Harsh landscapes breed hard lives. Barbara Loden’s 1970 film “Wanda,” the story of an eponymously named character who attempts to leave her life as a mill-town wife in the northeastern coal region of Pennsylvania only to end up on a crime spree, wastes no time showing these realities. The opening scene jumps from an elderly woman staring out a dirty window, worrying a rosary through her gnarled fingers, to a screaming child in a diaper waiting for his harried mother to feed him, to an angry husband on his way to work, before finally settling on the first view of Wanda herself (played by Loden). Her body stretched out on a worn sofa, she’s covered from head to toe by a white sheet, cadaverous until she’s roused by the slamming of the door. “He’s mad because I’m here,” she says out loud, raising herself from the couch. Soon after, she’s a ghostly figure walking through the mountains of coal pulled from the earth around her.
Loden wrote and directed “Wanda” after reading about a woman in Indiana who thanked a judge for sentencing her to prison. No stranger to the plight of the rural poor—Loden grew up in a blue-collar, small-town Southern family—the director’s stamp of knowingness is omnipresent, and because of this Wanda’s character is able to seamlessly transform herself, complicating the question of “what if I gave it all up?” by asking herself what she had in the first place.
When Wanda divorces her husband and leaves her two small children behind, she is quickly stripped of her identity: After falling asleep in a dark movie theater as “Ave Maria” plays in the background, she wakes up to find her purse missing. When it’s recovered, it’s her wallet that’s missing; when that’s recovered, it’s her money that’s missing. The sequence serves as a rebirth, and the loss of identity allows her to become a blank slate when, later that evening, she meets Mr. Dennis (played by Michael Higgins), a petty thief who takes her into his world and physically transforms her.
Wanda becomes a mirror of Mr. Dennis’s desires. Some of the things Wanda is not to do when she’s with him are: ask questions, wear slacks, and put curlers in her hair (it makes her “look cheap”). She welcomes these rules. In fact, it doesn’t seem that there’s anything she wants to be, but rather lots of things she doesn’t. Wanda shucks off the traditional life of wife and mother, which she was never very good at anyway, and submits to the new form of ownership presented to her by Mr. Dennis.
For decades, “Wanda” existed along the margins of the work of other feminist filmmakers of the 1970s, and many of the men involved in filming attempted to take credit, claiming bits of Loden’s accomplishment where they could. In many ways it is a parallel story, Loden’s portrayal of Wanda representing how easily anyone can be cast as a drifter, whether mill wife or artist, in a landscape dominated by men.