Who was Barbara Loden?
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2012 issue.
“It’s not a new wave…It’s the old wave. That’s what they used to do. They took a camera and they went out and shot. Around that act this whole fantastic apparatus grew up—the Hollywood albatross. They made a ship out of lead. It won’t float anymore.” —Barbara Loden in The New York Times, March 11th, 1971
By Kate McCourt
“WANDA MUST RANK as that cinematic rarity, a movie that really does get better—much better—as it goes along,” Roger Greenspun stated in his 1971 Times review of Barbara Loden’s first feature film as director. The film stands today as Loden’s sole produced work of feature-length writing, directing, and lead acting—she died of cancer at the age of forty-eight, nine years after Wanda’s release. The film received a miniscule initial release in the United States (playing a short run at Cinema II in New York during the spring of 1971 and gaining no national distribution) but a fair amount of praise from critics of the time, and received the Critics Prize at the Venice film festival of 1970. The film has experienced periods of recurring obscurity and rediscovery since, maintaining a steady cult of interest in Europe and in some feminist film circles, but remaining largely uncelebrated in the United States. The situation changed a few years ago, however, when Ross Lipman of UCLA discovered an original negative in a neglected film lab and created a restored print that has been making the rounds of museums, film centers, and festivals, making it possible that Wanda is now experiencing greater theatrical exposure in the United States than upon its original release.
Loden’s inaugural venture into feature filmmaking was unleashed on the world at a time ripe for independent film. Vincent Canby, film critic for The New York Times, noted in May of 1971 “some curious facts: of the 131 films reviewed (in 1970/71), 42 were the releases of the so-called major companies (Paramount, Fox, M-G-M, et.al.) and 89 from independent sources, which, in this case, means anybody from the Cinerama Releasing Corp. to the Whitney Museum of Art and the Toho Company of Japan. Last year, the majors released approximately the same number of films (41) and the independents were responsible for 54.” Loden’s film became part of this onslaught of pictures produced outside of traditional Hollywood through the generosity of “producer” Harry Shuster, a friend of Loden and her notable husband, Elia Kazan. Loden had penned the screenplay nine years prior to the start of production, inspired by a newspaper story about a woman (an accomplice to a bank robbery) who thanked the judge while being sentenced to twenty years in prison. It took six years to round up an investor, and then some encouragement from Kazan for Loden to overcome her insecurities and ideas that someone else should direct, and instead take the lead of production herself.
Loden and Michael Higgins (who portrays Mr. Dennis, Wanda’s love interest and instructor in crime) were the only two professional actors in the film. Both came from a stage acting background, and many of the scenes between them are extended improvised character explorations. It is a notable achievement that Wanda and Mr. Dennis are such believable characters—they seem at one with their circumstances—and an even greater testament to the actors’ craft when keeping in mind that there were no storyboards, no rehearsals, and according to cinematographer Nicolas Proferes, a total of no more than fifteen to twenty hours of footage shot. Early scenes may ramble a bit, but as noted by Greenspun, “the film begins to look tight and tough and very economical” right around the time that Loden and Higgins’ characters get together on screen. Higgins is quoted as having told Proferes he “never had before or never since experienced such freedom” while making a film.
A GOOD DEAL of the freedom Higgins referred to was undoubtedly made possible by Loden’s appreciation for acting, and a directing approach set in opposition to the clean narrative evolutions of Hollywood filmmaking. Though Loden’s initial career interests lay in acting, it took some time for her to pursue them. Fleeing an isolated rural upbringing in North Carolina, in her late teens Loden moved to New York, where she worked as a model and dancer while training to act. In a 1964 interview with Dick Kleiner, Loden said, “For five years, I was a classroom actress—I didn’t have the nerve to act, but I kept on going to classes. I made a living of sorts doing cheesecake modeling.” (It wasn’t all cheesecake modeling, however—a Garry Winogrand photograph of Loden was found tasteful enough to be featured on a postage stamp in 2002.) After being billed as chorus girl Barbara “Candy” Loden at the Copacabana, in the mid-1950s Loden was cast in television’s “The Ernie Kovacs Show” as a supporting comedienne and member of Kovac’s “Nairobi Trio.”
She also began studying method acting with teacher Paul Mann, who encouraged her to explore her own background, how it had shaped her life, and how it might shape her craft. She was cast in a number of short run original Broadway plays, and then in the early 60’s had her only major motion picture roles, in two films directed by Elia Kazan: a minor role in the pioneer-themed Wild River (1960) followed by what is perhaps her most famous role, as Warren Beatty’s older sister Ginny in Splendor in the Grass (1961). The culmination of her acting career came in 1964, with her portrayal of “Maggie” in the original theater production of Arthur Miller’s After the Fall. Most believe the character was based on Marilyn Monroe, to whom Miller had been married, and again Loden was directed by Kazan, whom Loden would go on to marry in 1969.
