A few weeks after Barbara Loden, the writer, director, and star of Wanda, died at age forty-eight after a long battle with cancer, Elia Kazan, her widower, was interviewed by Marguerite Duras for Cahiers du cinéma. It was 1980, and Kazan was in Paris for the rerelease of two of his films, but Duras wanted to talk about Wanda, which had won the International Critics’ Prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1970 and then pretty much disappeared from sight. She wanted to make sure, she said, that the film reached French audiences. “I think that there is a miracle in Wanda. Usually there is a distance between the visual representation and the text, as well as the subject and the action. Here this distance is completely nullified; there is an instant and permanent continuity between Barbara Loden and Wanda.”
I first experienced that miracle in June 1972, when I saw Wanda at the First International Festival of Women’s Films. I thought it remarkable, in part for the very reason many in the audience dismissed it: Loden’s Wanda was anything but a feminist role model. Rather, she was a version of the characters Loden had been playing on and off Broadway, on television—notably as the pratfall “girl” on the daily comedy series The Ernie Kovacs Show—and in a few Hollywood movies. She had been typecast as the kind of all-American beauty who believes that male desire is the only measure of her value, and necessary to her survival. In those early days of the second wave of feminism, the movement was divided as to whether it should be focusing its energies on the liberation of all women or, more pragmatically, on that of the exceptional ones, or at least the ones who were clearly motivated to become exceptional. Although this split still exists—the #MeToo movement was begun by working-class women, but its media identity is almost exclusively focused on women in the entertainment industry—there is pressure today for feminism to be more inclusive, particularly when it comes to race and nonnormative gender identity. Wanda inspired back then, and continues to inspire today, some uneasiness because of how passively the title character allows herself to be mistreated. Responses to the film when it was first released were mixed, with two prominent critics (Pauline Kael and Rex Reed) referring to Wanda as a slut and expressing their annoyance at having to spend time on a movie with such a negligible protagonist. When I first showed Wanda in my feminist film classes in the mideighties, the reaction of most students was similar. They could not perceive the ways in which the film, and Loden’s performance in it, illuminated Wanda’s humanity and that of most women all over the world, who have internalized the misogyny of family, church, and state so thoroughly that they are not able to conceive of a way to fight back. But in recent years, reaction to the film has seldom been dismissive. Thanks to the feminist energy that has continued to evolve as it has seeped into the culture in the decades since the film’s release, Wanda can now be appreciated as a portrait of a kind of woman who, being no man’s fantasy, had almost never been seen on the screen before.
“Loden’s investment in documentary truth—which is not the same as realism—was part of her desire to show a world that she knew, without homogenizing it.”
“Loden’s discipline, in speaking honestly for Wanda and all her unrepresented sisters was, in American movie history up to 1970, a complete anomaly.”
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