The Kindness of Strangers: An Intertextual Interpretation of ‘Wanda’

Michael Higgins and Barbara Loden in Wanda (1970). Mr Dennis (left), a middle-aged man with grey hair, wearing a white shirt and grey slacks, is standing on the roof of a car with his back to the camera, looking out at a clear blue sky. Beneath him to the right is Wanda, a young blonde woman with a high ponytail and a black coat, who is looking up at Mr Dennis and smiling.
Bardene International Films

Content warning: sexual assault mention

More than anything else, Wanda (1970) is a reaction. It reacts to patriarchal oppression, an uncaring and hollow American society; it refutes the claims of progress made by the proponents of Women’s Lib; it rejects conventional moulds for film heroines and road and crime films. On a more personal level, Barbara Loden defines herself and a wider class of underrepresented women against the type drawn by her more famous husband, Elia Kazan. Even its gorgeous, grungy 16mm graininess reacts against the glossy visual style of Kazan and his Classical Hollywood cohort (“I really hate slick pictures,” complained Loden). While Wanda was Loden’s sole directorial effort before her untimely death in 1980, it is an extraordinary example of the craft of political self-articulation.

Loden never meant to direct Wanda. She shopped around, but it was ultimately rejected by every prospective director she pitched to, so she decided to make it herself on a small budget and minuscule crew. Wanda became one of the relatively few woman-directed films in this era; Maya Montañez Smukler finds that sixteen women made feature-length commercial films in the US between 1967 and 1980 (Liberating Hollywood, p. 5). While more women were gaining purchase in an environment that had once only tolerated Ida Lupino and Dorothy Arzner, that these women were white, and many were middle-class, is a sobering testament to the institutionalised silencing of poor women of colour that persisted far into the “Women’s Liberation” movement.

The criminal couple plot at the heart of Wanda draws an inevitable comparison with its contemporary Bonnie and Clyde. Likewise, its drifter characters on the road evokes Easy Rider. So soon after these male-directed films, however, Loden brings a generic freshness and critical eye. Wanda and Mr. Dennis meet Bonnie and Clyde’s glamour with grime. Wanda (Loden), donning her childish scraped-up ponytail, lingers timidly in the aisles of a cinema after falling both asleep at a movie and victim to theft. Mr. Dennis (Michael Higgins) is a middle-aged drinker crippled by headaches. While Peter Fonda’s Wyatt coolly discards his watch at the beginning of Easy Rider, freed from the shackles of everyday responsibilities, Wanda must inertly watch her possessions being thrown from the car window by the controlling Mr. Dennis. Easy Rider depicts a reclaiming of autonomy, buttressed by a feel-good rock soundtrack; Wanda’s drifting is the confession of precarity and poverty. What belongings she owns or relinquishes comes at the behest of the men around her.

Michael Higgins and Barbara Loden in Wanda (1970). Mr Dennis (left), a middle-aged man with grey hair, thick glasses, and a grey suit on, and Wanda (right), a young blonde woman with her hair in a high ponytail and wearing a white and green floral blouse, are sitting opposite each other in a diner booth with peach and green coloured seats. The table is laid with food and drink, and Mr Dennis is smoking. Wanda is dabbing her mouth with a napkin, and looking intently at Mr Dennis.
Bardene International Films

Elia Kazan’s autobiography makes sparse mention of Loden, his second wife. When he does discuss her, he fetishises her working-class upbringing, relating how she frustrated him by using her sexuality to further her career. In Splendour in the Grass, one of the first films of her career, Loden plays the angry, earthy Virginia Stamper, a foil to Deanie (Natalie Wood), often framed in shots fragmenting and emphasising her long, golden legs. This was the kind of role Loden was typecast for, and in 1964, she went on to play Maggie, a thinly veiled facsimile of Marilyn Monroe, in Arthur Miller’s After the Fall. It is hard to understate how much Loden was creatively circumscribed within the male imaginary. In the former role, she was playing Kazan’s fantasy, and in the play, performing a misogynistic deformation of Marilyn Monroe’s personality, conceived by Miller in the wake of their divorce.

At the beginning of Wanda, we see her – belatedly, casually succeeding shots of another woman, a child, and workers – hungover, buried under a crumpled sheet, in the cramped abode of perhaps a sister or a friend. The husband angrily storms out of the house, and Wanda plaintively notes his resentment. This setup seems to take its scaffolding from Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire – notably adapted by Kazan – wherein Blanche DuBois (similarly to Wanda, in her thirties, blonde, needy, shying from the light as Wanda seems to evade and shrink within the frame) lives with her sister and sister’s husband in an impoverished district following sexual disgrace.

We do not know what caused her to desert her family, passively concede custody of her children to their father in court, and proclaim on two occasions that she’s “no good”. But this intertextual connection reminds us that we do not necessarily need to know; her situation mirrors and is built on the trauma of many women who have come before her. We might ourselves identify with her; if a few junctures on the paths of our lives changed, we would be someone like Wanda Goronski. Maybe we know a Wanda. Maybe we’ve read Wanda in literature or watched her etched on celluloid. After all, when a frustrated and hurt Ginny Stamper howls at the men publicly spurning her that they would “only talk to [her] in the dark”, isn’t that also Blanche DuBois speaking? When Ginny trails drunkenly after Joe (or any man), and Blanche pins her hopes on marrying Mitch (or any man), isn’t that also Wanda, stubbornly attaching herself to a petty thief, unable to conceptualise independence from men? Doesn’t Wanda’s broken relation to American white womanhood and her failure to fulfil the expectations that come with it anticipate her European counterparts, neurotic housewife Jeanne Dielman in 1975, and aimless, unkempt drifter Mona Bergeron of Vagabond in 1985?

