The Marvellous Ms. Loden: from blonde bombshell to ground-breaking independent filmmaker

“I don’t want to get into the system as it exists. I want to create my own corner. It all comes down to this, if you don’t want to be a part of what exists, you’ve got to create your own reason for existence.”

(Barbara Loden, quoted in You Must Remember This)

Barbara Loden was many things. A stunning screen starlet who captivated audiences in her role in Splendor in the Grass (1961). The mistress and later wife of one of mid-century Hollywood’s most acclaimed directors, Elia Kazan. A talented stage actress who scooped a Tony Award for her performance in Arthur Miller’s After the Fall. However, Loden’s most impressive, and ground-breaking, achievement came fairly late in her career, not long before her untimely death at the age of forty-eight. As the writer, director, and star of Wanda (1970), Loden proved herself to be a pioneer in a new form of filmmaking that offered a refreshingly authentic look at American life.

Wanda (1970) [Image: chicagotribune.com]

I first became aware of Barbara Loden’s life and work through the excellent podcast You Must Remember This. In 2017, Loden was featured as part of the podcast’s “Dead Blondes” series. In this series, host Karina Longworth explores the lives and careers of several actresses working in twentieth-century Hollywood. The personalities and experiences of these women varied significantly. They lived and worked in different eras and achieved different degrees of success and acclaim during their careers. One unifying feature they shared was that they were all beautiful blonde actresses who met tragic early deaths.

The series stretches across almost the entirety of Hollywood’s first century, starting in the 1930s with the brief Hollywood career of stage actress Peg Entwistle and ending in the 1980s with the story of Playboy model and aspiring actress Dorothy Stratten. In ‘Dead Blondes’, Longworth explores the stories of women like Marilyn Monroe and Grace Kelly, who achieved incredible levels of fame and success in their lifetimes and who continue to be regarded as Hollywood icons today. However, Longworth also looks at women like Entwistle and Stratten, whose careers had barely begun before their sudden deaths, who are better known today for the tragic manner in which they died. Nowadays, Peg Entwistle is best known for being the actress who committed suicide by jumping off the H in the Hollywood sign, while Dorothy Stratten’s beauty and promise as a comedic actress has been largely overshadowed by her brutal murder at the hands of her estranged husband.

[Image: youmustrememberthispodcast.com]

The stories of all the women featured in ‘Dead Blondes’ are compelling, offering a fascinating glimpse into the difficulties faced by women attempting to establish themselves in twentieth-century Hollywood. However, there is something particularly compelling about Loden’s story. She was working during a time when the American film industry was in a state of transition. The old studio system was becoming increasingly obsolete as a new generation of energetic, innovative filmmakers was coming into its own. In many ways, Loden’s career seemed to bridge the gap between the old Hollywood and the new.

Early in her career, gorgeous blonde Loden seemed to represent the epitome of old Hollywood glamour. In fact, it was her resemblance to classic Hollywood’s most famous blonde Marilyn Monroe that made her ideal casting for her role in the play After the Fall. Later, with her directorial debut Wanda, Loden abandoned the artificial glamour offered by mainstream Hollywood for a form of storytelling that eschewed any attempts to romanticise the struggles faced by ordinary people.

Barbara Loden [Image: youmustrememberthispodcast.com]

Barbara Loden did not grow up idolising the movie industry and its stars. Rather, the glamourous people and unrealistic stories she saw on screen served to stoke Loden’s own insecurities and feelings of inadequacy. Even at a young age, Loden was keenly aware of the artificial image of perfection that Hollywood films presented:

“I hated movies as a child. People on the screen were perfect, and it made me feel inferior.”

(Barbara Loden quoted in You Must Remember This)

Born in 1932 in North Carolina, Loden described her childhood as being “bleak and emotionally impoverished” (Taylor, The New York Times). Her parents divorced when she was young and she was raised by her grandparents in a rural working-class community. Later in life, Barbara described how the sense of alienation she felt as a young girl fuelled her desire to leave her hometown:

“I was never football queen, majorette or cheerleader. I was never in any plays. That’s why I came to New York, to make something of myself. Something glamorous.”

(Barbara Loden quoted in You Must Remember This)
Barbara Loden [Image: bbc.co.uk]

Despite her resentment towards the glamourous people who populated the silver screen, the young Loden saw show business as an escape from the limited opportunities offered by the community she grew up in. Capitalising on her good looks and natural talents, she moved to New York at seventeen, finding work as a showgirl and model, and enrolling in acting lessons. It was this feeling of needing to ‘escape’ and transform herself that connected Loden to the inspiration behind her most famous role.

