American women have come a long way, baby, as that annoying cigarette ad used to say, so if something’s holding one of us back these days, it’s as likely to be an internalized barrier as an external one. But those internal barriers can be the hardest ones to get past. All that conditioning most of us get to put other people’s needs first and sublimate our own desires makes it hard to map out and stick to a path. As Kathryn Bigelow told 60 Minutes, when she was asked why there are still relatively few female directors making feature films: “I think the journey for women, no matter what venue it is—politics, business, film—it's a long journey.”
So it’s no wonder a lot of people treated Barbara Loden the way Samuel Johnson did female preachers (“the marvel is not that it was done well, but that it was done at all”) when she released Wanda in 1970: After all, she was the first woman since Ida Lupino to direct a major American feature. But, as a lot of cinephiles now know, this still-obscure movie is actually done very well. An emotionally honest character study of a woman sleepwalking through her own life. Wanda looks at a type often encountered often in life but rarely seen in the movies.
Loden, who starred in the movie as well as writing and directing it, put a lot of herself in the title character, a rootless beauty who takes up with anyone who will have her. “I used to be a lot like that,” she told the Los Angeles Times the year after Wanda’s release. “I had no identity of my own. I just became whatever I thought people wanted me to become.”
The film starts out slow, and it takes a little while to get adjusted to the often muddy sound and the grainy look of 16mm blown up to 35. Loden shot it for just $100,000 with a crew of three, and you can almost feel them getting better as the movie progresses. At first, too many non-professional actors give labored line readings, and too many medium or long shots of people walking or driving go on for too long. But there’s a lot of information in those shots about Wanda’s hardscrabble coal-mining town: worn-out women toting crying babies, empty beer cans on linoleum counters, the constant hum of coal-mining machinery, the barren black strip-mined hillsides. So when the story kicks into gear, about half an hour in, you have a good sense of who Wanda is and where she comes from.
The shoot was partly improvised from Loden’s script, and it sometimes takes on a near-documentary feel as the two drive through the heart of late-60s America, stopping at places like a fundamentalist church built over catacombs whose grounds are bristling with hand-lettered calls to Jesus. And when Mr. Dennis gets drunk in a field where they’ve pulled off the road for a rest, waving a whiskey bottle and shouting at a fleet of model planes that buzz overhead, Loden finds a distinctive, dark vibe that’s part North by Northwest, part Easy Rider, and all her own.
Wanda’s relationship with Mr. Dennis is hardly equitable—for one thing, she calls him “Mr. Dennis” and he calls her “Wanda”—yet she’s not exactly a victim. She seems to expect abuse and accepts it without complaint, but she doesn’t cringe or collapse when it comes, standing her ground with a stubborn strength that may be an inchoate form of self-esteem.
The downbeat ending leaves little hope that Wanda will escape the trap she’s in, but Loden did, starting as a model and a showgirl and graduating to small parts in films. She met Elia Kazan when she auditioned for Wild River (she played small parts in that film and in Splendor in the Grass), becoming his mistress and eventually his wife and bearing him a son. He helped her in her acting career, but judging by Richard Schickel’s patronizing description of her in his biography of Kazan, he doesn’t seem to have taken her seriously as a director. “She was young, drop-dead gorgeous and basically from a poor-white-trash background—all passionate feeling, unmediated by any inkling of abstract ideas,” Schickel writes. “She was, of course, blonde.”
When Loden died of cancer at 48 in 1980, Wanda was still the only film she had directed. She was planning a shoot of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, though. That sounds about right.