Directed by: Barbara Loden.
Written by: Barbara Loden.
Starring: Barbara Loden (Wanda Goronski), Michael Higgins (Norman Dennis).
Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970) is one of those rare great films made by a director who only ever directed one film. Like Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter (1955), it is a singular vision – a movie that cannot be put into the larger context of the director’s career, because it is essentially their entire directing career. And Wanda is a great film, which makes it all the more sad that Loden died too young – at age 48 – before she ever made a follow-up film. Yet, considering that her death came 13 years after making Wanda – and that the film was essentially never got a proper theatrical release, she may never have had a chance to direct again. Sadder still that 42 years after Wanda, female directors are still woefully under-represented in Hollywood. A film like Wanda is a good argument for why that so desperately needs to change. Here is a film written and directed by a woman, about a woman, that is more honest about women that practically any film written and directed by a man ever could be.
When we first see Wanda (Loden herself), she is waking up from her sister’s couch. In the sad opening scenes of Wanda, we see her go to her dad for money, get rejected from a job by her onetime boss (“You’re just too slow to be any good for us”), and go to court to grant her husband a divorce and custody of their children. She has essentially abandoned her children – a charge she doesn’t refute – and doesn’t much seem to care either. She spends most of this time with her hair still in curlers.
The one constant in her life is alcohol. The movie takes place deep in Pennsylvania coal country, and she isn’t the only one whose life seems to revolve around alcohol – but she is the only character who has trouble thinking about anything else. Her pattern involves going to a bar and leaving with whatever man will have her for the night. The first time this happens, it is a painfully sad scene, as her “date” for the night tries to sneak out of the hotel room they shared without her noticing, as she desperately chases him down to get a ride back to town.
It is at one of these bars where she meets Norman Dennis (Michael Higgins). She walks in close to closing time, and thinks Norman is the bartender. In fact, he is robbing the bar, and she’s just a little slow on the uptake. She’ll leave with him as well – and spend most of the rest of the movie with him. Norman is not a very good criminal, and certainly not a very nice guy – he has no problem smacking Wanda when she pisses him off. But Wanda sticks around anyway. In part, it’s because this is her pattern – sticking around with whatever man she goes home with for as long as he wants her around. And in part, because no matter his cruelty towards her, he may be the only person who has ever told Wanda that he “believes” she can do something. Norman has a plan – not a very good one as it turns out – to rob a bank, and needs her help to do it. She says she cannot do it – she even throws up because of the nerves (and probably, the alcohol), but he tells her she can do it. The plan involves them both driving to the bank manager’s house, and Norman riding with him to work, so when he opens the vault, he can get the money. Wanda is to follow in their getaway car, and pick Norman up when he comes out. Wanda screws it up – of course – but it doesn’t really matter that she did, because Norman screwed up his end even worse. But, Wanda doesn’t know this, which sets up the painfully sad final scenes of the movie.
Wanda is a fascinating film because it refuses to see its title character in terms we are used to seeing. Wanda isn’t a victim – everything that happens to her, she essentially does to herself, or allows them to be done to her. She isn’t some proto-feminist hero either – like in some movies about women who throw off the chains of marriage and mothering can be. Wanda doesn’t abandon her children in some sort of effort to break free – but rather because she is selfish woman, who would rather be drinking than raising her own children.
What Wanda is though, is trapped. She doesn’t really know what it is that she wants to do, she just knows what she doesn’t want to do. Whether she’s trapped in her marriage, or trapped living on her sister’s couch, or trapped forever repeating the pattern of going home with men she meets in bars, she doesn’t see any other options for herself in her limited life, in her limited small town. For a while, with Norman, she seems to be able to break free. They are like a much more incompetent Bonnie and Clyde, but drained of all romanticism of Arthur Penn’s masterpiece. All they really want is “stuff” – because without it, they see themselves as nothing.
Loden as a writer, director and star sees Wanda clearly. The writing is very matter of fact, only giving us the details of these two characters’ lives that we need. The direction is certainly inspired by documentaries and the neo-realists. There is not a trace of sentimentality in the movie, although by the final haunting image in the film, it is impossible not to feel sympathy towards Wanda, even after everything we have seen of her up to this point. Wanda is a legitimately great film, and sadly, the only one Loden ever made. An under rated, little seen classic.