In the stage production of the Arthur Miller penned play After the Fall Loden played Maggie, a character clearly based on Miller’s deceased wife Marilyn Monroe (another subject of Longworth’s “Dead Blondes” series). Apart from the striking physical resemblance, Loden and Monroe had something else fundamental in common. According to Longworth, both women felt like “they were nobodies, with no grounding in family and no sense of self, who ran away from their pasts and attempted to erase them as they transformed themselves into something glamourous.”

Barbara Loden in costume as Maggie in After the Fall on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post (February 1964) [Image: saturdayeveningpost.com]

It was in New York in the mid-fifties that Loden met the man who would become a key figure in her personal and professional life. At the time he met Loden, Elia Kazan was riding high on the success of films like On the Waterfront (1954) and A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). Despite them both being married to other people at the time, and the fact that Kazan was significantly older than Loden, they began a long romantic and professional relationship. Over the following years, they would continue their affair while collaborating on several projects together. Kazan cast Loden in a small role in Wild River (1960) and then as Ginny, the ‘bad girl’ of a small 1920’s era American town, in Splendor in the Grass (1961). Kazan later directed Loden on stage in After the Fall.

Although they did eventually marry in the late sixties, the relationship between Loden and Kazan was always tumultuous. They both had affairs with other people and they had several professional disputes. In one particularly humiliating incident, Kazan published a novel named The Arrangement (1967), which featured a character based on Loden. To Barbara’s frustration, Kazan then cast Faye Dunaway, an actress with whom Loden had a contentious relationship, instead of her in the film adaptation. Kazan and Loden never officially divorced but they were essentially separated during much of the last few years of Barbara’s life.

Splendor in the Grass (1961) [Image: frombeneaththehollywoodsign.com]

Loden always felt uncomfortable in the role of ‘blonde bombshell’ and, though she did enjoy some success as an actress, she never seemed to fully achieve movie star status. By the mid-sixties, following her Tony Award win, Loden already seemed dissatisfied with her acting career. She was unhappy with the opportunities offered to her and she expressed a desire to be part of film projects that more truly reflected real people and their experiences, once saying:

“Unless you want to make money, what does Hollywood have for you.”

(Barbara Loden quoted in You Must Remember This)

In May 1960, while she was pregnant with her first child with Kazan, Loden read an article in the Sunday Daily News that would serve as the direct inspiration for her directorial debut (Karácsonyi, Americana E-Journal of American Studies In Hungary). The article recounted the story of a woman named Alma Malone who was sentenced to twenty years in prison as the accomplice to a bank robbery. What piqued Loden’s interest was the fact that Alma meekly thanked the judge who sentenced her. The story of this submissive, rather pathetic figure had a lasting impact on Loden who, in her own words, was, “fascinated by what kind of girl would be that passive and dumb” (quoted in You Must Remember This). Years later, Loden’s fascination with this ‘dumb’ and ‘passive’ girl would serve as the inspiration for Wanda (1970), with Loden combining Malone’s story with her own personality and experiences to create the character of Wanda Goronsky.

[Image: criterion.com]

Wanda tells the story of a small-town divorcee who gets involved in “perhaps the most pathetic Bonnie and Clyde scheme ever hatched” (Chang, Los Angeles Times). After losing custody of her kids Wanda becomes entangled with a petty criminal named Norman Dennis, played by Michael Higgins, and later serves as his accomplice in a poorly planned bank robbery. Longworth described Loden’s first directorial effort as being “extreme in its naturalism, and yet not without a certain poeticism, it seems to answer to the films of John Cassavettes, even anticipating his seventies masterpieces.”

At the time Wanda was in production, the American film industry was in a state of transition. Writing for Propeller magazine, Kate McCourt described how Wanda was “unleashed on the world at a time ripe for independent film.” The old studio system was in decline as the public began to crave grittier, more realistic depictions of American life. In “Fictions And Realities: On the Margins of Barbara Loden’s Wanda & Nathalie Léger’s Supplément À La Vie De Barbara Loden“, Judit Karácsonyi outlined this shift in American film culture and society at large:

“During the mid-1960s, Classical Hollywood experienced a decline in audience interest, especially among members of the younger generation. Realizing this problem, many studios decided to give free hand to a new generation of unknown directors. Thus, Hollywood’s new production strategy, along with the weakening and then the abolishment of censuring Motion Picture Production Code, gave way to some years of relative freedom in filmmaking enhancing new ways of expression in both mainstream and independent cinema. The success of a fresh, bold cinematic movement, exposing previously tabooed topics such as violence and sexuality, was also due to new, more radical audiences desiring to see something new and different.”

