Barbara Loden’s Wanda , her sole feature-length film, depicts the drifting life of its title character, played by Loden herself. She has to convince a friend to loan her money needed to get to her appearance in divorce court, but then shows up late anyway, only to laconically tell the judge that if her husband “wants a divorce, just give it to him”; she attempts to get a job, and fails; she gets picked up by a man at a restaurant and then abandoned by him the next day at an ice cream stand; she wanders the mall, goes to the movies, gets robbed, and eventually finds herself at a bar. And there she is swept into a blur of misplaced intention: Wanda mistakes the man robbing the place, Mr. Dennis (Michael Higgins), for the man tending the bar, and finds herself turned into the Bonnie to his Clyde, on the run at his side, the result of coincidence transfigured into her own intention.
The character has been constantly reduced to the qualities of passivity and blankness, described with such terms by critics and artists alike. In detailing her journey, writers have seen an “aimless and lost soul,” a “woman who floats on the surface of society, drifting here or there, with the currents,” someone who can “only cling to what she can, often without being able to say why,” who “takes on a passive role in the situations in her life.” In his piece on the film, Don DeLillo described Wanda as “the empty space designed to accommodate a man’s self-doubt and flaring rage.” These descriptions are not entirely wrong—Wanda is aimless, she is a drifter—but reading them you would imagine a film made up entirely of sadness, of flatness, of aimlessness. Yet Wanda—both the film and the character—possess the mild, off-kilter vivacity of the woman who tells you her entire life story within the space of two stops on the train. There is a clear reverse side to the character’s passivity—her careful, fluttering curiosity.
Loden’s film is shot through with the lovely grainy texture of 16mm and is composed with loose, often handheld camerawork that compliments Wanda’s meandering inquisitiveness. You can see this in a scene where Wanda wanders through the mall: The camera follows Wanda as she slowly walks around, following the pace set by her meandering as she observes the displays. When her eye line comes to rest on a mannequin whose blond hair and bangs resembles her own, the film cuts to the mannequin’s overly painted, expressionless visage, which appears terrifyingly remote. Next the film cuts back to Wanda’s observing face. It’d be easy to decide that Loden is drawing similarities between her character’s opaque expression and that of the lifeless mannequin. But Wanda’s opacity is one that suggests an inner life rather than betraying the lack of one—an animating spark that reveals itself not in what we think of as agency, but in a kind of ethereal docility. Looking at Wanda we see not a plastic, perfect expression, nor do we see neat, put-together attire; what we see is a real person, flesh and blood, her bangs askew, her face tired. Her eyes drop from the mannequin’s face to the floor, and they stay there for a moment. She blinks, and we see in her expression a mind at work, moving from the display before her into some private recess we cannot see or understand.
Wanda’s lack of assertion and definition does not detract from the flickering yet insistent warmth Loden’s performance lends her. (Loden possessed this warmth not just in her performance of Wanda but in her own life, as evidenced by a clip of her on the Mike Douglas Show, where, in her characteristic soft Southern accent, she tentatively describes making her film to—somewhat bizarrely—John Lennon and Yoko Ono.) That warmth is best revealed through her relationship to Mr. Dennis, the man on the run, whom she follows and shacks up with. He’s almost as enigmatic as Wanda, but where Wanda is fidgety, Mr. Dennis is stock still. After their meet-strange, he takes her out to eat, and the film cuts between the two sitting on opposite sides of the booth. Wanda looks in Mr. Dennis’s direction with huge, observant eyes, spaghetti humorously dangling out of her mouth. Cut to Mr. Dennis, impassively smoking a cigar, as closed off to Wanda as she is open to him. Later the two lie next to each other in bed, the camera placed at its foot, he like stone with his back turned to her, while Wanda laces her fingers together and vibrates with anxious energy, asking if he’d like to know her name, looking around the room, asking if he’s married, reaching out to caress his forehead. He slaps her hand away—to state it mildly, Mr. Dennis is a textbook asshole. He hits Wanda, tells her what to wear, and pushes her away when she tries to touch him. Wanda’s attachment to him is surely part of why many critics have characterized her as passive. But her undisguised tenderness, her inclination toward attachment, is the opposite of passivity. When Mr. Dennis tries to dump her on the side of the road shortly after meeting, she stares directly at the camera and defends herself (“I didn’t do anything”). She looks at him, confused and hurt, then looks outside at the open door. She closes it, and Mr. Dennis drives on.
Just as Wanda’s passivity is not without liveliness, Wanda and Mr. Dennis’s relationship is not without moments of tenderness, which stand out in the film like bruises left on someone’s skin. About halfway through the film, Mr. Dennis, exhausted, asks Wanda to drive. He falls asleep, and the film cuts to him as he drifts in and out of consciousness, zooming closer and closer on his face. Then it cuts to Wanda in the driver’s seat, staring worriedly, straight at the camera, which has assumed Mr. Dennis’ position on the passenger’s side (a reversal of the moment where he tried to dump her out the car). Just as he begins to drift back off, there’s a cut to a shot of them both seen from the back seat of the car, framed in silhouette, and for a brief moment, he puts his head on her shoulder.
The two eventually pull off somewhere, buy some booze, and park in the middle of an open lot, where some dogs emerge from out of nowhere, revealed while the frame follows Mr. Dennis as he’s walking out of some brush. We see the two at a distance—Wanda drinking a beer on top of the car, Mr. Dennis making kissing noises at the animals—and in that instant, they form an imitation of domesticity: husband, wife, dogs. Loden cuts closer here, with Wanda at the center of the frame, lit by a halo from the setting sun. We see the shadows shift and move over her body as Mr. Dennis comes up behind her and places his jacket on her shoulders. She barely registers it, but the camera moves closer as she turns to watch the sun set—a transient moment, one that unexpectedly and gently unites the two. And this momentary union, like a mirage in a desert, is made all the more meaningful by the apparent impossibility of the conditions that produce it. Of course, it does not redeem Mr. Dennis and Wanda’s relationship, which is still a mostly transactional and abusive one, just as the persistent flickers of Wanda’s inner life do not fully reveal her to us as an active character. Yet that space is where the beauty of Loden’s Wanda resides. It refuses to explicate or moralize or even explain; it merely asks us to pay attention, to observe quietly and curiously, just as Wanda does.
Loden died of breast cancer in 1980 and was only able to direct two short films after Wanda, despite many attempts to direct another feature. And following this debut film’s release, both her ex-husband, Elia Kazan, and her cinematographer, Nick Proferes, gave quotes suggesting that their contributions to Wanda were outsized. The year of Loden’s death, Kazan claimed that he “wrote the first screenplay, as a favour,” while Proferes stated in a later interview that “it was really co-directed. … I was responsible for the framing and the composition of 99 percent of the shots.” These claims are obviously infuriating; but even Kazan and Proferes, in those same interviews, concede authorship to Loden—Kazan added that it “became her screenplay,” Proferes made it clear he believed that “Wanda was Barbara’s film.” Much like the heroine she plays, Loden’s animating force undeniably slips through. And in our glimpses of Wanda, we perhaps find Barbara there too.