by DURGA CHEW-BOSE
In a 1972 episode of The Mike Douglas Show, co-hosted by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Barbara Loden is introduced by her hosts as “a very lovely lady,” as “married to a very famous gentleman,” as “wife of Elia Kazan,” as “a mother,” and as a “filmmaker in her own right.” Seconds later, polka-dotted set doors slide open and Loden appears.
She is wearing white jeans, a black knit shirt, and lace-up boots. Her bangs flop over her forehead and her blond highlights have grown out — color-blocking her long, thin and wispy hair. Loden looks like a dream. She has the smile of a young Cloris Leachman, she begins her sentences with “Gee” and speaks of being “bashful.” She is from another time. Like a woman in a Sunkist beauty ad — the kind from Teen magazine: “Leaves your hair looking squeaky-clean, smelling lemon-fresh.” It’s as if at any moment she might turn, stare straight into the camera, and sell you a bar of Dial soap.
Loden’s voice is soft and her words are considered. It is nerve-wracking to listen to her, a cause for concern. She is wary when discussing her marriage to Elia Kazan, especially in comparison to that of John and Yoko: “We lead a rather insulated life. We don’t get around much.” Loden barely reacts when it’s made clear that Douglas hasn’t even watched her film, Wanda, but is posing questions nonetheless.
However, once she starts talking about her movie — the only one she would ever write and direct — poise outdoes caution. Loden speaks faster and with finality. Her thoughts accrue in increments. She uses her hands. Her focus turns urgent. It’s clear she feels a deep kinship with her character, Wanda Goransky, a woman Loden says is living “an ugly type of existence,” a wife and mother who has abandoned her marriage, her children, and herself. She is uncertain of what she wants but persuaded by what she doesn’t want. Loden is her advocate. Wanda is Loden’s orbit.
“She’s trying to do the best thing that she can. Life is a mystery to her,” she says, though not to Douglas, not to John or to Yoko, but to some perhaps doubtful though vital, and resolving side of her nature.
Premiering at Venice in 1970, Wanda, was released a year later in New York and L.A. Largely ignored and omitted in the United States, like so many endangered American independent films, Wanda was revered in Europe. Marguerite Duras, who writes in The Lover, “My memory of men is never lit up and illuminated like my memory of women,” as well as Isabelle Huppert, who released a DVD of Wanda in France in 2004, were fans.
The film begins with a shot of a Pennsylvania coal mine. The landscape is lunar and the machinery looks miniature: crater-sized puddles and Tonka-sized trunks. Mountains of coal denote work, hard work, repetition, and men. We immediately know that Wanda, the title character, whoever she is, is likely detached from this world, these men, this work — especially if the work is hard and repetitive. A Woman Under the Influence, which also starts at a work site, is called to mind. Five Easy Pieces, too. Mabel Longhetti, Rayette Dipesto, and Wanda Goransky: all women whose lives, in various ways, have been trivialized. As Loden puts it, they simply “drop out.”
But it’s the echoing sound of machinery at the start of these films that creates a discrete type of stillness: moving parts that carry out tasks, strictly physical, toiling tasks — tools, methods, with functions that function. When Wanda appears moments later, waking up on a couch — a single white sheet as her blanket — she is hungover and bothered by a wailing baby. Wanda is neither functioning nor ready to carry out tasks. If this family and town are hers, they are hers to escape.
Before the movie really takes off, a series of events where Wanda is alone or Wanda is with someone who makes her feel even more alone, unfold. A portrait is painted of a woman who is trying to get as far away from herself as she can and who hasn’t yet found her “use.” She walks far distances — a tiny white blemish crossing mountains of gunmetal gray coal — to beg for money, to catch an empty bus, to show up late for divorce court, to look at the judge, point to her husband and say, “They’d be betta off with him.”