Loden with co-star Michael Higgins in Wanda (1970) [Image: criterion.com]

Loden was aware of this change. Like many cinema-goers, she was captivated by the fresh daring style of Jean-Luc Godard’s innovative French New Wave film Breathless (1960). The changes in the film industry offered many artists like Loden the chance to explore stories that were important and relevant to them. Despite the seemingly glamourous life she led as an actress and the romantic partner of a famous director, Loden had never forgotten where she had come from. During the promotion of Wanda, Loden frequently highlighted the similarities between herself and the eponymous character of her film. Loden drew on her experiences growing up in rural North Carolina to capture the sense of inertia and hopelessness that surrounds the characters in Wanda. In Loden’s eyes, Wanda was the kind of woman she could easily have turned had she not had the gumption to leave her hometown for the promise of a more exciting and fulfilling life elsewhere. During an interview with Michel Ciment in 1970, Loden spoke about what compelled her to leave her hometown at such a young age:

“If I had stayed there, I would have gotten a job at Woolworths, I would’ve gotten married at seventeen and had some children, and would have got drunk every Friday and Saturday night. Fortunately, I escaped.”

(Barbara Loden, quoted in McCourt, Propeller Magazine)

Loden also connected to Wanda’s sense of passivity and lack of agency. The idea that she had floated through her early life was something that Loden had freely discussed following Wanda‘s release. She frequently talked about the lack of control over her career and image she had during her years as a young actress and model in New York. As a younger woman, Loden felt that she lacked any true sense of herself and merely adapted her personality and persona to whatever other people wanted:

“I got into the whole thing of being a dumb blonde, sort of an object… I didn’t think anything of myself, so I succumbed to the whole role. I never knew who I was, or what I was supposed to do.”

(Barbara Loden interview with McCandlish Phillips, The New York Times, 1971)
Barbara Loden in Splendor in the Grass (1961) [Image: en.wikipedia.com]

Ironically, it was by telling the story of this meek, passive woman that Loden managed to assert her own identity as a woman and an artist in her own right. Kate Taylor, writing for the New York Times, described how with Wanda, Loden transformed herself “from a girl with little to leverage but her looks and seductiveness to an artist with an urgent story to tell.” In her desire to establish an independent career and identity for herself, Loden moulded herself into a filmmaker at the forefront of the American film industry’s transition into a more authentic and innovative approach to filmmaking. According to Longworth, “the stripped-down style and production process of Wanda was an implicit critique of the Hollywood system, and especially of the incredibly expensive, superficially exact depictions of poor people and criminals.” Although Wanda is firmly grounded in small-town America, it is infused with what Karácsonyi calls the “societal malaise familiar from European films.”

Wanda (1970) [Image: ocec.eu]

It is hard to overestimate the scale of Loden’s achievement with Wanda. She established herself as an independent artist with a distinctive voice when few women were able to in Hollywood. Like many independent filmmakers, Loden faced financial difficulties when trying to get her project off the ground. It was almost a decade after writing the first draft of the script that she finally secured financing for the film. Not that Loden didn’t have certain advantages not enjoyed by many other independent artists. Her status as a well-known actress and her marriage to Kazan helped her in many ways. She secured financing for the film through a friend, and she was able to use Kazan’s contacts in the film industry to attract talented people to her project.

However, even with these advantages, for a woman in the late sixties to write, direct and star in an independent film was a great undertaking. Bérénice Reynaud described Loden as “a pioneer female filmmaker (who) was working without a net, without role models, and without a network of female collaborators”. It was also admirable that Loden used her position of power to explore the difficulties faced by people who are essentially voiceless. As Longworth put it, Barbara Loden used “her platform as an award-winning actress, but maybe more as the wife of a powerful director to shine a light on people with no power. Specifically, poor white women in rural America with no education, no talent, nothing special about them whatsoever.”

