Blu-ray Review: Wanda (Criterion Collection)

Simplistic yet gripping, Wanda, the first and only film directed by Barbara Loden, left me wondering what could have been. Filmed in 1970 on a shoestring budget of $115,000, Loden, got the idea for the film from a story she saw on the news, also said that the elements of it were semi-autobiographical. Perhaps that’s why she is so real and unvarnished in her portrayal of the title character.

As the movie begins, Wanda’s husband is divorcing her and taking the kids. Seemingly unaffected, she has little interest in the constraints of being a wife and mother. With familial connections severed, and little money, she figures she’s still attractive enough to get a favor or two from men. And so, begins an aimless existence–between different men, different hotel rooms, another handout. There’s always a man willing to take advantage of the attractive blonde. As far as Wanda is concerned, beggars can’t be choosers.

Eventually, she hooks up with Mr. Dennis (Michael Higgins) an ordinary looking man, with a confident air. The two met in a bar, but Wanda was too distracted to realize he’s robbing the place. He treats Wanda even worse than the others, constant verbal abuse, and the occasional drunken slap, which she passively accepts. It’s clear that despite their sexual intimacy, these two people aren’t connected; they don’t understand each other, and the certainly don’t like each other. There’s is a “partnership” of convenience and desperation. It all leads to a devastating end.

Barbara Loden is herself a somewhat tragic story. A former model, she was discovered by Elia Kazan (who she would later marry), who gave her a part in Wild River and went on to cast her as Warren Beatty’s sister in Splendor in the Grass. She acted in a few television shows, and a 1964 production of After the Fall earned her a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress. It was in the late 1960’s that Loden found a story she wanted to tell. She wrote her own script and worked to find financing. She hired cinematographer/editor Nicholas Proferes (Monterey Pop) and two other crew members, scouted locations, and auditioned locals to play parts. Besides Loden, the only other professional actor in the cast was her friend, Michael Higgins. Though Loden’s connection to Kazan is always mentioned, Wanda is all her. It was her concept, and she found the funding.

Though Wanda did receive Best Foreign Film honors at the Venice Film Festival, critics were cool, and the movie didn’t revive a proper release. Loden planned other feature films until her death from breast cancer in 1980, at age 48. While many assumed being married to Elia Kazan would be an asset for Loden, the famed director neither supported nor encouraged his wife. In fact, I recall him writing in his autobiography disappointment over the fact that he couldn’t control her.

With just one film, Barbara Loden established a style that is reminiscent of John Cassavetes (John Cassavetes: Five Films) turning her lens on the underbelly of America, the people living on the fringes of society, but telling the story from a female perspective. In 1970, Loden voice was one in the wilderness, begging to be heard. The idea of female making a living as a writer/director in Hollywood was preposterous. Now, nearly fifty years later, the road is difficult, but not impossible.

A “new 2K digital restoration by the UCLA Film & Television Archive, The Film Foundation, and Gucci and has been preserved from the original 16mm color reversal a/b rolls, the original 16mm optical track, and an original 35mm release print. Pressed in the 1.37:1 aspect ratio, digital restoration was performed on certain sequences to repair source damage. The restoration process stays true to the low budget origins of the film. The result is the best rendering of Wanda available to date.

The LPCM 1.0 mono soundtrack gives away the low budget origins of the film. There are several fluctuations in volume, and organic noises throughout. However, I’m sure significant efforts were made to balance things out, because for a mono soundtrack with such a modest budget, dialogue is largely clear, and concise throughout, and necessary ambient sounds are detectable. This film has no score.

English SDH subtitles are included.

The following extras are available:

  • I Am Wanda (HD, 102:20) Produced in 1980 by Katja Raginelli, and Konrad Wicker, this documentary focuses on the production history of Wanda, and the the life of the film’s writer/director. It includes an extensive interview with Barbara Loden, just months before her death from cancer, as well as cinematographer Nicholas Proferes, and acting teacher Paul Mann.
  • Barbara Loden at the AFI (Audio, 101:43) An audio recording in which Barbara Loden discusses cinema, and the obstacles facing women directors. This was part of the Harold Lloyd Master Seminar series at the American Film Institute, which was held on April 2, 1971.
  • The Dick Cavett Show (HD, 13:47) Barbara Loden discusses Wanda, in particular, how her background influenced the film. The episode was broadcast on March 4, 1971.
  • The Frontier Experience (HD, 25:21, 1975) Barbara Loden wrote, directed, and starred in, this educational film about a young woman trying to survive with her family on the Kansas prairie.
  • Trailer (HD, 1:35)
  • Leaflet: An illustrated leaflet featuring critic Amy Taubin’s essay, “A Miracle.”

Wanda (1970)

Movie title: Wanda

Director(s): Barbara Loden

Actor(s): Barbara Loden, Michael Higgins

Genre: Drama, Crima

  • Movie
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