American actress Barbara Loden’s directoral feature debut was released in 1970 to a handful of theaters and disappeared quickly, but over the years it has retained an odd notoriety for its frank depiction of a poor woman’s lot in middle America. There’s absolutely nothing sentimental about this depiction, but Wanda also doesn’t qualify as what we now conveniently categorize as docudrama. It’s a solidly conventional social drama, with an easy-to-follow line of development that accrues a certain measure of neo-realist cred along the way. Some have compared it to what Cassavetes was creating at the time, but Loden avoids those touches that telegrammed Cassavetes intentions as an artist. Loden has a story to tell, and she doesn’t want anything to get in the way.
The titular character is first seen sleeping on the couch in her married sister’s ramshackle house in Pennsylvania’s coal country. In fact, there are side loaders transferring coal right outside the window. Wanda (Loden) is obviously not welcome here, as evidenced by her brother-in-law’s angry, quick departure for work. A subsequent scene in a courtroom, where Wanda’s soon-to-be-divorced husband is asking for full custody of their two young children, shows just how unmoored she is. She puts up no fight, saying the kids “would be better off with him,” and leaves the courtroom in a fog of depression. She then shows up at a textile factory where she used to work, demanding back pay and asking for her former job. The back pay is mostly consumed by taxes and the foreman refuses to hire her again, saying she’s “too slow.” Wanda is, for all intents and purposes, not just rudderless but homeless.
Though not technically a prostitute, Wanda gets by the only way she knows how. She goes to familiar bars and hangs around until she’s picked up by some philandering bald guy in a seedy suit and goes to bed with him. The guy invariably leaves before she wakes up. Though the situation smacks of cliche, Loden invests these scenes with a melancholic tone that points up the desperation of everyone involved, as well as the listless atmosphere of the entire milieu in which they take place. More significantly for someone watching this film today, the sexual transactions are purely materialistic. As a woman from a semi-rural region in 1970, Wanda does not necessarily possess the wherewithal to react to her exploitation at the hands of men—Loden herself grew up in Appalachia—but she surely recognizes her position and can’t help but resent it. It’s there in her voice when she tries to make her one-night stands feel more comfortable, and even more pronounced the next morning in her defeated demeanor.
Eventually, one hookup changes the stakes. Stopping into a bar after it’s closed to use the toilet, Wanda stumbles upon a robbery, and the thief, whom she calls Mr. Dennis (Michael Higgins, appropriately stiff in his own seedy suit, masking spectacles, and sad mustache), takes her on as his accomplice after spending the night together. Though the movie’s storyline begins to take on the trappings of a lover-outlaws on the lam tale, Loden concentrates on the relationship rather than the bank heist Mr. Dennis is planning. He brings her to Korvettes to buy a dress because it won’t do for her to wear slacks, a ruefully sexist touch that’s couched as a professional practicality, since she’s going to act as a diversion when he takes a bank officer’s family hostage. But the thriller aspects are lacking in thrills, perhaps intentionally, and Loden didn’t sufficiently think through the plausability of Mr. Dennis’s scheme. However, for a short stretch Wanda seems to have purpose, even if it’s at the service of a deluded criminal.
What’s appealing about Wanda is that while it looks squarely at a woman who can no longer play by the rules of civil society, it isn’t a depressing slog. There’s a liveliness to the direction that’s not only stimulating, but unique. Loden, who, for what it’s worth, was married for a while to Elia Kazan, died about 10 years later in her late 40s and never made another feature, which is a shame. Even Cassavetes could have learned a thing or two.
Now playing in Tokyo at Theater Image Forum Aoyama (03-5766-0114).
Wanda home page in Japanese
photo (c) 1970 Foundation for Filmmakers