Barbara Loden in Wanda (1970) [Image: propellermag.com]

Wanda was shot on 16mm, usually used for documentary films, with a crew of four: Loden, cinematographer and editor Nicholas Proferes, lighting and sound technician Lars Hedman and assistant Christopher Cromin. Aside from Loden and co-star Michael Higgins, most of the cast was made up of non-actors. The film was shot on location in unglamorous, even dismal surroundings, with the costumes and hair and make-up design being suitably stripped back. In Wanda, Loden abandoned her more glamourous screen persona for plain clothing, untidy hair, and almost no make-up. Despite the obvious challenges faced when shooting a film on a small budget, Loden was clearly invigorated by the experience and her part in the new direction that the American film industry was moving in. With Wanda, she felt that she was offering a true reflection of what life was like for many Americans living in rural communities:

“I tried not to explain things too much in the film, not to be too explicit, not to be too verbal… My subject matter is of people who are not too verbal and not aware of their condition… I’ve been like that myself. I came from a rural region, where people have a hard time. They don’t have time for wittily observing the things around them. They’re not concerned about anything more than existing from day to day.”

(Barbara Loden interview with McCandlish Phillips, The New York Times, 1971)
[Image: pinterest.com]

Wanda debuted at the Venice Film Festival in 1970, the only American feature entered that year. There it received an enthusiastic reception, with Loden receiving the International Critics prize for her work. However, this positive critical reception in Europe didn’t translate to commercial success in the States. Though the film was praised by some American critics and academics, the initial theatrical release of Wanda in 1970 passed with little fanfare. Wanda has been retrospectively praised by modern critics, now considered to be “one of the masterpieces of the New American cinema” (Karácsonyi, Americana E-Journal of American Studies In Hungary, Spring 2014). In 2010, Wanda was restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive and was screened at locations such as New York and Venice. Justin Chang, writing for the Los Angeles Times in 2018, heaped praise on the film:

“Loden’s first and only film as a director is a searingly honest character study whose jagged, unvarnished aesthetic… stood in stark contrast to the slick Hollywood dramatic tradition epitomised by, among others, Loden’s husband, the director Elia Kazan.”

Barbara Loden during the promotion of Wanda (1970) [Image: propellerbooks.com]

In a 2018 article entitled “Wanda Now: Reflections on Barbara Loden’s Feminist Masterpiece”, The Criterion Collection reflected on the legacy of Wanda and the impact of Loden’s achievements:

“Few films that start out so neglected can hope to be as fiercely beloved nearly half a century later… Loden’s one and only feature-length directorial achievement is now widely acknowledged as a masterpiece of independent cinema, and also as a cornerstone of women’s filmmaking—a burst of creative autonomy from a time when female directors were few and far between.”

In recent years Wanda has also been embraced by feminist critics. Upon its initial release, the film drew some criticism from feminist scholars and activists for its depiction of a totally passive female character. In later years, Wanda would be praised for its compassionate depiction of an ordinary woman in a powerless position. Film critic Amy Taubin, who first saw Wanda at a film festival in New York in 1972, later wrote about the impact that the film had on her:

“Here was an American depiction of outlaws that refused to glamorize… And most importantly, here was a feminist film that made visible a woman who had internalized society’s contempt for her so deeply that it was impossible for her to speak or act for herself.”

“Wanda Now: Reflections on Barbara Loden’s Feminist Masterpiece,” The Criterion Collection
Wanda (1970) [Image: pinterest.co.uk]

Though Wanda was never commercially successful, it did lend Loden a new level of prestige as an artist in her own right and opened up new career opportunities for her. Wanda was embraced by film schools and colleges, with academics praising the film’s realistic characters and refreshingly authentic style, and Loden soon found herself in demand as a touring lecturer. Longworth described how the film impacted Loden’s career and reputation, stating that:

“In her forties, Barbara finally got a measure of respect as an artist in her own right, and not just the beautiful appendage or protégée of a man.”

Though she never directed another feature film, Loden was very active professionally in the years following Wanda’s release. She continued to teach and perform on stage, while also working on scripts for new independent films. Unfortunately, she never managed to direct another feature film, running into many of the obstacles faced by independent filmmakers. Sadly, Loden’s life and career were cut short when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in the late seventies. She battled the disease for two years, all the while hiding her illness from the public and many of the people in her life. She continued to work as a teacher and actress until the final months of her life. She passed away on September 5th, 1980 at the age of forty-eight.

