirl. She later trained at the Actors Studio and moved into stage acting.

She crossed paths with Elia Kazan during this time and the director cast her in a small role in his film, Wild River. Impressed with her and her work in the film, Kazan gave her a bigger role in Splendor in the Grass and then the lead in his stage production of After the Fall in 1964, a role which earned Loden a Tony award for best actress. Kazan and Loden began an affair together during this time and in 1966 got married.

After this, Loden continued to work almost exclusively in theatre but eventually surprised everyone by writing, directing and starring in the film Wanda in 1970.

The script was inspired by a story Loden read in a newspaper. It had stuck with her for a few years before she put pen to paper. Then she sat on the script for a while too before she brought it to a couple of directors. They seemed to like it but didn’t quite understand what it was really about.

Loden had thought about Kazan directing but it wasn’t his kind of film and they thought he’d be doing it as a sort of favour, which didn’t seem right. So, Loden decided to direct it herself, finding financing from a friend of hers, as she didn’t want any studio pressure or interference. It was a personal project she wanted to make for herself rather than a commercial venture.

Loden hired Nicholas T. Proferes as DOP and editor, to help manage the technical aspects, though he hadn’t made many narrative feature films before either. The crew was kept small too, allowing for more manageable logistics.

Wanda cost around $100,000, which isn’t much but might seem a lot for a low-budget independent film at the time. Loden said this was because she made sure everyone in her small team was paid properly. A lot of indies operate on ‘deferred’ payments (then and still now) but she opted for proper reimbursement so that people would be more driven to put the work in.

Well, her approach seemed to work, as Wanda premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 1970, where it won the award for Best Foreign Film. On its original release in the US, the reviews were a little more mixed though. Interestingly, Loden claims that most of the notable negative reviews were written by women.

Over the years, Wanda has become much more highly respected and the peak of its success came at the end of last year when the film was voted joint 48th in the highly prestigious Sight and Sound Top 100 Films of All Time poll.

Well-timed to celebrate this recognition is Criterion’s new Blu-ray release of the film. It’s a title I’ve heard of but never seen, so I got hold of a copy and my thoughts follow.

Wanda centres around the titular character (played by Loden herself). She’s a sad, lonely, middle-aged woman who we first meet making her way over to a courthouse to unceremoniously accept a divorce from her husband, agreeing that he should take custody of their children.

We watch her drift around, following this, getting mistreated and disrespected by the men who cross her path or whom she tries to get help from. She eventually stumbles into the middle of a bar heist and accidentally becomes a kind of ‘moll’ to Mr. Dennis (Michael Higgins), the nervous, ill-tempered thief holding the place up.

The pair go on the run, with Wanda tagging along whilst Mr. Dennis plots his next job. Wanda stays with him, even when she eventually realises what he’s up to, because, even though he’s often mean to her and controlling, at least he’s paying attention to her and seems to care how she looks and acts.

So, what starts out by feeling like a very minimalist social drama, becomes an unusual low-key riff on the Bonnie and Clyde dynamic. As such, it wasn’t quite what I expected (I presumed it would all be like the first act) but I was deeply impressed by the film.

Wanda is as stripped back and raw as you can get. It contains no frills or discernable stylistic flourishes. There’s not even any music, other than a couple of diegetic cues.

Even the narrative is kept sparse. Wanda doesn’t change by the end of the film. There’s no redemptive arc or life-changing turn. She’s simply strung along, stepped on and abused by every man she’s lumped with, in her lonely trudge for survival. She’s a woman without an identity.

Loden claims she never intended the film to be political in any way or had any desire to make a comment on the state of America at the time. I thought the film made a powerful statement about the treatment of women though, particularly those on the fringes of society. It’s hard not to see Wanda as an example of feminist cinema, aided by the fact it was written by and directed by a woman at a time when this was very rare, particularly in the US.

