WANDA (1970)

  • Director: Barbara Loden
  • Writer: Barbara Loden
  • Starring: Barbara Loden and Michael Higgins
  • Accolades: Shown at 1970 Venice International Film Festival, shown at 1971 Cannes Film Festival, 2019 BBC Top 100 Films Directed by Women (#16)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on The Criterion Channel, buy or rent with Apple TV

We all know someone to who seems to be cursed, to whom bad things keep happening, and yet at some point we start to think, “You are the common denominator here, maybe the problem is you?” People who will talk your ear off about their latest problem, but never seem to actually be able to do anything to help themselves. I certainly know people like this. But you don’t see lots of these sorts of people in movies, because they are pretty maddening and unfun to be around, and also because, in a dramatic sense, they don’t really have “arcs.” The titular character in Wanda is a rare example of this real-world type in movies. She is, in the words of director and star Barbara Loden, “ill-equipped to deal with life.” Early on, she wakes up on a friends couch. Some time later, she she shows up late (for no discernible reason other than her own incompetence) to a courtroom, where her final divorce and/or custody hearing is happening. “Just give him a divorce,” she tells the judge, and goes on to comment that the children would be better off with her husband.

Loden was well-known as an actress, particularly on the stage, and directed several stage productions, but Wanda was her only film directing credit. She also wrote and starred in the movie, and secured the financing at a time when independent movies weren’t nearly as much of a thing compared to today. The latter achievement may have been partially a result of the cache of Loden’s marriage to the superstar director Elia Kazan, but the actual creative work on the movie was very much hers. Loden said that the story was inspired by a news story she saw about a woman who had been caught up a bank robbery. Though the woman didn’t actually do anything to assist her ostensible boyfriend, she didn’t speak out in her own defense, and the Judge sentenced her to thirty years in prison. Then she thanked him.

Partway through Wanda, the main character meets a petty criminal, Norman Dennis (who Wanda always calls “Mr. Dennis), played by Michael Higgins, and the climax of the movie is a fairly desultory attempt at a bank robbery. There are plenty of movies of various degrees of sexiness about two criminals on the run. To say that Wanda presents a highly deglamorized version of this basic story structure is kind of an understatement. She tells him she can’t do what she’s supposed to do. He insists she can. She goes over the list of steps she’s supposed to memorize, but it’s very clear she can’t memorize them. This is the same woman who took several tries to get his burger order straight earlier in the movie, and he still ended up with onions. Very few people in movies are very clearly not smart, but Wanda is one of those people. She has basically zero redeeming qualities. 

Wanda won a prize at the Venice Film Festival and was generally embraced by European critics as some sort of metaphor for the emptiness of American life. Wanda herself may seem empty, in the sense that, as Loden put it, she “doesn’t know why she exists.” But it seems unlikely the movie was intended as anything more than a very specific character study. It didn’t receive much of an American release, and reviews generally said it was an interesting film as an idea but not something anyone would want to watch. Wanda herself is just too much of a “born loser,” as one review put it.

There is one scene in the movie that seems the closest to the subtext becoming text, as it were. Wanda and Norman sit on their stolen car in the middle of a field, and he says her hair is ugly, and says she’d be prettier if she wore a hat (their whole relationship is like this, he is a huge asshole). She says she can’t buy a hat, because she doesn’t have any money. “I don’t have anything. I never did have anything. Never will have anything.” “You’re stupid!” he replies. “If you don’t want anything, you won’t have anything, and if you don’t have anything, you’re nothing. You may as well be dead.” “I guess I’m dead then,” she says, and takes a swig of her soda. Wanda is not good enough at being alive for there to be any point in her being alive at all.

If this generally sounds depressing, it is. The movie is more interesting from a technique standpoint than as a story, because the basic story is almost too depressing to bear. Loden was influenced by the art films of Andy Warhol, and shot the movie where it was set, mostly in the bleak anthracite coal region of Northeast Pennsylvania. The “big city” bank robbery at the end takes place in Scranton. Loden used mostly local people as actors, and mostly let them do what they thought felt right, saying later that she “threw out the script on the first day.” There is a scene where Norman visits his father at a weird sort of ultra-religious theme park, where the man urges him, in a very thick accent, to get a job. If any actor played this guy, it would be cartoonish and over the top. But it is very clear that the guy is just playing himself. He is who he is.

Loden unfortunately passed away very suddenly in 1980 at the age of 48. She had intended to direct other films, but was never able to. As an example of a female-led movie set at the very beginning of the modern independent film movement, it’s an interesting historical piece, but as a movie, I’m not sure I can actually recommend it to anyone. We have enough Wandas in real life without putting them into our movies, unfortunately.

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