Noteworthy as one of the few American movies of its era to be directed by a woman, the gritty indie drama Wanda has gained an enviable reputation in the years since its original release. Most of the film’s notoriety stems from fascination with writer-director-star Barbara Loden, a onetime fashion model who became a personal and professional muse for the great director Elia Kazan; she played a supporting role in his classic movie Splendor in the Grass (1961) and married Kazan in 1968.
For Wanda, which Loden shot on grainy 16mm film, she cast herself in the title role as a confused woman living in a grim Pennsylvania mining town. Wanda abandoned her husband and children, can’t hold onto a job, and drinks heavily, so she drifts from one dead-end sexual relationship to the next. Eventually, she stumbles into an affair with gruff crook Dennis (Michael Higgins), and they commit a series of low-rent heists culminating in an audacious attempt to rob a bank in broad daylight.
Although the broad strokes of the story sound clichéd, Wanda takes an offbeat approach to the material, focusing on mundane vignettes like Dennis sending Wanda out for fast food and then berating her for bringing back hamburgers with the wrong toppings. In fact, most of Wanda’s screen time is consumed with seemingly inconsequential moments; we see lots Wanda wandering and plenty of Dennis deliberating. However, we also get a few touching glimpses of inner life, such as the moment when Dennis tries to give money to his disapproving father.
At its worst, the movie is as boring as the lives of the people it portrays. But at its best, the movie is incisive and naturalistic, with Loden committing to her cinema verité approach by featuring nonactors throughout the supporting cast. Furthermore, it’s possible to view Wanda as a pre-feminist archetype, the classic woman who wants more but gets beaten down by a patriarchal society. Whether that political interpretation is valid is up to the individual viewer, but there’s no question that Wanda is a deeply independent work that epitomizes many of the myth-busting ideals of the New Hollywood era. One wishes the picture were a bit more dynamic, but undercutting exactly those expectations was probably part of Loden’s artistic agenda. Despite winning accolades for her directorial debut, Loden never acted in or made another film, and she died a decade after Wanda was released.