More than one man has attempted to take credit for the successes of writer-director Barbara Loden’s 1971 drama Wanda. After her death from cancer in 1980, suddenly everyone but her was responsible for this harrowing tale of a woman drifter who hooks up with a controlling crook and reluctantly learns the methods of a petty criminal. Loden’s husband, Elia Kazan, insisted in his autobiography that he had actually written the script. Her director of photography and collaborator Nicholas Proferes stated in interviews that he’d directed 99 percent of the picture, because he had composed all the shots, as though that were the director’s only responsibilities.
Loden wrote the film as a kind of alternate version of her life, imagining a her who had stayed in rural North Carolina and not cultivated her acting talent. (She’s best known for her role in Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass.) Shot with a crew of four on 16mm, the film is a gritty, stripped-down character piece, featuring Loden herself as Wanda and Michael Higgins as the thief, Mr. Dennis, alongside a cast of expressive and peculiar non-actors. And while it’s entirely possible that Proferes did, as he claims, set up most of the shots, Loden is clearly directing the action from in front of the camera; many scenes are single shots spanning multiple minutes, as we watch Wanda drift through life in the company of an insecure man who longs to dominate anyone or anything. Right before our eyes, Loden shrewdly paces the action and dialogue, which is both unexpected and yet totally natural.
Half the time, Wanda passively agrees with anything a man says. Her husband tells a judge that their kids would be better off with him, and she lowers her head, repeating his words, her concentration seemingly focused on the cigarette she’s been asked to snuff out. The rest of the time, Wanda’s a chatty, curious explosion of questions. She wants to know why Mr. Dennis doesn’t like onions. She wants to know why he doesn’t want her to wear pants. She’s a child in a woman’s body, expecting the best out of people, always getting the worst and never learning the lesson. Meanwhile, Mr. Dennis exudes such painfully shy self-consciousness that even when he tells Wanda that she’s stupid — and she agrees wholeheartedly — he’s still sympathetic; he’s truly the only one who’s ever told Wanda she could amount to something, even if that something is a criminal.
Loden never romanticizes the crime spree. This is no Bonnie and Clyde, a picture that glamorized its outlaws and gave them beautiful, fashionable clothes and hair to be emulated. In fact, Loden said in interviews that her movie was the anti-Bonnie and Clyde, as close as she could get to the experience she had of living in poverty in a depressed Southern town. That meant no dramatic shootout with bullets flying and bodies writhing. Death would be just as mundane as life.
But don’t mistake Wanda for a bore or a weepfest. The only movie Loden would write or direct — she did try to get financing for another one for eight years — this drama is absorbing and thought-provoking the whole way through. Viewers may note striking similarities between Wanda and Kelly Reichardt’s River of Grass and Wendy and Lucy, which were no accident on Reichardt’s part; she’s championed Loden’s work as underrated and overlooked. We’re lucky to have Reichardt, who picked up Loden’s torch and kept it lit.