How important is it to know something about an artist’s background in order to appreciate his or her art? What if one argued that the full appreciation of a work wouldn’t be possible if a biography weren’t known, at least in some cases? Because while it’s clear there are works that tower over us even on first encounter — say, a Rembrandt painting, a Dickinson poem — this is not always the case.
These questions came to mind after watching the 1970 film “Wanda,” just released from the Criterion Collection, and were sprouted by the extra features on the disc, which gave insightful and moving testament to the film’s director and writer, Barbara Loden, who only made this one feature film, but was an influential stage actor and acting teacher for many years until her death in 1980.
The movie tells a simple but melodramatic story, not unlike many B-movie plots from that era: Wanda, an indifferent wife and mother, is divorced by her husband in a grubby Pennsylvania mining town. She immediately drifts into a relationship with another man, and then another. The second, “Mr. Dennis,” (as she calls him) is a petty thief with tyrannical tendencies and absolutely no tenderness for the woman he’s found. Yet she follows him anyway as he makes his way around the state, scheming ever greater plans to steal money. This culminates in tragedy, with the ever-so-slight possibility of a new leaf being turned over.
So, a simple story on the surface — and this is where the life of an actor and the life of a character cross: Loden states in the special features that Wanda is a mirror for some of her own predicaments as a young woman growing up in the south in the '30s and '40s, and that the utter passivity of Wanda — a characteristic so out of sync with many contemporary female screen characters — is part of that as well. Loden also confesses in an interview on the disc that she had a hard time finishing the film (and it didn’t seem to be for financial reasons). Knowing this, the viewer finds a richer complexity underneath, and is even able to project, perhaps, their own difficulties in dealing with life and its demands.
I recommend “Wanda” and its special features as a revealing, fascinating package.