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#52filmsbywomen 5 – Wanda

Posted on: March 9, 2016


No. 5 – Wanda (Barbara Loden, 1970)

The 1970s are considered a golden age of independent cinema in the US, with talents such as John Cassavettes, Robert Altman and Terrance Malick rising up to deliver a cinematic voice unique from the bastions of the classic Hollywood era. Yet this era is defiantly macho, as the dual narratives of Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and Robert Evan’s The Kid Stays In The Picture demonstrate. This was an era of drugs, defiance and ego, and one where the female voice was largely at the sidelines, if present at all.

Barbara Loden is not a name that would be dropped in the glamorous appraisals of this vital era in American cinema. Wanda was her only feature as director (she also wrote and starred) and, coming at the beginning of the decade, it made little impact on release, though it was warmly received in Europe. I could pontificate at length why an exploration of the interior life of a dissatisfied, lower class woman in contemporary America didn’t enjoy the acclaim and longevity of similarly meandering but male-focused pictures, but why bother? It’s nothing new. Social realism was for the boys. Women’s stories have rarely been their own to tell.

But Wanda is a compelling piece of cinema, and not just because of its proto-feminist credentials, its deserved place in the independent canon, or the mythology around Barbara Loden. The former model, Tony winner and mainstay of the Actors Studio had the misfortune to marry Elia Kazan and died of breast cancer by 1980, ensuring that Wanda was the crux of her legacy. Loden conceded that the film was semi-autobiographical, but it’s not hard to imagine many women seeing their lives at the time reflected in the passive, inscrutable Wanda, or would have, if they had seen the film.

Wanda is a unique protagonist from the off, arriving late to a court date where her divorce is finalised and she gives up parental rights to her young children. She demonstrates little emotion, at this point and throughout the film. She has little money, no job, and no plans. Even now, it would be unusual for a film to begin with the (female) lead renouncing her wifely and maternal duties and expect the audience to willingly follow the subsequent narrative without judgement, but Wanda gives no apologies and makes no concession to the viewer. At one point, she misplaces her wallet in the motel room, but shrugs it off, unperturbed. Mr Dennis, a bank thief who looks like a geography teacher, finds it and flicks through, finding photographs of Wanda’s children, a past life she is seemingly at peace with discarding. The film spends much of its time meandering along with Wanda as she bounces from café to bed to car with no particular aim. The plot unfurls so gradually it’s almost a surprise when it takes a turn into a kitchen sink Bonnie and Clyde when she accidentally hooks up with Mr Dennis.

Wanda feels startlingly contemporary, and has aged much better than a lot of 1970s independent cinema. The low key crime spree that emerges gives the film a lot of momentum that is missing in a lot of character pieces, and a much-needed boost just as the viewer starts to tire of its listless heroine. Wanda as a character is filled with the kind of ennui that is familiar and almost cliché in the independent cinema of this millennial, and while we are receptive and familiar with this type of protagonist now, it must have been surprising in 1970, when a female protagonist at all was a rarity, let alone one not beholden to society’s expectations. There are no attempts to seek the audience’s sympathy, nor raise their ire – Wanda simply is, and the audience’s reaction to her is irrelevant. Before her death, Loden was working on a second film, and it’s a real shame that we missed how her unique and prescient voice would evolve. She wrote:

“There’s so much I didn’t achieve, but I tried to be independent and to create my own way…otherwise, I would have become like Wanda, all my life just floating around.”




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