Director/Screenwriter/Star: Barbara Loden
By Marilyn Ferdinand
This week, the world lost two of its greatest film makers—Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni. Both were men of enormous vision, skill, and influence, and their films will pass down through the generations to enlighten new viewers and inspire the giants of cinema’s future. How lucky for us. And how lucky for them!
My words now are not for the much-lauded who saw their ambitions fulfilled over the span of long lives, however, but rather for those directors who died too soon, who hit walls in making and distributing their films, whose output—visionary as anything by Bergman or Antonioni, but not as formed—was, is, and will be ignored and possibly lost. There are a lot of talented film makers in this group. Barbara Loden—who died at the age of 48, having been unable to get another film made after Wanda appeared and disappeared—was one of them.
Some people may know the name Barbara Loden. She was a pin-up model and actress whose best-known performance today is as bad girl Ginny Stamper in Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass (1961), starring Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty. Loden also was Kazan’s long-time mistress, and eventually married him. Kazan helped open some doors to get Wanda made, but apparently didn’t lend a hand again to help her realize her other projects. Among the many honest things Wanda communicates about women’s place in society in the 1960s and the crushing effects of economic constraints on the human spirit, is an ambivalent, but no less cutting, indictment of traditional men like Kazan. Maybe that’s why he never helped her make another film.
According to Wanda’s cinematographer Nicholas Proferes, the idea for the film came when Loden read a newspaper article about a woman named Wanda Goranski, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for her role in a bank robbery. Apparently, when the judge sentenced her, she thanked him. Loden, who had grown up dirt-poor in Marion, North Carolina, connected with both the boldness and self-effacement Goranski exhibited in this newspaper account. Although the film is set in Pennsylvania, Loden wrote the screenplay with her own experiences in mind.
The film opens on a coal-mining operation. A long shot of the coal fields gives way to closer shots of large machines grasping and moving mountains of coal. Then the scene shifts of the interior of a house in which a baby is crying, a toddler is moving around, and a worn-looking woman just out of bed is in the kitchen, trying to prepare food and quiet her infant. On the couch is a figure under rumpled blankets. It’s Wanda (Loden), who stretches absently as she watches her sister (Dorothy Shupenes) and registers the dirty look her brother-in-law (Peter Shupenes) gives her as he leaves for work. “He hates me because I’m here,” Wanda says. It sounds like she’s felt this way before.
Back in the coal fields, a ghostly white figure moves across in an extreme long shot. It is not until the figure nearly reaches its destination that we realize it’s Wanda, dressed in a cotton blouse and slacks, with her hair in curlers. She asks a mentally challenged man who is collecting coal in a bucket for his own use to lend her a little money. His relationship to her is not made clear, but he gives her a dollar. She uses it to get on a bus. She’s late to her own divorce hearing in town.
Her husband (Jerome Thier) is anxious for the hearing to begin because he wants to marry the woman sitting behind him with his two kids as soon as possible so she’ll take care of them. Wanda finally shows up. He claims she abandoned the family. She does not dispute this claim and says that if he wants the divorce, the judge (M. L. Kennedy) should give it to him. She doesn’t even look at her children. “They’ll be better off with him,” she says when the judge asks her if she wants custody.
So what’s going on here? Mr. Goranski seems more inconvenienced by Wanda’s disappearance than anything else. He has already lined up a new caregiver and wants to make sure his life gets back on track. On the other hand, Wanda seems indifferent to her children, which he, at least, is not. She seems very emotionally disengaged and resigned to losing what she had. Did she really want it? It’s hard to know. Wanda doesn’t say her wants out loud very often.
The next scene is in a garment factory. Busy hands move irons and push cloth through sewing machines. We see Wanda enter the manager’s office. She tries to collect two days’ pay from the past week. The manager (Milton Gittleman) says she was paid. She reckons she was owed $24 dollars, but only got $9. The manager claims the deductions were government withholding. “They take out that much?” she asks. He assures her they do. She asks if she can come back to work. He says that they need people but not her—she’s too slow. She thanks him as she leaves his office. She knew what she wanted, but she didn’t get it.