Much of the cast were non-actors, though the two leads were professionals. As such, some of the minor players can be a bit awkward, though, on the whole, there’s an inherent naturalism to the performances. Away from the non-actors, Loden and Higgins are excellent. The former keeps everything understated, presenting Wanda as painfully meek. Whilst the character can be a little dim, on the surface, Loden lets just enough signs of understanding break through to suggest that Wanda knows she’s being taken for a ride but is either too scared or tired of more of the same to do anything about it.

I liked how a lot of the abuse Wanda puts up with and the troubles she faces are presented in a subtle fashion, such as through the language aimed at her. Men constantly refer to her in mildly insulting or derogatory terms, such as “my love” or “blondie”. Little details in costumes and production design also remind you of the dire straits she’s in. For instance, you see she has small holes in her underwear in a scene where she’s getting dressed.

It’s a crying shame Loden never directed any other feature films, following this. In an interview included on this disc she claims she didn’t enjoy the process but I imagine the sexism of the industry didn’t make it easy to get anything else off the ground either. She sadly died only 10 years later, from breast cancer.

Overall then, whilst Wanda maybe wouldn’t quite make my own ‘top 100’ list, it’s not a long way off and a rewatch or two might push it on there. It’s certainly a remarkable low-budget gem. With a subtly devastating central performance and a beautifully conceived naturalistic style, the film quietly but effectively makes a bold feminist statement.

Film:

Wanda is out on 17th April on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by The Criterion Collection. The transfer is difficult to judge, as the film was shot on a low budget, using 16mm reversal film, so has a thick grain and murky presentation. However, Criterion have done a fine job of retaining the film’s natural look. Likewise, the audio isn’t going to be testing your atmos setup, but is well-handled and sounds authentic to the source.

The film comes with some superb extra features too. These include:

– New 2K digital restoration by the UCLA Film & Television Archive, The Film Foundation, and Gucci, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
– I Am Wanda, an hour-long documentary by Katja Raganelli featuring an interview with director Barbara Loden filmed in 1980
– Audio recording of Loden speaking to students at the American Film Institute in 1971
– Segment from a 1971 episode of The Dick Cavett Show featuring Loden
– The Frontier Experience (1975), a short educational film about a pioneer woman’s struggle to survive, directed by and starring Loden
– Trailer
– English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
– PLUS: An essay by film critic Amy Taubin

I’m always saddened when a disc lacks a commentary, as I find these are a good way of allowing for a lengthy, detailed discussion of a film. However, there are some exceptional and fairly long pieces here that more than make up for it.

The feature-length documentary I Am Wanda has extra poignancy due to the fact it was shot in the last few months of Loden’s life and she knew this (though the documentary filmmakers weren’t aware whilst shooting the piece). Kazan also gives his heartfelt thoughts on his wife and longtime muse. It’s an intimate, personal film that charts Loden’s life and work. It also contains some rewarding footage of her home life and drama teaching.

The audio interview with Loden runs for around an hour too and offers a lengthy, detailed chat about making Wanda, recorded around the time of its release. Loden speaks frankly and with humour here. You can occasionally hear her kids in the background, as they were with her during the press run for the film. Through questions aimed at her from an audience, she also discusses the lack of female directors in Hollywood and other related issues. The interview is a wonderful addition to the set.

The Dick Cavett Show excerpt is valuable too. In it, Loden jumps right in with a challenge to Cavett’s introduction and refuses to take any sh*t, counteracting most of the presenter’s simplistic or misguided comments. It paints a bold picture of the filmmaker that’s at odds with the character she plays in Wanda.

The Frontier Experience is an interesting extra too. It was the last film she directed and/or starred in. It’s a compelling educational short about the difficulties of life in the pioneering days of America. Some of the acting is a bit dodgy and it has a TV movie feel (not helped by some terrible music) but it has some effective moments of drama and Loden is always worth watching on screen.

I didn’t receive a copy of the booklet, unfortunately.

So, whilst it’s not an epic collection of special features, what is here is all of great value, making for an easy recommendation.

Disc/Package:

Wanda - Criterion
Film
Disc/Package
4.5Overall Score
Reader Rating: (0 Votes)

About The Author

Editor of films and videos as well as of this site. On top of his passion for film, he also has a great love for music and his family.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.