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When I first learned that Barbara Loden’s 1970 film Wanda was largely improvised, I was curious whether the film would have a coherent narrative, or whether the filmmakers had sacrificed storyline to give the actors free rein. But improvisation and overarching narrative are not mutually exclusive. Improvisation in film doesn’t mean actors can throw the script away: rather, the actors must be so well versed in their characters, and the entire crew so cooperative under one vision, that they can improvise together on shoot days. Even when there is conflict between script and in-the-moment performance, that conflict can produce a generative interplay. When improvisation is collaborative, it doesn’t throw away the narrative; it deepens it.
In the case of Wanda, the acting and writing are even less in conflict. Barbara Loden, as the writer, director, and lead actor, retains control over the narrative. I’ve commented before on the possibilities that result when a woman contributes to writing her own character. Well-developed and varied characters are hard to come by for actresses, and that hasn’t changed much in decades. Actresses (and particularly actresses of color) dream of expressing complex experiences, but it’s hard to do that when the vast majority of roles available to them are stereotypes or functions of plot. When an actress is also a writer (and an improviser, which is really another way of being a writer), she is uniquely empowered to express herself.
Writer and filmmaker Marguerite Duras called Barbara Loden’s Wanda character a “miracle”: “Usually there is a distance between the visual representation and the text, as well as the subject and the action. Here this distance is completely nullified; there is an instant and permanent continuity between Barbara Loden and Wanda.” Duras further observes that she can feel Loden’s self-expression while watching her performance, even though she didn’t know Loden personally: as Wanda, “[Loden] seems even more herself.” When writer and actor and character blend, Loden’s voice gains clarity, what NPR’s John Powers calls her “eerie authenticity.”
Loden’s most radical improvised acting choice is that she so often chooses to rescind her voice (and the voice that, all too familiarly, she would never have again; Loden never managed to get backing for another feature film, though she tried). While driving after a shopping trip, Mr. Dennis grabs her new clothes one by one and tosses them out onto the highway. Unperturbed, Wanda uncaps her new lipstick and raises it to her lips. Mr. Dennis grabs that from her limp hand and throws it away, too.
Wanda doesn’t speak much, but she also isn’t afraid to ask for what she wants, even with the unselfconsciousness of a child. She’s not concerned about taking up space: she moves slowly, stopping to comb her bangs or asking strangers for beer. She asks people to wait for her, and doesn’t acknowledge when they seem annoyed. She takes the last piece of bread from Mr. Dennis’s plate and only asks if she can have it after it’s in her mouth. “Don’t you like that part, the end part of the bread, sopped up in the sauce?” she asks.
This character reminds me of the mostly-silent Travis in Paris, Texas, released fourteen years after Wanda. Travis, too, is wandering, without apparent care for his own well being, demanding hours of our attention before we learn much about him at all.
I wonder if Wim Wenders or Sam Shepard saw Wanda. The film didn’t get much attention when it was first released in 1970, though it’s been enjoying a revival thanks to its re-release in France in 2003 and in the US in 2010. Now, it’s delicious to see this kind of character taking up so much space on screen: unkempt, dazed, and aimless, with occasional moments of alertness to take pleasure in something tiny, just because she wants to.
© Amelie Lasker (9/5/20) FF2 Media
Photos: Barbara Loden as “Wanda” and Michael Higgins as “Mr. Dennis.”
Photo Credits: Janus Films