Barbara Loden c.1980, a few months before she passed away at the age of forty-eight [Image: criterion.com]

One of the most compelling aspects of Loden’s story was that she passed away just as her career was entering its most successful and interesting phase. Unlike many of the other actresses featured in ‘Dead Blondes’, her death was not the result of substance abuse, suicide, violence, or a slow descent into alcoholism or mental illness. Rather it was due to a devastating and unexpected illness. There was no sense of decline in Loden’s last years. In the last decade of her life, Barbara achieved a level of artistic independence that few women at the time could even dream of. Even though she struggled to get any new film projects off the ground, she still continued to write and collaborate with other artists. She was also in demand as an acting teacher, a role she seemed to have an innate talent for. Her ability to coax authentic performances out of even untrained actors was something her collaborators on Wanda had praised.

Barbara Loden at work as an acting teacher c.1980 [Image: criterion.com]

Perhaps Loden’s legacy is of a woman who refused to be confined to any particular category. Throughout her life and career, Barbara Loden seemed to be constantly in search of creative fulfilment and a sense of autonomy. She never seemed content to merely settle for the role other people put her in, whether it was as the outsider in a small town, the blonde ingénue or the wife of a famous director. Even up until the last months of her life, Barbara was still actively striving for independence and creative fulfilment. Reflecting on her life and career, Loden wrote shortly before her death she said:

“There’s so much I didn’t achieve, but I tried to be independent and to create my own way. Otherwise, I would have become like Wanda, all my life just floating around.”

(Barbara Loden, quote in Taylor, The New York Times).
[Image: iffr.com]

Sources

·  “Wanda Now: Reflections on Barbara Loden’s Feminist Masterpiece.”The Criterion Collection, 20th July 2018. Accessed 2nd May 2021. https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/5811-wanda-now-reflections-on-barbara-loden-s-feminist-masterpiece,%20but%20also%20B%C3%A9r%C3%A9nice%20Reynaud,%202002

·  “Wanda, Criterion Collection Edition #965” The Criterion Channel. Accessed 2nd September 2020. https://www.criterionchannel.com/wanda

·  “Barbara Loden: 1932 – 1980.” TCM Presents Women Make Film. Accessed 10th April 2021. https://womenmakefilm.tcm.com/filmmaker/barbara-loden/

·  “Episode 104 Barbara Loden” (“Dead Blondes” Part 12) You Must Remember This, April 18th 2017, Stitcher and Karina Longworth. Accessed 1st September 2020.

·  “Marguerite Duras interview with Elia Kazan, Conversation on Wanda.”  Comparative Cinema, Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona. Digital reproduction of interview in Cahiers du Cinema, June/August 2003 (reprint of excerpts from original December 1980 edition). Accessed 10th April 2021. http://www.ocec.eu/cinemacomparativecinema/index.php/en/inicio-eng/33-n-8-english/446-conversation-on-wanda-by-barbara-loden

·  Brody, Richard. “Barbara Loden: A Woman Telling Her Own Story Through That of Another Woman.” The New Yorker, November 1st 2016. Accessed 10th April 2021. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/richard-brody/barbara-loden-a-woman-telling-her-own-story-through-that-of-another-woman

·  Chang, Justin. “Review: Barbara Loden’s 1970 triumph, ‘Wanda,’ returns to theaters.” Los Angeles Times, August 3rd 2018. Accessed September 2nd 2020.  https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/la-et-mn-wanda-review-20180803-story.html

·  Karácsonyi, Judit. “Fictions And Realities: On the Margins of Barbara Loden’s Wanda & Nathalie Léger’s Supplément À La Vie De Barbara Loden.”  Americana E-Journal of American Studies In Hungary, Volume X, Number 1, Spring 2014. Accessed 10th April 2021. http://americanaejournal.hu/vol10no1/karacsonyi

·  McCourt, Kate. “Who was Barbara Loden? Wanda and the life on an actual woman.” Propeller Magazine. Accessed 5th April 2021. http://www.propellermag.com/Fall2012/McCourtLodenFall12.html

·  Phillips, McCandlish. “Interview with Barbara Loden: Barbara Loden speaks of the World of Wanda.” The New York Times, March 11th 1971. Accessed 10th April 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/1971/03/11/archives/barbara-loden-speaks-of-the-world-of-wanda.html

·  Taylor, Kate. “Driven by Fierce Visions of Independence.” The New York Times, August 27th 2010. Accessed 10th January 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/29/movies/29wanda.html

Credit for cover photo to wandathemovie.com.

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