WANDA (1970): A look at Barbara Loden’s classic “Woman’s” film from the 70’s

Wanda - Movie Review - The Austin Chronicle

Barbara Loden, writer, director, and star of WANDA chose a very bold introduction

to the main character. The first thing we see of Loden is her hands protruding from

underneath a white bedsheet. She slowly pulls the sheet off herself and sits up. At this

moment we don’t see Barbara Loden, the beautiful blonde Hollywood star, we see

Wanda, the disheveled woman with hair in disarray covering some of her face. As she

rubs her eyes we can already tell that she is a woman under some type of stress. The

scene cuts to an extreme wide shot that slowly zooms to a wide shot of the rural mining

landscape where the film is set. Wanda, dressed in all white, looks ghostly against the

dark and dirty hills behind her. Wanda, strolling casually along, is actually on her way to

court for a custody hearing with her ex-husband.

Inside the courtroom, Wanda is absent while the judge calls her name. Wanda’s

husband then tells the judge how irresponsible and unreliable she is. Wanda is unable to

defend herself because as we see, the scene cuts to outside the courtroom. Wanda stands

outside smoking a cigarette when she should be inside facing the judge. I believe that

this is Barbara Loden’s strongest example of Wanda’s character. Without any dialogue

from Wanda we are shown how careless she is when facing something as greatly

important as a custody hearing for her children. When she finally does she speak to the

judge her answers are not too shocking based on what we’ve already seen. Wanda

pathetically tells the judge that if her husband wants a divorce then “you should just give

it to him.” This scene is based on Barbara Loden’s inspiration for the film. Loden was

inspired by the newspaper story of a woman who accompanied her husband on a crime

spree and was arrested and convicted. When the judge sentenced her to prison the woman

replied “Thank you.”

Another moment that Loden uses appearance and body language to effectively

develop Wanda is at the shopping mall. Wanda strolls through the mall aimlessly until

she stops and looks at a store window display. Wanda is looking at the clothes on display

but it is the mannequins who stand out in the scene. Wearing blonde wigs and positioned

directly behind Loden’s profile, there is a striking resemblance between the inanimate

dolls and Wanda. It is not hard to make the connection that Wanda sadly carries herself

as though she were a mannequin, lifeless and emotionless. The world sees her beauty but

nothing below the surface.

This film has many similarities with the famous “Road movies” of the 1960’s and

70’s. The typical road movie involved a pair travelling together in a car either on the run

from the law or just looking for an adventure. Wanda appears to be a road movie because

of the relationship between Mr. Dennis and Wanda and how they travel around in his car

committing crimes. It almost resembles the classic Bonnie and Clyde. Where Wanda

differs from these classic road movies is in the portrayal of Wanda herself. The road trip

that she takes with Mr. Dennis seems to have no point to it at all. Wanda, not having

anything better to do with herself, just gets dragged along by Mr. Dennis for obvious

reasons. The two characters do not have a good relationship and are not working toward

any major goal other than bank robbery. In Bonnie and Clyde where the characters and

their crimes are romanticized, Wanda plays out as a tragedy where the main character is

swept into a dangerous crime spree by a controlling and abusive man. There is no

romance for Wanda. Only a series of episodes where she exposes herself to be controlled

and used by the men around her.

In the final act of the film Mr. Dennis and Wanda take a bank managers family

hostage while Mr. Dennis tries to rob the bank. The climax of the bank robbery is when

Mr. Dennis is shot and killed by the police. Wanda, who was supposed to be the getaway

driver, arrives late as usual. When she approaches the bank she sees a crowd forming

outside. She tries to walk into the bank but is held back by a policeman. With a shaky

camera, shot from behind the outstretched arm of a police officer, this shot closely

resembles a TV news camera reporting from the scene of the crime. This is the most

obvious example of the documentary style brought to the film by cinematographer

Nicholas Proferes.

Wanda differs from a typical slow film in the sense that Barbara Loden left the

characters in the film totally ambiguous. There is no explanation as to why Wanda is

divorced or why she decides to go on the road with Mr. Dennis. We also have no

explanation as to what happens to her at the end. Will she continue her pursuit of nothing

or has she learned a lesson from her crime spree with Mr. Dennis? The audience is left to

draw their own conclusions and this is difficult because Loden has not left us with the

information we need to understand Wanda. Wanda is a character that is not slow but

almost inanimate. She floats around from man to man like paper on a breeze

One thought on “WANDA (1970): A look at Barbara Loden’s classic “Woman’s” film from the 70’s

  1. Thanks for this! One of my great regrets is not seeing this movie and now after reading this, I’m even more determined to somehow see it!! Loved the image of the mannequins!!!! About 15 or 20 years ago, The Searchers was shown on the big screen due to Martin Scorsese, as you know he’s big fan of Ford’s films. The cinematography was truly breathtaking! I wish I liked westerns more, I blame this on the fact that my brothersthey always won the television wars!

    Liked by 1 person

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