Born either in 1932 or 1934, depending on who’s asking, and dead by 1980, Barbara Loden was a brief glimmer in the eye of cinema history, a fleeting mirage that vanishes as soon as it appears on the edge of your peripheral vision. A North Carolina native who spent the last decade of her life trying to prove, to herself as well as the world, that she was more than the empty-headed blond object she’d spent her formative years performing as an actress and a model, Loden had resources and connections that most women would kill for. She was a Tony Award winner married to a famous film director, with the time and money to pursue her artistic dreams. When she set out on her own and realized one of those dreams, the resulting film was celebrated by critics and screened in theaters and at festivals around the world. And yet, and yet, she never made another film.
That leaves Wanda (1971) as Loden’s sole epigraph as a brilliant writer and an uncommonly empathetic director, a sad fact made even more poignant by the fact that, until recently, it was almost impossible to find. I first encountered Wanda last year, as a print of the UCLA Film And Television Archive’s restoration of the film toured a handful of arthouse theaters scattered across North America. Those who saw it called it a revelation, but in the end, its theatrical revival proved just as ephemeral as its initial run. Now, however, Loden gets a real shot at artistic immortality as Wanda is enshrined in the Criterion Collection’s well-respected, and wide-reaching, catalog of world cinema.
And Wanda is no footnote. It’s a landmark work that heralded not only a new generation of women filmmakers, but also the independent film movement that would follow in its wake. In 1970, the exercise was absurd: Not only were female auteurs dismissed and condescended to by the artistic establishment, but the idea of making a largely improvised film with a budget of $100,000 ($651,400 in today’s money), a crew of three, and a cast composed mostly of non-actors would have been preposterous even coming from a Great Man of Cinema in those dying days of the old studio system. Nevertheless, inspired by the radical methods of the French New Wave—a movement whose free spirit is evident in the film’s unorthodox “lovers on the run” romance—Loden set out for Pennsylvania coal country with a cameraman and a sound mixer, cobbling her vision together with the help of found locations and ads in local newspapers calling for extras.
Wanda was very important to Loden, who later said in interviews that the film was semi-autobiographical, an attempt to work through her feelings about the coping mechanisms she had adopted in her youth. “She’s very much the way I used to be, just kind of floats around and doesn’t know what to do with herself,” she told Dick Cavett on his talk show in 1971. It’s an assertion backed by her cameraman and editor, Nicholas T. Proferes, who characterized the process of assembling a rough cut of the film as very “personal” and “private” for Loden in the 1991 documentary I Am Wanda. (Both the documentary and Loden’s Dick Cavett appearance are extras on Criterion’s Blu-ray.) Putting this private, painful part of herself on screen gave Loden the confidence to define herself on her own terms, rather than those dictated to her by men. When introduced by Cavett as “the attractive and very determined Barbara Loden,” she replied, in a soft, melodic voice with just a hint of a Southern accent, “Very determined, huh?” She had come to expect the “attractive” bit, and the condescension it implied.
Wanda is an episodic film, slow and quiet, especially by today’s standards. Loden was fascinated by women who abandon their husbands and families, and when we meet Wanda (Loden) at the beginning of the film, she’s hungover on another family’s couch, rubbing her aching head as a baby cries in the next room. Wanda does not pick it up. Instead, she rubs the sleep from her eyes, puts curlers in her hair, and sets off across an open wound of a coal field hoping to bum a few bucks from a weather-beaten old man whose rambling stories she politely tolerates as he peels a couple of dollars off of a roll in his pocket. Still wearing her curlers—along with her boxy white handbag, her last symbolic vestiges of performative womanhood—she takes a bus to a building we later learn is a courthouse. She lingers outside, then walks in as her soon-to-be-ex-husband complains to a judge that Wanda doesn’t cook, she doesn’t clean, she neglects her children, she’s a failure as a wife and as a woman. “Just give it to him,” she tells the judge, looking down at the floor, unable to articulate what it is that’s paralyzing her.
Divorce granted, Wanda heads to a garment factory churning out plain knit striped dresses. There, the supervisor tells her he can’t give her any more work, because she sews too slow compared to the other workers. She’s of no use to capitalism either. The only thing the world values Wanda for is her body, and she obliges, passively accepting a drink—then a ride, then a motel room—from any man who offers it to her until she unwittingly stumbles into a robbery in progress. Frustrated and confounded by the apathetic woman in front of him, the robber, Norman Dennis (Michael Higgins), grabs Wanda by the arm and drags her out to the car. Is she his captive? His partner in crime? An unwitting bystander? Even they don’t seem to know. But for all his gruffness, “Mr. Dennis,” as Wanda calls him, doesn’t look straight through Wanda like most people do. And so they drive off together, on to the next robbery.
Its heroine’s passivity made Wanda a lightning rod for feminist critics at the time, who argued that Wanda had no agency, and was not a good role model for women. (Pauline Kael bluntly called the character a “slut.”) And it’s true that Wanda spends the film drifting from place to place and man to man in search of little more than a place to sleep and enough beer to drown her thoughts for the evening. But the pain behind her passivity, and the way that she embodies both a “good” (quiet, obedient) and a “bad” (irresponsible, sexual) woman at the same time, hint at a deeper and more poignant statement on the lasting effects of misogynist oppression on the human psyche. Wanda’s thousand-yard stare speaks of abandoned dreams, a broken spirit, a woman who can no longer remember what it’s like to feel anything, let alone to feel happy. It’s the resigned limpness of a woman who submits to her attacker in order to survive.
How many women have been so broken on the wheel of history? How many Wandas are there, scattered around the barrooms and backseats of the world? Faint echoes of her appear in characters like Roma’s Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), watching stoically as the father of her child drives away in a truck full of hooting, carefree soccer players. There’s also a glimmer of her in Disobedience’s Esti Kuperman (Rachel McAdams), silently submitting to a patriarchal power structure that seeks to negate her existence as a lesbian woman. And Wanda’s creator also has her heirs: Greta Gerwig and Sarah Polley are Barbara Loden’s spiritual daughters, as is Debra Granik, who shares Loden’s affection for working-class stories. For its creator, Wanda was an act of self-definition, a chance to exorcise the ghosts of her past and re-create herself as an artist. Little did she know that by blazing such a trail for herself, she also cleared the way for those who followed.
Wanda is out on Blu-ray now via the Criterion Collection, and will stream on The Criterion Channel when it launches on April 8.