#404) Wanda (1970)

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#404) Wanda (1970)

OR “Blondie and Clyde”

Directed & Written by Barbara Loden

Class of 2017

A modern trailer for the film’s restoration.

The Plot: Wanda Goronski (Barbara Loden) is an aimless woman, newly divorced and newly unemployed. Her endless days of milling about movie theaters and sleeping with any man who’s willing leads to her meeting Norman (Michael Higgins) in a bar. Wanda finds out later that Norman was in fact robbing the bar and is a wanted criminal. With no money or better options, Wanda continues to aid Norman with his crimes while taking his verbal and physical abuse. Not very appealing for sure, but what if I told you this movie was directed and written by its lead actress? How do you like them apples?

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film an “affecting and insightful character study” and considers it “one of the finest works of independent cinema during the 1970s.”

But Does It Really?: “Wanda” is one of those largely forgotten films that I’m glad the NFR can find space for. It’s by no means a perfect movie, and at times can be downright unpleasant, but “Wanda” possesses the kind of uniqueness I’m looking for in an NFR entry. The film centers around an indifferent, unintelligent character whose flaws are neither condemned nor glorified, in a production whose financial setbacks manage to feel more like cinema-verite than low-budget shlock. And on top of all that, at the helm we have a female independent auteur at a time when that was unheard of. Thanks to Barbara Loden’s distinctive voice, “Wanda” stands out amongst other films of the era and is a harbinger of things to come for both independent movies and female filmmakers.

Everybody Gets One: Barbara Loden started her career as a model, eventually becoming a TV and film actor, appearing in, among others, 1960’s “Wild River” where she met director/future husband Elia Kazan. Loden was often typecast as the blonde bombshell, including in Arthur Miller’s “After the Fall”, for which she won a Tony for playing a Marilyn Monroe-type. Inspired by a “Daily News” article about a woman who was an accomplice in a botched bank robbery, Loden wrote the screenplay for “Wanda”, securing backing from producer Harry Shuster, and a budget of $100,000. Loden directed the film herself because every director offered the film passed, including her husband!

Wow, That’s Dated: Primarily this film’s abusive attitude towards women. Despite being filmed at the very beginning of the Women’s Lib era, Barbara Loden always refuted claims that the film was a feminist piece, considering it a film “about the oppression of women, of people”.

Seriously, Oscars?: “Wanda” never played an Oscar eligible run, but it did, however, play the festival circuit, and won Best Foreign Film at the 1970 Venice International Film Festival (“Wanda” was the only American film in competition).

Other notes

  • Yes, “Wanda” can be a bit divisive for an audience (Exhibit A: the extended opening sequence of a crying baby), but despite its less appealing qualities, this film immediately communicated to me that Loden has a vision. I was willing to overlook the obviously amateur actors and the extended scenes where “nothing happens” because Loden’s direction instantly conveyed to me that she has a story to tell. Rare is the film that can message that so clearly.
  • With the exception of Loden and Higgins, every actor in the film is a nonprofessional whose performance comes from a series of loose improvisations. Loden treated her screenplay as a launching pad for whatever she and her fellow actors discovered on the day.
  • “No smoking in the courtroom.” What? It’s 1970; you can smoke anywhere!
  • Man, Wanda’s job at the sewing factory dropped her without warning. Where’s Norma Rae when you need her?
  • The movie Wanda naps through is “El Golfo”, a musical starring Raphael and Shirley Jones. Gotta love a movie that takes a break to watch another movie.
  • Michael Higgins was a longtime stage actor, best known for his role as the father in the original cast of “Equus”. He continued acting up until his death in 2008, appearing in such films as “The Savages” and “Synecdoche, New York”. This all being said, I never needed to see him tighty whities.
  • “Wanda” takes a while to get used to, but ultimately I was fascinated by a movie whose lead character is so passive and a co-lead so abusive. Kudos to both Loden and Higgins for keeping these characters reprehensible but never unwatchable.
  • Shoutout to the gone but not forgotten religious theme park Holy Land U.S.A.
  • Ultimately, I think I respect this movie more than I enjoy it. Loden’s confident grip on filmmaking (in her directorial debut, no less) is commendable, but I was reminded of the Gene Siskel quote “Is this film more interesting than a documentary of the same actors having lunch?” In the case of “Wanda”, my answer is “I’ll have what Barbara’s having.”
  • This all being said, I greatly appreciate that in the end, Wanda doesn’t really learn anything and ends up right where she started. It’s a downer and not very exciting, but hey, that’s life.

Legacy

  • While “Wanda” was not a success in its day, Barbara Loden continued to direct both short films and Off-Broadway plays throughout the ‘70s. Loden was preparing a film adaptation of the novel “The Awakening” when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, which took her life in 1980 at the age of 48.
  • “Wanda” stayed in relative obscurity for the next 30 years, but a restoration by UCLA in 2010 led to newfound recognition. Among the film’s supporters are director John Waters and actor Isabelle Huppert.
  • Not really related, but a sign of our times I felt needed a mention: Number of female directors in this week’s write-ups: 1. Number of female director nominees at this year’s Golden Globes: 0.

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