A wide shot of a bleak grey area with dirt roads and nondescript dark buildings with some trucks and cars parked outside of them. The land is bisected by a river or gorge with a bridge across it. In the centre of the frame, a tiny blonde figure wearing white is walking across the bridge.
Bardene International Films

Wanda’s cryptic nature is also owed to the ellipses Loden encountered in the real-life event on which the film is based: a female accomplice to a bank robbery who thanked the judge after she was given her prison sentence. Loden never got to meet the incarcerated woman, but the story, together with a book she had read on sex workers’ childhoods, began to germinate into a screenplay. Wanda, years ahead of its time, problematises established ideas of sex work and consent as we watch Wanda blithely exchange sex for food, a place to stay, someone to talk to. It is a prescient companion to Lola Olufemi writing in Feminism, Interrupted, that consent is ‘a result of power relations’ under capitalism rather than ‘an isolated phenomenon’ (p. 99).

Loden’s representation of Wanda is bound up in other women, other characters, and most prominently, Loden herself. An early, distinctive shot in the film reveals Wanda as a depersonalised white fragment in relief against a black background of anthracite coal. Evoking Loden’s working-class beginnings, Wanda hails from the mining communities of Pennsylvania, and the shot could not be further from Kazan’s descriptions of a sexy proletarian girl. The sheer, arduous length of time we watch her walk creates a sense of the boring, the quotidian. Wanda can barely be made out, let alone ogled. The distance suggests an almost anthropological gaze in the film’s cinéma vérité documentary style, diminishing her into an unreadable organism who only goes forward, moving out of necessity rather than desire.

“I had no identity of my own,” Loden recalled of her earlier life in an interview. “I just became whatever I thought people wanted me to become.” This chameleon quality of Loden’s – and by extension Wanda’s – evokes the multi-layered ghosts of the many women that stamp their presence on Wanda’s character. Nathalie Léger’s poetic monograph on the director and her film, Suite for Barbara Loden, summarises this patchwork of performance and inspiration that speaks to a universality of white working-class women’s experiences: ‘A woman is pretending to be another, in a role she wrote herself, based on another (this, we find out later), playing something other than a straightforward role, playing not herself but a projection […] played by her but based on another’ (p. 65).

It is also fascinating to compare Kazan’s narrow, misogynistic impressions of Loden with others. Nicholas Proferes, Wanda’s cinematographer, recalled her as quiet and insecure. Katja Raganelli, director of the documentary I Am Wanda, paid tribute in a Criterion interview: “I still see her in front of me, with her beautiful eyes that opened and closed softly while she was talking […] her energetic hands that showed traces of hard physical labour. I see a woman who […] radiates dignity and respect for the endless circle of life.”

Barbara Loden in Wanda (1970). Wanda is sitting in a low-lit room on a brown booth seat, half her face cast in shadow. Her hair looks unkempt and she is wearing a gingham shirt with a white collar, raising a cigarette to her lips, her gaze fixed downwards.
Bardene International Films

“The endless circle of life” is hard to map onto film, but Loden succeeds. Her film closes on a cusp, with ambivalence and the absence of closure. Wanda silently eats and smokes; as ever, we are denied access to her inner thoughts, only watching her gain the sustenance she needs for another chapter of meandering through the United States.

Yet there is something quietly revolutionary in Wanda’s instinctive drive to continue long after the close of the film. Ginny Stamper is raped and unceremoniously killed off in an offscreen car crash, relayed to the spectator in a gossip with the Hays-era assumption of its inevitability. In After the Fall, Maggie is doomed to suicide, tracing the tragic contours of Marilyn Monroe’s life. Blanche DuBois is raped and later institutionalised. All the women become, in some way, hysterical and shameful. Wanda attempts to carve a different narrative, defying the principle of tragic and violent endings for imperfect women. She successfully repels her would-be rapist in a rare break from her suffocating passivity; Loden won’t condemn her to punishment for her casual reliance on bad men to prop her up both financially and emotionally (it’s as if Loden could predict the American critics of the time, such as Pauline Kael, levelling accusations that Wanda was a “slut”).

The final freeze frame pays homage to François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, a film that, like Wanda, considers liberty and captivity. Truffaut’s final freeze frame suggests that Antoine has found his freedom. In her Blanche-esque dependence on the kindness of strangers, however, Wanda cannot spontaneously achieve liberty from patriarchal and economic oppression for the sake of a neat ending. Yet, whichever way we choose to decipher Wanda’s desolate last expression, you can feel that Loden is cautiously, infectiously hopeful. Loden is there, recording Wanda as surrogate for all her counterparts, especially those who live outside of texts – women who live “unfilmable” lives, marginalised rather than notorious, and denied the glorious and alternately bloody and fiery assassinations that close Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider. Loden defiantly rewrites the filmic conventions so that Wanda lives, regardless. It is a tiny victory, but it still feels significant.

by Lauren Drozd

Lauren (she/her) is an English and American Literature and Film undergraduate at the University of Kent. She originally hails from Southampton and proudly shares a birthday with Rosa Luxemburg and Pier Paolo Pasolini. Her passions include medieval literature, Marxist feminism, and the films of Derek Jarman. She occasionally tweets @laurendrozd and posts on Instagram @lauren_drozd

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