She goes to a diner and orders a beer. A man (Arnold Kanig) in the diner says he’ll pay for it. We next see him trying to make good his escape from his hotel room the next morning without waking Wanda up. But she catches him and briefly pursues him out the door before he peels away in his car. So maybe she wanted him. Off again she goes.
Late at night, she walks into a tavern. The man in the bar says they’re closed and tries to push her out the door. She pushes back, insisting she needs to use the toilet. He waits nervously for her to come out as she takes her time washing her face and pushing at her hair. When she comes out, she sits down at the bar. The man comes around the other side. We then understand that he is not the bar owner but a man who came in to rob the owner, who is lying, bound and gagged, on the floor, out of Wanda’s view. Wanda asked the robber (Michael Higgins) for a beer. He opens the cash register and pulls out all the money. Then he draws her a beer. They leave together. After they have sex in his hotel room, Wanda asks Mr. Dennis if he’s married. “You have a ring,” she observes. He evades the question.
But they form an alliance. Wanda acts a bit like Mr. Dennis’ dog—obeying his commands about how to dress herself, begging to come back to him after he has thrown her out of the car for questioning what illegal doings he’s up to, scraping pickles off his hamburger. She never calls him by his first name. Dennis is gruff, but he’s a penny ante loser who robs a Goodwill drop box to clothe Wanda and grabs a suit for himself from an open car. He’d take tips off tables if he had the chance. He doesn’t really have a clue how to get by in the world. When he visits his father in Scranton, we learn that he’s just out of prison. His father refuses to take money, considering that it must have been stolen. He’s right, of course, but Dennis is hurt, nonetheless. The next scene shows Wanda and Dennis drinking near their stolen car. A remote-control model airplane is buzzing overhead. Dennis climbs on top of the car roof and dares the plane to come back and get him. This is all the fight he’s got in him? It’s starting to look like he and Wanda were made for each other.
The movie veers bizarrely into a Bonnie and Clyde plot in which Mr. Dennis plans a bank heist and enlists Wanda to help him grab the bank president’s family as hostages. When the bank president (Jack Ford) tries to take Mr. Dennis’ gun, Wanda hits him, grabs the gun, and jams it into his back. She ties up his family, Mr. Dennis places a suitcase full of explosive in front of them, and sets the timer. He, the bank president, and Wanda, leave the house to go to the bank. “You did good,” Mr. Dennis says to Wanda. The smile on her face shows exactly what a gift she’s gotten.
Of course, the heist goes horribly wrong, and Mr. Dennis becomes a suicide-by-cop. Wanda, shattered, wanders and ends up in front of a restaurant/bar that night. A friendly looking woman passes by her and says hello. Wanda does not respond. The woman climbs some stairs. After a bit, the woman comes back down and asks Wanda if she has anywhere to go. When the apparent answer is no, she steers Wanda upstairs to join a rousing party of her friends in the bar. Wanda sits, holding a beer, looking crushed, lost, and completely alone.
This film was shot in 16mm using a handheld camera, giving it a grainy verite look that has been compared with the films of John Cassavetes. Like Cassavetes, Loden shot some of the film near her home in Connecticut and treated the cast and crew like a family for whom she cooked. Why Loden didn’t follow in Cassavetes’ shoes and act to gain money for her projects is a bit of a mystery—though work for actresses has always been more dicey than for actors—but it seems that Wanda must have been a character close to herself.
Looking for some kind of validation, living at a time of few options for women, despised for walking out on family life, Wanda is a character seemingly moved by an irresistible force within to be something or go somewhere she feels she counts. The women who were at the vanguard of the modern women’s movement—often without realizing it—paid a heavy price. Wanda is horribly vulnerable, terribly beaten down, and directionless without society’s accepted paths to walk. She made Mr. Dennis take care of her in the brief time they were together, even if it was on his terms. Unfortunately for Wanda, the solution of making a man stand by you has proven over and over to be a sham. Sitting in the bar, surrounded by people who are connected and happy to be together, she looks like an alien, utterly miserable and completely unnoticed. What will happen to Wanda?