Wanda (1970): Barbara Loden’s Feminist Indie Film

Barbara Loden, better known as an actress (“Splendor in the Grass”) and directed Elia Kazan’s wife, helmed Wanda, a quintessentially American indie, which she also wrote and starred in

Set in the anthracite coal region of Pennsylvania, the feminist tale focuses on one apathetic woman with limited options. Inspired by her own state of aimlessness, and a newspaper article detailing a woman’s role in a bank robbery, Loden wrote the script, then got financial backing from producer Harry Shuster.

The film was shot with a small crew on location in eastern Pennsylvania and Connecticut.

Wanda world premiered at the 1971 Venice Film Fest, where it won the Pasinetti Award for Best Foreign Film. A restored version  was screened out of competition at the 2010 Venice Film Fest.

Wanda Goronski, an unhappy housewife in rural Pennsylvania, stays on her sister’s couch after leaving her husband.  Hitching a ride, she shows up to a divorce court hearing late, relinquishes her rights to her children, and grants her husband a divorce.

After being terminated from her job at a sewing factory, Wanda runs away with a man with whom she has a one-night stand, but he abandons her.  Penniless, Wanda takes a nap in a movie theater, where she is robbed. Going to a bar to use the restroom, she desperately clings to an older man she assumes is the bartender. The man, it turns out is Norman Dennis, a criminal robbing the bar. Unable to rid himself of Wanda, he takes her on the run with him. Wanda decides to stay with Norman, whom she calls “Mr. Dennis.”

Wanda spends some time on the road with Norman, who becomes physically and emotionally abusive to her. He sends her shopping in a mall for new clothes while he robs cars in the parking lot.

They visit the Holy Land USA theme park, where Norman meets his Evangelical Christian father. Norman asks Wanda to be his lookout for a kidnapping and bank robbery, which goes awry, ending in his being killed. Wanda escapes undetected, and watches as police descend on the scene.

Alone again, Wanda hitches a ride with a man who attempts to sexually assault her. She escapes and runs through the woods, arrives at a roadhouse, where strangers supply her with food, alcohol, and cigarettes.

Ironically, according to Loden, upon initial release, most female critics, such as Judith Crist, Kathleen Carroll, and Pauline Kael, gave the film unfavorably reviews, reportedly disliking the protagonist for being “dumb, and stupid, and all the things people used to say about me… I think they’re jealous, I really do… They were so vicious, it went over call of duty.”

Cultural Status

In 2017, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

Barbara Loden as Wanda Goronski
Michael Higgins as Norman Dennis
Frank Jourdano as The soldier
Valerie Manches as The girl in the roadhouse
Dorothy Shupenes as Wanda’s sister
Peter Shupenes as Wanda’s brother-in-law
Jerome Thier as Wanda’s husband
Marian Thier as Miss Godek
Anthony Rotell as Tony
M. L. Kennedy as Judge