Wanda, then, was something entirely different. The film was shot on a budget of approximately $115,000 on 16mm film blown up to 35mm for release. The use of 16mm was both a necessity of the budget and a conscious choice: the project was made by a crew of four—Loden (writer/director/actor), Nicolas T. Proferes (cinematography, editing), Lars Hedman (lighting/sound) and assistant Christopher Cromin—but the grainy effect of the blow up also adds to the gritty feel of the settings and action, enhancing the film’s documentary quality. As Loden stated in a 1971 interview with McCandlish Phillips, “I really hate slick pictures…they’re too perfect to be believable. I don’t mean just in the look. I mean in the rhythm, in the cutting, the music—everything. The slicker the technique is, the slicker the content becomes, until everything turns into Formica, including the people.”
The muddled colors and grainy imagery of the initial film release were a sore point for many critics, however. The visual style has been described as an example of cinéma-vérité by some and as “bracingly realist” by others, a look probably due most to Proferes, who prior to working on Wanda came from a documentary background, and may be best known for making Free At Last, a film on Martin Luther King, Jr. In the restored cut of Wanda, the haziness and grain of the 16mm blow up is still present, but with a far more vibrant color palette than the original release, and serves as a better representation of Loden and Proferes’s visual intentions. Many of the scenes in Wanda share the tonal qualities of a Polaroid snapshot. The use of saturated colors and large film grain—in conjunction with the depressed industrial areas, rough urban edges, roadways, and suburban parking lots of late-60’s Scranton, Pennsylvania, and its surroundings—give an element of documentary reality to Wanda’s portrayal of late-1960’s American life. In an interview with Bérénice Reynaud, Proferes explained that the film “was really co-directed…I was responsible for the framing and the composition of 99% of the shots. Then we would look at the dailies together.”
Proferes may have guided the realization of a visual symbolism for Wanda, but the direction of the narrative and character development was firmly in Loden’s grasp. In synopsis, Wanda might be described as a couple-on-a-crime-spree story, and released as it was in the wake of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, it inevitably drew some comparisons to that film. The New Hollywood movement reigning in Hollywood at the time may have been fascinated by exploring the seedy undersides, outcasts, and aimless wanderings of “American” stories, but many of the films being made were still operating under some models of the Hollywood system, through which a certain kind of slickness managed to permeate the production values and decisions, no matter how challenging the subject matter or style. Loden’s film operates further outside the major-studio Hollywood style of filmmaking, though—when the first question posed to Loden in a 1971 Film Journal interview was whether Bonnie and Clyde had been an influence, she responded that she found Bonnie and Clyde “unrealistic…it glamorized the characters…People like that would never get into those situations or lead that kind of life—they were too beautiful…Wanda is anti-Bonnie and Clyde.”
“Loden was working in the shadow of director-husband Kazan, who not only had a powerful reputation as a filmmaker, but as a tyrant, as well.”
Nobody in Wanda is meant to be beautiful, and there are no attempts to lift the audience’s spirits via brief comedic exchanges or a hopeful turn of events. “She’s trying to get out of this very ugly type of existence, but she doesn’t have the equipment” is was how Loden described her title character’s predicament in an appearance on “The Mike Douglas Show” (with John Lennon and Yoko Ono) in 1972. She freely admitted in other interviews that Wanda was a somewhat autobiographical story. Raised by her grandparents in Marion, North Carolina, in the absence of her divorced parents, Loden recalled her upbringing as bleak. In an interview with French film critic Michel Ciment in 1970, Loden said of Marion, “ If I had stayed there, I would have gotten a job at Woolworth’s, I would’ve gotten married at 17 and had some children, and would have got drunk every Friday and Saturday night. Fortunately, I escaped.” It’s an interesting juxtaposition that in Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces, the life that Loden was fortunate to escape—and that Wanda attempts to get away from in the film—is exactly the lifestyle Jack Nicholson’s character has run to as an escape from his upper-class background.
No reviews seem to have questioned why in Five Easy Pieces Jack Nicholson’s character had to go work in an oil field instead of staying in his family estate playing classical piano and being looked after.
