For the ninth feature in our screening series with Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation at Nitehawk Cinema, we present Wanda, the only film directed by Barbara Loden (who also wrote it and starred in it). Wanda chronicles a lonely housewife abandoning her family and setting out onto the open road in search of a sense of purpose. Loose and meditative, its handheld 16mm aesthetic, improvisatory acting, and realist subject matter align it with the personal cinema of John Cassavetes, but Wanda is an altogether different force of nature—a rare example of 70s narrative independent filmmaking that goes deep into the psyche of a woman and was written and directed by a woman.
Loden was primarily known for her stage and screen acting and for being married to legendary director Elia Kazan. Out of nowhere, the film arrived at the 1970 Venice Film Festival and won the International Critics' Prize. However, quite undeservedly, it remains difficult to see—in fact, this is perhaps the most obscure film in our series, making this Tuesday, January 28, an opportunity to catch a rare screening of a true hidden gem of New American Cinema.
To get you prepped, we reached out to film preservationist Ross Lipman for some thoughts on the film and its restoration as well as author Kate Zambreno, who allowed us to share an excerpt from her essay about the parallels between Wanda and Loden’s life.
-Introduction by Greg Eggebeen
ROSS LIPMAN – SENIOR FILM PRESERVATIONIST, UCLA FILM & TELEVISION ARCHIVE
Barbara Loden, at surface glance, might be the least likely candidate to have produced one of the absolute masterpieces of American cinema. Beginning her career as a nightclub dancer and pin-up girl, she had to face not only class- but also gender-based discrimination throughout her life. By her own frank admission, she had been raised in an environment wherein a woman’s only chances for self-improvement were through attachment to a man. It’s precisely from these struggles that Wanda grew.
It’s hence ironic and perversely appropriate that Loden was, initially, known for her marriage to Elia Kazan and for her roles in his films Wild River and Splendor in the Grass, and for his stage production of After the Fall. Loden subsequently withdrew from public life alongside Kazan before taking up the writer/director’s helm with Wanda, which is, fittingly, her lasting cinematic legacy.
Now cited by Jonathan Rosenbaum as one of the 100 greatest American films ever made, Loden’s neo-realist gem centers on her brilliant performance as a rural Pennsylvanian housewife on a lost flight to nowhere, traveling through an American landscape of decrepit factories, two-lane wastelands, and ratty motels. Dragged seemingly by the wind into a relationship with small-time crook Michael Higgins, Loden’s Wanda floats through her own life as if witness to it; a view of desperation filtered through a tinted windshield.
Her creative partner in the production was cinematographer/editor Nick Proferes who, crucially, emerged from the then-vital tradition of cinéma vérité. With its location shooting, existing light cinematography, long takes, and extensive use of non-actors, Wanda functions at one level as pure documentary. Loden’s and Higgins’s brilliant performances are held in perfect balance by both the non-actors who surround them and Proferes’s photography of rural and small-town Pennsylvania. The latter’s cinéma vérité origins ultimately fuse with Loden’s expert direction in one of the most authentic visions of middle America committed to screen.
UCLA’s new 35mm restoration is blown up directly from the previously lost 16mm camera rolls, and brings a sharper and truer rendition of Wanda’s unique 1970’s reversal film stocks’ color palette than has previously been possible. Digital tools have been used to selectively repair damaged sequences in the original materials.
KATE ZAMBRENO – AUTHOR (HEROINES, GREEN GIRL, O FALLEN ANGEL)
An incongruous moment of Wanda that I love: Mr. Dennis, in a gesture that can either be described as gross or touching, and maybe both (the beauty of this film is how many moments lay across these two concepts), lays his meaty, sweaty hand on Wanda’s thigh while they are driving on the highway. He palms her thigh and she lets him. How Hollywood-taut and tan that thigh is. A burst of autobiography. In reality Barbara Loden had become an expensive, much younger wife to this much more famous man [director Elia Kazan].
The orphaned misfit meeting the married director 23 years her senior while a dancing girl at the Copacabana nightclub in NYC. Like something out of that Marilyn Monroe film, Bus Stop.
In the film, Mr. Dennis is the harsh director, Wanda is his actress. He instructs her not to wear makeup. To only wear dresses—throwing her newly purchased slacks out onto the highway as Wanda stares at them wistfully. He directs her for her role in the robbery, where they plan to hold a bank executive hostage in his house—she is in costume as a pregnant woman needing to make a phone call as she knocks on his door. Throughout she lets him. It is like she has been looking for someone to tell her what to do.
On YouTube there is a video of Barbara Loden on The Mike Douglas Show when Yoko Ono and John Lennon co-hosted. She is promoting Wanda. She narrates, in her quiet, self-effacing way, that she met the famous couple at the Cannes Film Festival. Here she has long shiny gorgeous hair, she is wearing knee-length boots over white jeans and a brown flowy peasant top. (I keep on pausing and trying to figure out whether these are the same white jeans worn in Wanda. I’d like to imagine so.) She is a bit reserved, shy, which she talks about with the famous couple, their mutual shyness.
One of the first things Douglas asks, after noting positive attention to Wanda and the critics’ prize it won at the Venice Film Festival: “Does your husband have anything to do, does he stick his toes in anywhere, when you’re filmmaking?” She handles it politely: “We help each other.” “How does he feel about you making your own films, Barbara?” “Well, umm, he was the one who made me do it. It never entered my mind to make a film. I had no ambition that way.” The North Carolina accent comes out. She sounds, suddenly, so much like Wanda. She repeats: “He made me do it. He forced me.”
Barbara Loden lived under her husband’s shadow for years, until she broke out when she made Wanda. After that, she began to be more confident in her identity as a filmmaker.
Kazan was upset that she had abandoned her role as a housewife. He had actually begun divorce proceedings until she found a lump in her breast. Cancer. She was to die eight years later at the age of 48.
He writes in his autobiography, “When I first met her, she had little choice but to depend on her sexual appeal. But after Wanda she no longer needed to be that way, no longer wore clothes that dramatized her lure, no longer came on as a frail, uncertain woman who depended on men who had the power… I realized I was losing her, but I was also losing interest in her struggle… She was careless about managing the house, let it fall apart, and I am an old-fashioned man.” A mirroring of the court scene in Wanda, the grievances of Wanda’s husband.
Later, he still claimed that he wrote the screenplay to Wanda himself.
Excerpted with permission from Kate Zambreno’s essay, “One Can Be Dumb and Unhappy at Exactly the Same Time: An Essay on Failure, the Depressed Muse, and Barbara Loden’s Wanda,” originally published in Two Dollar Radio’s “Frequencies Vol. 2.”
Restored by UCLA Film and Television Archive. Restoration funding provided by Gucci and the Film Foundation.
Print courtesy of the Academy Film Archive and Marco Joachim.
For tickets, click here. Complimentary drinks will be available from Larceny Bourbon after the screening in Nitehawk’s downstairs bar.