Of Barbara Loden and the Original “WandaVision”

I begin my appreciation of Barbara Loden (1932-1980) by telegraphing the ending. She died young, at age 48. If she hadn’t, it’s likely she’d be better known today, for she was on the cusp of being truly significant and influential as a film-maker. She had an intriguing, totally original voice. The flip side of that was a disposition so stubbornly independent that she was doomed to grope her way slowly through artistic discovery, and there wasn’t enough time.

I have several reasons for being particularly interested in her. One is that she is from the same kind of hillbilly stock as my dad’s people. She grew up in the mountains around Asheville, North Carolina. She was only 16 when she moved to New York, where her obvious beauty got her work as a model, pin-up and show girl in nightclubs like the Copacabana. This led to classes at the Actor’s Studio. Some of her first on-camera work was as a regular on The Ernie Kovacs Show. Check it out!

In 1957 Loden was cast in the original Broadway production of Compulsion, the incredible all-star cast of which featured also Roddy McDowell, Dean Stockwell, Howard Da Silva, Ina Balin, Michael Constanine, and Suzanne Pleshette. This was followed by two short-lived productions: Look After Lulu (1959), a Noel Coward adaptation of a Feydeau farce; and an adaptation of Richard Wright’s The Long Dream (1960) directed by Lloyd Richards and featured, Clarence Williams III, Helen Martin, Ja’Net Dubois, et al.

Loden’s Southern identity, combined with her naturalness as an actor made her a shoe-in for Elia Kazan to cast her in Wild River (1960), and she also got a big splashy role as Warren Beatty’s wanton sister in Splendor in the Grass (1961). In 1964, she joined Kazan at the short-lived Repertory Theatre of LIncoln Center, acting in three plays he personally directed. The best remembered of the three was Arthur Miller’s After the Fall, in which Loden won a Tony for her portrayal of the character based on Marilyn Monroe. The other two plays were S.N. Behrman’s But For Whom Charlie, and the Jacobean tragedy The Changeling by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley. The repertory cast was amazing. On these plays Loden worked with Jason Robards, Hal Holbrook, Faye Dunaway, Ralph Meeker, Zohra Lampert, David Wayne, and my old boss Crystal Field of Theater for the New City (who was also in Splendor in the Grass), among others.

In 1967 she and Kazan were married; the 23 year age difference raised some eyebrows. The following year she acted in the Frank and Eleanor Perry film The Swimmer with Burt Lancaster. If you’ve seen it, you know that Loden’s not in it now; ultimately she was replaced during the film’s troubled production. Some think Kazan may have been at least partially responsible. He seemed to be simultaneously patronizing and jealous of Loden’s talent, and a little perplexed by any success she might enjoy without him.

Loden’s next project was to represent her high water mark. She wrote, starred in, and directed the film Wanda (1970), which went on to win the International Critics Award at the Venice Film Festival. In the film she plays a poor young wife from Pennsylvania coal country who just kind of wanders off one day and winds up on a crime spree with a man who picks her up in a bar (Michael Higgins). The film is remarkable for its radical realism (sorry for the illiteration, but those are the right words). She’s been compared to Cassavetes for her improvisational style — sure, Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands in one package, I guess. There are major differences, though. I find the dialogue in Cassavetes’ movies irritating, repetitive, non-essential. In Wanda, no one talks unless they need to, as in life. Whole scenes go by with no one talking and it’s fine. There’s a great, unsettling story there, and it feels like a real experience. One thing I find truly compelling about her style is that it is the ultimate fulfillment of the Actors Studio’s teachings. But it goes much farther than Kazan, Brando and company and so forth. Ultimately, Kazan is a formalist, and he does tell pretty, highly wrought stories. And ultimately, Brando is usually giving a “performance” — he’s putting on a show. As compared with early productions of the Group Theatre, both guys “went Hollywood”. With Loden, there’s no artifice. Higgins and Loden were the only professional actors in the film. Nicholas Profere shot and edited the movie, which was largely inspired by the look of Andy Warhol films. It was shot on location in coal country and in Waterbury, Connecticut.

Naturally, the Europeans embraced Wanda, which has a lot in common with the approaches of the New Wave. But even though this was Hollywood’s most experimental era, America’s film capital clearly had no idea what to do with this movie or its talented director. Not only did Loden not do the show biz thing well, she didn’t do it AT ALL. There is a great clip of her on The Dick Cavett Show, and he clearly had no vocabulary for talking to her, or about her film. He attempts to josh her along and so forth in a superficial, cocktail party sort of way, but she attempts to have a real conversation, with zero tooting of her own horn. No hype, no name-dropping of her husband. So…despite the fact that later generations are now discovering her and valuing her, this moment got her no traction, and any “career momentum” was lost. She probably wouldn’t even recognize that as a concept.

1973 saw the release of a TV movie Loden co-starred in with Burt Reynolds called Fade In. It had been shot at around the same time as The Swimmer, and it lay in post-production limbo for a long time. It is in fact the first movie ever to bear the Alan Smithee pseudonym for a disavowed film (the actual director was Jud Taylor). It seems to have similarities with Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie. Reynolds played a cowboy hired to wrangle horses on a western shoot; Loden plays a film editor he gets involved with. It was shot on the set of another movie, the 1968 Terence Stamp western Blue — that’s what reminds me of The Last Movie.

Loden wasn’t the type to go around shaking moneybags to gets films made. Wanda had happened because a friend offered her some dough to make a motion picture! It cost $100,000 and was shot on 16mm. Fortunately she got one more opportunity to direct, and it’s enough to prove that Wanda wasn’t a fluke and that her gifts were real. In 1975 she directed a short educational drama written by Joan Micklin Silver called The Frontier Experience. In that one she plays a widowed frontier woman in a mud shack on the Kansas prairie trying to survive with her kids. Again, I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen a more realistic, no-bullshit portrait of the intended topic. It’s pretty crazy that this was the project that these two talented women came together on. It’s literally a school film, a thing kids would watch in class in Kansas. On the one hand, you think, what a sorry state of affairs that this was the only opportunity available to these two artists. On the other hand, it’s a prime example of how real artists can turn their hand to anything and make something interesting out of it.

Loden’s last years were spent teaching acting, and making theatre. In 1978 she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was still married to Kazan when she died in 1980, although they had been apart for some time. She left behind one more gift however. In the months before she died she recorded several interviews with filmmaker Katja Raganelli, which was made into the fascinating documentary I Am Wanda.