Wanda (1970)

This week saw the final ever episode of The Deuce, one of the best TV series of the decade. The show also featured one of the finest television performances in recent memory, Maggie Gyllenhaal as Eileen Merrell, aka Candy Renee.

Wry, conflicted but business-headed, Candy Renee was partly based on Candida Royalle. Like Renee, this former porn star made the move to behind the camera and started shooting ‘erotic’ pornos aimed more at females.

At its end, The Deuce fast-forwarded almost three and a half decades to a coda where Vincent roams around the soulless, corporate and Disneyfied Times Square of today. Here he was to find out that his old pal had not only shot 89 pornos, she’d also made a film with real artistic merit called Pawn in Their Game.

Rather than anything in Candida Royalle’s oeuvre, though, the idea of this film was inspired more by a little known independent movie by Barbara Loden called Wanda.


Born and raised in North Carolina in 1932, Loden later described herself as a ‘hillbilly’s daughter’.

She started out in the business as a model and chorus-dancer and performed at New York’s Copacabana. As an actress, Loden commenced her career in theatre and was a lifetime member of the renowned Actors Studio. She played Warren Beatty’s sister in Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass in 1961 and later married the director. In 1970, she directed her one and only feature film Wanda.

She also took on the role of the titular character, as well as writing the screenplay.

Barbra Loden

Silently an old woman prays, rosary beads in her hands. A baby sobs angrily despite some attention from a woman who is presumably its mother. The mother’s partner (again I’m guessing) slams the door as he leaves the house. This is likely to wake a woman lying asleep on a sofa in the living room.

This is Wanda.

Set in a working-class town in Pennsylvania, the house she’s staying at overlooks a coal quarry. This could be some bleak town in the Soviet Union of the time.

Wearing curlers on her blonde hair, she slips out and borrows some money from an old-timer scavenging for coal, not that he can afford to give her much. The pace is slow and has a real cinéma vérité feel.

Loden cuts to a court room where a man, Wanda’s husband, is explaining that she detested him and their children and walked out on them. She would lie around all day, drinking and paying no attention to their young boy and girl.

He now wants a divorce and custody of the kids. ‘That’s just like her,’ he observes, when her name is called out and she’s nowhere to be seen.

Wanda does finally arrive. Curlers still on and smoking, she freely admits that her kids would be better off staying with their father, and that he should be granted a divorce.

This is not someone who would ever imagine where she’ll be in, say, five year’s time. She’d be lucky if she planned anything five minutes in advance.

Wanda isn’t going to be an easy character to root for. She even fails to acknowledge her kids in the courtroom. No question, she’s a negligent mother, living a numbed existence although Loden isn’t interested in spelling out any reasons behind her attitude.


She drifts around town. She sleeps with a man for money. She goes to see a melodramatic musical in a Hispanic cinema. She falls asleep and wakes up to discover that somebody has thieved the money from her purse.

This isn’t her day. It’s safe to assume it’s never her day.

Wanda then inveigles her way into a bar which is already closed. She goes to a dingy toilet and washes. She asks for a towel, and we see that there’s a barman lying gagged on the floor behind the bar. The man she thought was a bartender is cold-hearted robber.

Norman Dennis (Michael Higgins) rushes her out and buys her some spaghetti in a late night cafe. The messy way she eats it annoys him. Most things annoy Dennis. He doesn’t like nosey people. He doesn’t like friendly people. He ends up in bed with Wanda in a cheap hotel room, barking out demands when they both wake in the middle of the night. Please and thank you don’t appear to belong in his vocabulary.

Mr. Dennis, as Wanda always refers to him, is what in Scotland might be described as crabbit – mean and cantankerous. Clyde Barrow, he ain’t, and Wanda and Mr Dennis are not going to be a match made in heaven.


Loden chose to examine the lives of those with no real talents, no great ambitions, and no advanced education. But people like this can be fascinating, just as films about enormously successful or inspirational people can be borefests.

‘She’s trapped, Barbara Loden explained in a contemporary interview in the New York Times, ‘and she will never, ever get out of it and there are millions like her.’

If you were to compare it with another film, it would likely be something by John Cassavettes. And at one point I did imagine Cassavettes’ wife Gena Rowlands in the central role.

Wanda premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 1970, and won the Pasinetti Award for Best Foreign Film. Despite this boost, it was little seen afterwards. According to the New York Times, it ‘failed to create excitement at the box-office’. It wasn’t given much of a chance to. Only one cinema in New York screened it, and it was never given any kind of run in the rest of the country.

Pauline Kael derided it as ‘an extremely drab and limited piece of realism’ and described the character of Wanda as ‘an ignorant slut’. Writing for Criterion, Amy Taubin noted that when she first showed it to the feminist film classes she taught in the mid-1980, the reaction of her most students was similar.

Wanda would remain the only feature-length work directed by Loden. She didn’t disappear, though. She directed theatre productions and made two short films.

The Edinburgh Film Festival had attempted to revive the film’s fortunes in 1979, when it was featured in its Women and Film strand.

Since then its reputation has slowly grown. It’s even been called a feminist classic although Loden didn’t see it as feminist when she made it and if you’re looking for strong female role models here, you’re going to be very disappointed.

It’s a film that is more of an interesting watch than an enjoyable one, although Barbara Loden is superb as Wanda. I much preferred the first half, which is more of a character study. The second half is more plot driven although nothing in the plot will surprise anyone.

It’s a little too long and I would have ditched the final five or so minutes but I would recommend you seeing it without hesitation.

Loden did look like she might direct a second film, based on Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, but illness prevented this happening.

She died of cancer in New York City in September 1980, aged 48.

For more on Wanda, click here

Finally this week, it’s back to the aforementioned Candida Royalle. Candice Marion Vadala as she was christened, wasn’t just a porn star and porn director. She also performed with hippy avant-garde theatre group The Cockettes, played Divine’s daughter in a play, and in 1975 collaborated on some tracks with Patrick Cowley (who himself supplied the soundtracks to a number of gay porn flicks).

The Royalle and Cowley recordings were eventually released in 2016 by Dark Entries Records as a 5-track EP titled Candida Cosmica. Not really my thing although they were way ahead of their time.

Here’s a taster: