Wanda is the only feature that Barbara Loden directed in her short lifetime—she also wrote the film, and starred as the titular character. Loden was the wife of Elia Kazan, who wasn’t the best husband. The couple was estranged and about to divorce when Loden died in 1980 from breast cancer. Kazan also claimed to have written the script for Wanda, which seems to be a complete lie. The film had some success at film festivals at the time, even snagging the International Critics’ Prize for Best Film at Venice, but for decades it was near impossible to see. Nevertheless, Wanda gained some notable fans over the years, including John Waters and Isabelle Huppert.
The film is set in the coal mining country of rural eastern Pennsylvania, where Wanda is an unhappy housewife who leaves her husband and willingly gives up her children in a court hearing. The rest of the film is mainly her aimless wandering, during which she inadvertently gets involved with a bank robber. It’s been described as an existentialist feminist road movie, which is something that Loden disputed at the time, but it’s not hard to see how those labels could be applied to the film.
Over the years, Wanda‘s stature has grown to almost mythic proportions, to the point that the film is now a little overrated. For example, it was tied with Carl Th. Dreyer’s classic Ordet as the 48th best film ever made in the recent “The Greatest Films of All Time” Sight and Sound poll. It’s a good film, but placing it even in the top 500 would be a bit much. One of the editors for the poll put a call out to change the makeup of the list to dismantle the “old straight cisgender white male”-heavy lists of the past, or something along those lines, so a lot of critics felt it was their moral duty to diversify their lists. The result is that if you look at the 2022 lists, there is often at least one film included by a Black director and/or female director. This explains some of the big surprises, like Chantal Akerman’s very experimental three-and-a-half-hour Jeanne Dielman 23, Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles, which was crowned the best film of all time over the likes of the usual suspects such as Citizen Kane and Vertigo.
The Kazan connection also has probably helped Wanda be thrown into the canon of great films, but maybe not in the way you think. Kazan, of course, named names in the HUAC witch-hunt, which didn’t endear him to some left-wing critics, which is completely understandable. He also probably directed around a half dozen films that are superior to Wanda. The fact that he wasn’t very nice to Barbara Loden and was pretty unflattering about her in his 1988 memoir also played against him. You get the sense that in some cases critics are championing Wanda as both a jab at Kazan and also as a feminist statement against the mistreatment of women in Hollywood.
So is Wanda actually a good film? Yes, it is, and comparisons of the film to the contemporaneous work of John Cassavetes—specifically A Woman Under the Influence—are completely apt. It has that improvised feel of Cassavetes films, but Loden always cited some of Andy Warhol’s film work as her main influence. As in Warhol films, the scenes just kind of play out. The cinematographer was Nicholas Proferes, who shot one of the Norman Mailer’s underground films and Monterey Pop, and also Kazan’s down and dirty penultimate film, The Visitors.
Loden is outstanding as this aimless working-class woman who isn’t very bright and who doesn’t have any real arc: she starts with nothing and ends with nothing. It remains the only real record of her acting talent, despite some bit parts in some of Kazan’s ’60s films. She was tipped as the next big thing after originating the role of Maggie in Kazan’s stage version of Arthur Miller’s After the Fall, a thinly disguised non-linear and surreal critique of his marriage to Marilyn Monroe. It’s a play rarely revived, unlike most of Miller’s other plays.
Criterion has put together a nice package for the film, with a 1980 documentary about Loden where she is interviewed right before her death, plus footage from The Dick Cavett Show of Loden promoting the film and an audio recording of Loden speaking to students at the American Film Institute, both from 1971. The Loden-directed educational film The Frontier Experience, which is about a pioneer woman’s struggles, is also included. She would make two more educational films in 1975, and that was it for her directing career, although Loden was trying to get another film off the ground at the time of her death. The film’s trailer finishes off the extras on the disc: Amy Taubin supplies the accommodating essay in the booklet.