By Cynthia Cruz
February 14, 2020
Actress and director Barbara Loden was born in Asheville, North Carolina, the daughter of a barber and a self-proclaimed “hillbilly’s daughter.” She was raised in the rural Appalachian town of Marion, North Carolina by her religiously devout grandparents after her parents divorced. Loden left North Carolina at the age of sixteen for New York, where she worked as a pin-up model and a dancer at the Copacabana nightclub. Eventually, she began studying at the Actors Studio with the intention of becoming an actress.
“A lot of people look down on this kind of girl and think she’s stupid,” Loden told the Toledo Blade in 1964. “Anybody who thinks this girl is stupid has no heart.” When Loden says “heart” I imagine she means something akin to “sympathy,” and someone who judges a woman stupid for using her body as a means of making money is indeed lacking sympathy. For the working class woman, there are two choices: either she can use her body for physical labor (i.e. factory work, waitressing, or working as a maid or nanny) or she can use her body as a form of sex (i.e. sex work, modeling, dancing or marrying up in class). But her body is her only source of income.
Loden’s early acting roles were restricted to those based on her appearance. In 1964 she portrayed Maggie, a fictionalized version of Marilyn Monroe in Elia Kazan’s Lincoln Center Repertory Company stage production of After the Fall, written by Monroe’s former husband, Arthur Miller. Loden received a Tony Award for her portrayal and was described by reviewers as the “new Jean Harlow” and a “blonde bombshell.” In 1966 Loden married Kazan, who was 23 years her senior. That same year a mutual friend, Harry Schuster, offered her $100,000 to make her own film. Unable to find an interested director to take on the film, or additional funding to produce it, Loden wrote, directed, and starred in Wanda herself. Her limited capital informed all of the choices she made for the film.
Wanda takes place in a Pennsylvania coal-mining town. The eponymous Wanda is a poor, unemployed working class woman without opportunities. After losing custody of her children, she follows a string of men in an attempt to find an alternative future for herself. When the film was released in 1970 it was subject to derision from critics. Writing in The New Yorker in 1971, film critic Pauline Kael noted:
We’ve all known dumb girls, and we’ve all known unhappy girls; the same girls are not often, I think, both dumb and unhappy … She’s an attractive girl but such a sad, ignorant slut that there’s nowhere for her and the picture to go but down, and since, as writer-director, Miss Loden never departs from the misery of the two stunted characters, there are no contrasts. The movie is very touching, but its truths — Wanda’s small voice, her helplessness — are too minor and muted for a full-length film.
One would imagine contemporary writers and critics would have a better understanding of the plight of the working class and therefore, of Loden’s film. Sadly, this is not necessarily the case. In Natalie Léger’s 2012 book Suite for Barbara Loden, Léger claims to have tried—unsuccessfully—to “find” Loden:
I eagerly consulted dictionaries and biographies, gathered information about cinéma vérité, artistic avant-garde movements, the New York theater scene, Polish immigration to the United States; I did research into coal mining (reading up about mining exploration, finding out about the organizational structure of the mining industry, collecting data on coal deposits in Pennsylvania); I knew everything there was to know about the invention of hair curlers and the rise of the pin-up model after the war. I felt like I was managing a huge building site, from which I was going to excavate a miniature model of modernity, reduced to its simplest, most complex form: a woman telling her own story through that of another woman.
Léger looks everywhere for clues to who Loden was. Everywhere that is, except in the very place Loden directs her to: the plight of the working class. This flattening of the experience of those who are marginalized is akin to cultural appropriation, the trying on of other’s lives without actually having to take the very real risk of leaving the safety of one’s own life. “What is the film about?” Léger asks herself, then answers, “It’s the story of a woman who is alone. Ah. The story of a woman. Yes? The story of a woman who has lost something important but doesn’t know exactly what, her children, her husband, her life, something else perhaps but we don’t know what…” Of course, this isn’t at all what the film is about. In the end, Léger concludes:
Barbara said that she had no grand story to tell. No wind of History, none of the political turmoil of the times, nothing illustrative of any social drama. Poverty, perhaps, but not destitution. Violence, yes, but the acceptable face of violence, the kind of banal cruelty enacted within the family. That was all she said. Her own story, enmeshed in this one, is probably no more than the ordinary story of a lonely, unloved child, a child who has been silenced, forced to submit to someone stronger than they are; the kind of sadness that it is not easy to get over—a commonplace story.
