Wanda Nevada (1979)
Today is the birthday of Brooke Shields (b. 1965); we use the occasion to talk about her 1979 buddy picture with Peter Fonda, Wanda Nevada.
In the cinema, Fonda is best known for producing, co-writing and starring in the 1969 hippie motorcycle epic Easy Rider. It’s lesser known that he directed three movies, as well: the 1971 western The Hired Hand, the 1973 science fiction tale Idaho Transfer, and 1979’s Wanda Nevada.
Wanda Nevada is an interesting animal and no mistake. It has much in common with Paper Moon (1973), and the yet to be released Butterfly (1982) in that it centers around an iffy borderline relationship between a roguish father figure (Fonda) and an underage girl on the fringes of society. Here, the girl is played by the already sexualized 13 year old Shields, fresh from the previous years’ Pretty Baby and The King of the Gypsies, although her notorious Calvin Klein ad, The Blue Lagoon and Endless Love were still ahead of her.
Set in the American southwest of the 1950s, con man and gambler Fonda wins the precocious but still innocent Shields in a card game.Though she is clearly intended for immoral purposes, Fonda doesn’t use her that way: he treats her well, though the two constantly bicker. She’s the typical smart-mouthed kid from ’70s movies. She says she wants to be a singer at the Grand Ole Opry (“Wanda Nevada” is her stage name) but that plot point rapidly vanishes as the duo get deep into their adventures.
The pair learn about a possible gold mine in the Grand Canyon so they head there, riding into the rim on mules. Along the way they meet Peter’s dad Henry Fonda in one of his last roles as a crazy, eccentric old prospector.
They meet up with an English ornithologist in a pith helmet. And they are pursued by some bad guys who are after the gold themselves. The pedophiliac birdwatcher tries to kidnap Wanda but she puts paid to that. She knows how to take care of herself. Then from out of nowhere a gorgeous female photographer shows up and she briefly becomes the love interest for Fonda, so now the girl is a fifth wheel. Then the woman goes her own way.
Then they find the legendary “Ghost Apache”, and an Indian boneyard and, eventually a huge cache of gold. They have a shoot out with the bad guys, who are chased off. But their mules are stolen, and getting out of the canyon proves difficult, until they find a boat and go down the river. Then Fonda is shot by an Apache Ghosts arrow in the night and dies. The girl returns to the orphanage from which she had run away. In the end, there’s a big press circus, and it turns out Fonda’s not dead. He pulls up in a big car and drives off with the (still) 13 year old girl, presumably toward more adventures.
Ostensibly the point in such movies seems to be the ambiguity of the relationship, somewhere between father-daughter and a romantic couple, although Fonda’s character never crosses the line or gets even close (even when Shield’s character would have it otherwise). Yet it’s still troubling. Shields was a gorgeous child, and she’s wearing make-up, and nearly every man in the movie expresses their desire for her. And though Fonda remains paternal…well he’s Peter Fonda, so he’s just as creepy and icky and objectionable, with his slinky, porn-character manner and his wispy mustache, panama hats, and dead fish eyes.
In some ways the film is salvaged by the fact that the two leads are both such exceptionally weak actors. If they had interior lives the implications of the script would come out even more. For the most part these two limited performers just drive around and say their lines to one another. (Although Fonda is doing something interesting with his character — I swear he’s doing a John Wayne impression at certain points).
Just about all of Fonda’s movies as producer or director are road pictures, and this is a prime example. It rambles, and lacks shape, and one feels more tension in the implied relationship between the two stars than from the supposed threats they face: robbers, kidnappers, ghosts, and death from starvation, thirst, or heat stroke. But it is an interesting document from that decade in which film-makers would ask the question, “You know, no one’s ever been quite this skeevy in a mainstream feature film. Perhaps people will line up and buy tickets if we go THERE.”