Newly Restored 'Wanda' Revives A Classic Of Women's Cinema

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This is FRESH AIR. The actress Barbara Loden, who died in 1980, is best known for writing, directing and starring in the 1970 film "Wanda," which has become recognized as a classic of women's cinema. Loden plays the title character, a woman who abandons her life in a Pennsylvania town and goes where life carries her. A restored version has just been released by the Criterion Collection, and our critic at large John Powers says that watching it again, he sees why its reputation keeps growing.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: It's the dream of every neglected artist that their work will be redeemed by posterity, and sometimes it is. Back in 1970, for instance, the big movie was "Patton," a box office hit that won the Best Picture Oscar. But today it's overshadowed by another film from that year, a gritty story about a drifting woman that almost nobody saw. The film is called "Wanda," and it was written and directed by its star, Barbara Loden.

Based on the true story of a crime gone wrong, "Wanda," which is just out in a restored version from the Criterion Collection, is now reckoned a cinematic landmark. It boasts a legion of champions that includes Yoko Ono, Isabelle Huppert, John Waters and Rachel Kushner. Now, there's a Mad Hatter's tea party for you. And it inspired a splendidly idiosyncratic book, "Suite For Barbara Loden," by the French writer Nathalie Leger.

"Wanda" begins amid the slag heaps of Pennsylvania coal mining country where Wanda Goronski, played with eerie authenticity by Loden, is being divorced for being a lousy wife and mother, a charge she freely admits. Possessed of little money and fewer plans, this slim blonde picks up a traveling salesman in a bar. He sleeps with her and dumps her, beginning an apparently aimless journey that will lead her to other bars and other dire men.

The most important of these is Mr. Dennis, played by Michael Higgins, a gruff, mustachioed crook who slaps her around, orders her not to look cheap and dragoons her into helping him rob a bank. She tries to resist but, as usual, lets events carry her along. Here, Mr. Dennis tells her that her geyser-like (ph) hairdo is so ugly that she ought to wear a hat.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WANDA")

MICHAEL HIGGINS: (As Mr. Dennis) Why don't you - why don't you cover it up?

BARBARA LODEN: (As Wanda) Cover it up?

HIGGINS: (As Mr. Dennis) Yeah.

LODEN: (As Wanda) What'll I cover it up with?

HIGGINS: (As Mr. Dennis) Maybe you get a hat and put it over it.

LODEN: (As Wanda) A hat.

HIGGINS: (As Mr. Dennis) Yeah, a nice hat - put it on you.

LODEN: (As Wanda) Well, 'cause I don't have anything to get a hat with.

HIGGINS: (As Mr. Dennis, unintelligible).

LODEN: (As Wanda) I don't have anything, never did have anything, never will have anything.

HIGGINS: (As Mr. Dennis) You're stupid.

LODEN: (As Wanda) I'm stupid?

HIGGINS: (As Norman Dennis) You don't want anything; you won't have anything. You don't have anything; you're nothing - may as well be dead. You're not even a citizen of the United States.

POWERS: Now, "Wanda" is an unforgettable movie but not an especially alluring one. You have to be in the mood. Made for a paltry $115,000 - 750,000 in today's money - "Wanda's" raw style finds Loden leaning in to her taste for Andy Warhol and documentary realism. Intimate but unsentimental, the story reveals its meaning obliquely - in the expressions flickering across Wanda's face and in slow, long-distance shots of our heroine inching her way across the bleak landscape, a metaphor for her life's passage toward a different life.

Although "Wanda" won a big prize at the Venice Film Festival, not everyone loved it. Critic Pauline Kael admired Loden's integrity but said the film's drab realism made novelist Emile Zola - a very grim realist - look like musical comedy. "Wanda" also horrified some viewers by creating, in those early days of women's liberation, an uninspiring heroine who had no fight.

But later, feminist critics like Amy Taubin, who wrote the essay for this Criterion edition, led a reappraisal. They grasped that Wanda's passivity caught the reality of countless women who'd so thoroughly internalized male expectations that they didn't know what they wanted or who they were, which doesn't mean that Wanda is willing to settle.

In the iconic '50s movie "The Wild One," Marlon Brando's motorcycle hoodlum is asked - what are you rebelling against? - and he replies - what do you got? Wanda's behavior strikes me as a recessive blue-collar woman's version of that same idea. She may not know what she wants, but she sure knows what she doesn't.

In fact, Wanda refuses to embody any of the female images she comes across in the film - mothers, sweatshop seamstresses, fashion mannequins, streetwalkers - nor does she want to sleep in dingy hotel rooms with ugly-souled men. You see, just because she can't articulate her desires, that doesn't mean she doesn't yearn for something more.

For Loden, such inarticulate rebellion was less ideological than profoundly personal. The film was her own emotional autobiography. She fled an abusive North Carolina childhood to become a dancer at the Copa in New York then an actress who would marry the acclaimed director Elia Kazan, a difficult man who both adored her and bossed her around.

Having spent years being defined by and trading on her femininity, Loden once said that she had hit 30 as a compliant woman with no clue to her own identity or goals. Making "Wanda" was her declaration of independence from being known as Kazan's wife, from playing roles written for her by others, from the plush Hollywood filmmaking she thought an outdated lie.

But her freedom was short-lived. Unable to find backing for another film - she wanted to adapt Kate Chopin's "The Awakening" - Loden died of cancer at age 48. But her legend continues to grow. On the basis of a single movie, posterity has made her a symbol of all the women filmmakers who might have had great careers but never really got the chance.

GROSS: John Powers reviewed the new Criterion DVD and Blu-ray release of Barbara Loden's 1970 film "Wanda."

Tonight our book critic Maureen Corrigan receives an award from the National Book Critics Circle. It's the Nona Balakian Award (ph) for Excellence in Reviewing. Congratulations, Maureen.

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