Too slow as a seamstress, she loses her job at a factory. Too broke to buy a drink, she wakes up hungover in motel beds with men who hurry out in the mornings, who reluctantly drop her off anywhere. In one scene she stands on the side of the highway, licking ice cream as a man peels away in his car. Never did a woman with a goofy high top ponytail look so scrappy, so dejected and doomed.
Aimless, either looking at clothes in a department store and standing beside mannequins which bear an uncanny resemblance to her, or going to the movies, only to fall asleep curled up in her seat, her purse two rows down, emptied of what little she had, Wanda continues to wander. And yet, shit out of luck, she doesn’t mope or mourn — her nothing-to-lose manner is less attitude and more delusion and wear. She’ll look for a comb to neaten her bangs instead of accounting for where she’ll be sleeping that night. The camera gets near to her face, as if convincing us that Wanda is unafraid, if not entirely withdrawn.
But then she meets Mr. Dennis (Michael Higgins), a hapless robber and miserable man, and she attaches herself to him. Maybe it’s his gruff way or that he tells her who he is, what to do, and what he doesn’t like — “I don’t like nosy people,” “Go back to your comics,” “Why don’t you do something about your hair? It looks terrible.” Whatever it is, Wanda is fastened to and maybe even fascinated by Mr. Dennis.
He buys her spaghetti at a diner. She eats it with her fork in one hand and her cigarette in the other. “Did you want that piece of bread?” Wanda asks. “That’s the best part,” she continues while mopping up the leftover sauce. Later, when Mr. Dennis orders her to take the wheel and drive, she does. But Wanda does not use it as opportunity to take control. She follows instructions. She does as she’s told.
Unassuming, loyal, already on the lam, Wanda makes for a perfect accomplice. But first, her clothes have to go. “No slacks! When you’re with me, no slacks!” Mr. Dennis yells. “No hair curlers! Makes you look cheap!” He throws both her pants and her box of curlers out the car window. When Wanda asks him where they are going, he barks: “No questions! When you’re with me, no questions!” While his tone is threatening, Wanda’s been with worse. He’s a bully — a hapless, miserable bully.
In one scene, Mr. Dennis’ temper dissolves. Standing in an open field as Wanda sits on the roof of his car, the two drink beers and eat sandwiches. The sun is setting and he lends her his jacket. It’s the first moment in the film where two people talk to each other, where vulnerability isn’t an action or inaction, but a single sentence that reveals more than we were ever expecting to learn about Mr. Dennis: “If you don’t have money, you are nothing.”
For Wanda, who ignores questions about her kids while painting her nails on the side of the highway, who exchanges her ponytail for a smarter-looking pin-cushion top bun, yet still looks taken down, being “nothing” isn’t so bad. Like Rayette in Five Easy Pieces, whose Stand by Your Man adages are infinite and misguided — “I’ll go out with you, or I’ll stay in with you, or I’ll do anything that you like for me to do, if you tell me that you love me” — Wanda, too, will do anything, especially if it keeps her moving and at length from recognizing what it is that she wants.
Barbara Loden died of breast cancer ten years after making Wanda — a debut which feels incredibly close to the writer, director, actress; a debut which is a cumulative expression and hopefully, liberation of herself. Her marriage to Kazan appeared restrained and guarded, and while in some interviews he praises his wife’s film, in his memoirs he writes: “She wanted to be independent, find her own way. I didn’t really believe she had the equipment to be an independent filmmaker.”
The word “equipment” is interesting to note. It implies invention and esprit, substance, smarts, ideas of Loden’s own, courage. It is also used by Barbara herself on Mike Douglas’ show. When describing Wanda’s inability to take control of her life, to claim desires, Loden says, “She has no equipment.” It is a startling coincidence, a fluke that might mean nothing, but one nonetheless. It underpins Loden’s pressing need to make a film about a woman whose story had been told for so long in other people’s words. Her vision was born from a gameness she often concealed as a model, actress and wife, but that she laid bare, masterly, on grainy 16mm, shot over the course of ten weeks with a crew of four.