It is interesting that Léger uses Loden’s first name when writing about her, dismissing all pretense of equality between her and her subject. Furthermore, Léger’s assessment that Wanda’s story is “a commonplace story” is incorrect. Rather than attempting to understand Loden (or Wanda) through her own words, her film, or her experience as a working class woman, Léger looks to herself to try to find the key to Loden. “Wanda never cries,” Léger writes, and then continues to instance when the character does indeed cry. Then the author writes about her own crying:
When I cry I overdo it, I am overwhelmed, incapable of holding back the tears, incapable even of dissembling. Tears are perhaps the only articulation, however monstrous, of the part of me that is completely shameless. Sometimes when I am alone I find myself howling silently in front of the mirror as if I wanted to verify a hypothesis. All I can see is a frozen mask of tears, the twisted mouth, its perfect symmetry contorted, its fine lines glistening, my breath in apnea, its silence brutally imprinted on damp skin, a voice asking who is there, beneath the deformed skin. I look. I search for my face in vain, for the one so familiar that looks like a stone.
Instead of making a serious attempt at discerning why Wanda cries so little, Léger turns to her own experience instead. Loden once did explain why Wanda cries so little, despite the fact that she is suffering. In Berénice Reynaud’s beautiful essay “For Wanda” she observed that Loden had said:
I have a lot of pain and suppressed anger in me, just like Wanda,” and explained the apparent “apathy” of her character as a way to conceal an inner hidden turmoil (which she significantly describes as a physical symptom): “Another example in the film occurs in the scene when Wanda goes to the factory to get some money and to get put back on the job. The factory boss turns her down, and she just thanks him… Many times when people give us terrible news or completely reject us…our stomachs may be turning over, but we don’t show it…Wanda…has been numbed by her experiences, and she protects herself by behaving passively and wandering through life hiding her emotions.
Assuming Wanda has the same access to social, cultural and material capital that they do, non-working class female writers and critics can’t understand why Wanda appears passive, why she makes the choices she makes. What confounds them is why Loden doesn’t make Wanda an aspirational character, a heroine. Of course, what is missing in this assessment is the simple fact that working class women don’t have the same privileges as middle and upper class women.
In her 2013 novel The Flamethrowers, author Rachel Kushner also references Loden’s film. A seven-page text titled “A Portfolio Curated by Rachel Kushner,” which follows the novel’s conclusion, is a portfolio of influences on the author’s story that includes the Autonomia movement. Kushner describes it as a movement of working class and sub-working class people “who came together for various reasons at various times to engage in illegality and play,” in 1977 New York City. She describes the period in New York as one that “has long fascinated me, when the city had a Detroit-like feel, was drained of money and its manufacturing base, and piled up with garbage.” Like these oblique references to the poor and working class, Kushner’s reference to Loden is similarly tossed in, just one more image or “spark” for her novel. “Barbara Loden’s Wanda [is] about a young woman who isn’t afraid to throw her life away.” To claim that Wanda is a film about a woman throwing her life away suggests that Wanda’s decision to leave an impoverished life was somehow impulsive. Kushner’s description also implies a judgment that Wanda has made a negligent choice.
The ability to have choices is a luxury. The lives of the poor and the working class are defined by lack of choice. Wanda’s only choice was either to stay in her hometown and live a life of poverty or use her body as a form of labor in an attempt to escape her fate. Of Wanda, Loden once told the New York Times “She’s trapped and she will never, ever get out of it and there are millions like her… People are always saying, ʻWhy don’t they work within the system?’ They don’t because the system doesn’t work, you see.”
Describing a scene from the film in which Wanda appears in the distance, standing against a background of coal, Bill Conlogue writes in his 2013 book Here and There: Reading Pennsylvania’s Working Landscapes: “Dressed in light-colored clothing, which stands out against the gray background, Wanda is at once lost in the landscape, a part of it, and separate from it. The stripped place points to the stripped lives lived there.” Conlogue deftly illuminates a cinematic choice that makes intuitive sense to viewers like me who come from the working class: that of being overwhelmed within a system, affected in innumerable ways, and yet being unable to recognize or articulate what is happening. Describing Wanda’s passivity, Conlogue writes:
Wanda responds with apathy to this “environment that is so overwhelmingly ugly and destructive.” When her husband accuses her in court of desertion, she simply tells the judge to grant him the divorce he seeks. When her boss tells her that he won’t hire her again, she simply thanks him. Loden, who understood Wanda as an expression of herself, explains that “everything has been knocked out of Wanda. She has been numbed by her experiences, and she protects herself by behaving passively and wandering through life hiding her emotions. This apathy is her defense, her way of surviving.
In the end though, the film is all we really need to understand Wanda. Loden made it to illustrate an experience of a working class woman trying to make her way in a world—a system—constructed and run by those in opposition to the working class. “I never knew who I was, or what I was supposed to do,” she once said. But through the process of making the film she found herself. The place where she came from, her working class origins, intrinsically informed her. And yet, in order to become “someone” (a famous actress), she had to discard that place and the characteristics of herself that were connected to it. By making Wanda, Loden was able to articulate her way back home.
Cynthia Cruz is the author of five collections of poems. Her sixth collection of poems, Guidebooks For The Dead, is forthcoming in 2020. Her first collection of essays, Disquieting: Essays on Silence, was published April of 2019. Cruz teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia University.