The romance and sentimentality with which some New Hollywood films paint working class, hard-luck American existence is totally absent in Wanda. There is no freedom in law breaking and the open road for Wanda and Mr. Dennis—their actions are less a matter of the luxury of choice than acts of survival, habit, and desperation. As Reynaud observed “Wanda does not ‘go places,’ she’s not socially mobile, and her story is non-directional: at the end, she is no less in the lurch (alone, without money, drifting) than she was at the beginning.” Loden made no attempt to alleviate the depressed atmosphere of Wanda, or to paint a more “likeable” picture, and described her characters and their environment by saying, “My subject matter is of people who are not too verbal and not aware of their condition…they don’t have time for wittily observing the things around them. They’re not concerned about anything more than existing from day to day. They’re not stupid. They’re ignorant…everything they see is ugly.”
LODEN’S DESIRE to starkly interpret the life she remembered from experience, rather than fictional observation, resulted in some discomfort for critics. Pauline Kael’s review for The New Yorker in 1971 showers a mix of criticism and praise on the film. “We don’t know why she has become a drifter instead of staying home with her hair in curlers, watching soap operas and game shows, and maybe even looking after her kids. She’s an attractive girl but such a sad ignorant slut that there’s nowhere for her and the picture to go but down…To select as one’s heroine a girl with no spark at all is perhaps a shortcut to non-commercial integrity…And yet Miss Loden has a true gift for character—there is not one moment when Wanda…is unconvincing.”
Perhaps the reception of Wanda reflects some gender ideals of the time—no reviews seem to have questioned why in Five Easy Pieces Jack Nicholson’s character had to go work in an oil field instead of staying in his family estate playing classical piano and being looked after. Feminist views of Wanda also missed the mark, though, attempting to find a conscious rejection of female roles in Wanda’s character that isn’t there. In Marion Meade’s review from 1971, she sees Wanda as having “the guts to hit the road with only the clothes on her back” and “a fierce need for a life of her own.” Both Kael’s view of Wanda as an “ignorant slut” and Meade’s fierce, gutsy wanderer are too reductive when one considers the autobiographical motivations behind Loden’s narrative.
The critical observation that probably closest approaches the truth came from Estelle Changas in Film Quarterly, who found that the film “plays against all the optimism surrounding the odyssey myth. Her protagonist has absolutely no prospect of survival and Loden refuses to compromise her grim vision of life with any sentimentality.” In interviews, Loden claimed her main character doesn’t know “what she wants—but she knows what she doesn’t want” and described Wanda as having “been numbed by her experiences…she protects herself by behaving passively and wandering through life hiding her emotions.” The frustration that Kael expresses with the character in her review seems rooted in a desire for explanation from the film—the very thing Loden was trying to avoid.
Bérénice Reynaud describes Loden as “a pioneer female filmmaker (who) was working without a net, without role models, and without a network of female collaborators.” Add to these circumstances the fact that Loden was working in the shadow of director-husband Kazan, who not only had a powerful reputation as a filmmaker, but as a tyrant, as well. After Loden’s death he attempted to assume credit for her achievements, claiming to have written the screenplay for Wanda, and marginalized her in his autobiography. The cinematic achievement Loden made under these circumstances, and the few interviews with Loden surrounding her film, stand as testaments to her insight and artistic capabilities. The films of other female directors may be better known due to more provocative content—explicitly sexual or feminist themes, for instance—or to the directors’ more-extensive filmographies, but Loden’s film serves as a reminder of a lived female experience during a time of restlessness independence and innovation in the film industry. Wanda did not have the budget, polish, or presence of future stars seen in other New Hollywood films, but it did have similar thematic interests—and it was informed by a woman’s actual life experience.
In the eight years of her life post-Wanda, Loden collaborated on a number of screenplays with Proferes and attempted to achieve financing to launch a new film—to no avail. Her only directing achievements in the interim were a series of moralistic one-hour films for an educational company. The critical success of Wanda served to give Loden the confidence to continue pursuing involvement in film production, despite rejection, right up until her death. Having played roles in her own life as a pin-up model, television sidekick, wife, mother, and sex object, her only critical acclaim prior to the film had come from the receipt of a Tony award in 1964 for portrayal of a character obviously based on Marilyn Monroe in the initial production of Arthur Miller’s “After The Fall,” directed by Kazan. After the release of Wanda, Loden said in her interview with Phillips that “I got into the whole thing of being a dumb blonde…I didn’t think anything of myself, so I succumbed to the whole role. I never knew who I was, or what I was supposed to do.” When Phillips asked if she knew now, Loden’s confident response was: “Yes.”
Kate McCourt is a film critic in Portland, Oregon.