Volume X, Number 1, Spring 2014

"Fictions and Realities: On the margins of Barbara Loden’s Wanda & Nathalie Léger’s Supplément à la vie de Barbara Loden" by Judit Karácsonyi

Judit Karácsonyi is assistant professor and PhD student at the Department of French Studies, University of Szeged. Her research interests include French and American cinema, the relation between film studies and literature, with special attention to contemporary novelisation. Email:

Barbara Loden’s film, Wanda, is considered to be one of the masterpieces of the New American Cinema. Inspired by cinéma vérité, French new wave and American avant-garde, this road-movie was simply forgotten in the United States right after its production, although it had been awarded the Critics’ Prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1970. But who was Barbara Loden and where did she come from? What kind of a relationship did she have with Wanda as such? Why and how did Loden, as both actress and director, make her only film? What role did Elia Kazan, her famous husband, play in the making of her film? Why was Loden’s film forgotten and why, only decades later, did it start to earn a widespread recognition on both sides of the Atlantic? These are some of the questions that I will try, along with Nathalie Léger’s text, to answer by using Supplément à la vie de Barbara Loden, a contemporary novelization of Loden’s film, published in 2012 by the French P.O.L., in an attempt at initiating an intermedial dialogue between this American film and contemporary French and European literature. In the following, I will give a reading of Léger’s Wanda vis–à–vis Loden’s film by thematising the relationship between fiction and film, between biography/autobiography and fiction, all with special regard to the nature of the broader terrain between them.

I. Loden, New York and Elia Kazan

Actress, director and, as it is often added, the second wife of Elia Kazan, Barbara Loden (1932-1980) was born in 1932 in North Carolina. She went to New York at the age of 17, leaving behind a rather difficult childhood spent with her grandparents after the divorce of her parents. The image of the religious, but emotionally bleak grandmother is evoked at the beginning of Loden’s single movie, Wanda.

Barbara Loden arrived to New York in her late teens. She danced at the Copacabana nightclub; worked as a model and pin-up girl while attending Paul Mann Actors Workshop. She married producer Larry Joachim at the beginning of the 1950s; later she met the already famous Elia Kazan, who was 23 years older then Loden. Kazan gave her a minor role in his film Wild River (1960) and then a more important one in Splendor in the Grass (1961), where Loden played Ginny. The most significant success during her acting career was a Tony Award for best actress she received for her theatrical performance in Arthur Miller’s After the Fall (1964); she played the role of Maggie (equated with Marilyn Monroe, Miller’s former wife) and, as Bérénice Reynaud writes, with the young Faye Dunaway as Loden’s understudy (244).


Loden as Maggie in After the Fall


When Loden and Kazan met in the late 1950s, they were both married. Later on, their relationship was not without conflicts: it had its ups and downs and was rather a typical on-and-off affair. They even had a son, Leo, but despite of having a child with Loden, Kazan was still unwilling to marry her even after the death of his first wife, Mary Day Thacher. As a result, Loden decided to leave him. During the period of living separately, Kazan wrote The Arrangement (1967), a novel with strong autobiographical elements. This book, a good example of what is called “autofiction” today (Léger 75), is about a triangle: Eddie, a successful advertising executive of Greek ancestry (similar to Kazan), his wife, Florence (resembling Mary day Thacher), and his young, beautiful mistress, Gwen (in the gusto of Loden). Nevertheless, by the time The Arrangement was published, Kazan and Loden were together again. The book became a bestseller and seeing this success, Kazan decided to write a film script based on it and to turn his acclaimed novel into a movie. He tried to convince Marlon Brando to play the main character, with Loden in the role of Gwen, of course. Unfortunately, Brando was unwilling to play this role, and Kirk Douglas soon replaced him. Convinced that Douglas and Loden will not be a box-office successful pairing for the public, the Warner Brothers producers decided to replace Loden with Faye Dunaway, who was Loden’s understudy in After the Fall and became a film star after the international success of Bonnie and Clyde that came out also in 1967. Douglas and Dunaway were thus the selected pair to play in the film with Loden falling out of this project; she never forgave her partner for what she perceived as an act of betrayal on Kazan’s part regarding her role in his intimately autobiographic film. One year after The Arrangement (1969), in an act of filmic response, she presented her film, Wanda (1970), at the Venice Film Festival.


Loden and Kazan in 1969     //     Faye Dunaway (as Gwen aka Barbara Loden) and Kirk Douglas (as Eddie/Kazan) in The Arrangement (1969)


II. Wanda and New American Cinema

Wanda was filmed in 1970, at the beginning of what was labelled as the New American Cinema or New Hollywood Cinema, a period characterized by Noel King as a “brief moment of cinematic aesthetic adventure” (King 19). Even though the movie can be described as rather unique in terms of its style, Wanda shows a number of characteristic features reminding of the elements of the New American Cinema.

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. The unexpected success of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967), of Mike Nichols’s The Graduate (1967) and Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1968) fit into this line of new cinematic experimentation.

As Thomas Elsaesser pointed out (Elsaesser 2004), this era, ranging from the late 1960s through the early 1980s, abounded in significant political and social changes in the United States; it was marked by the assassination of Martin Luther King (1968), Richard Nixon’s resignation (1974), alongside massive open conflicts between generations, protests against the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movements. American cinema, accordingly, reflected the increasing tension existing then in the American society. In this context, as Elsaesser further stressed, a young generation of film directors (Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Francis Coppola, George Lucas) graduating from the newly founded film departments (at NYU, UCLA, USC) reinvigorated American cinema with fresh ideas, often inspired by European filmmakers (such as Alain Resnais, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Bernardo Bertolucci, and many more). The young American film directors became acquainted with these European films and also with the theoretical background of these productions that gained importance through the work of film critic Andrew Sarris, who ‘imported’ the politique des auteurs (a French cinema theory advocated by Truffaut on the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma) into the American cinematic context. However, the influence of the French new wave on American cinema was not a one-way process. Actually, the French movies of the time very often contain more or less explicit allusions to films made by American directors considered real auteurs by the French critics. Evident examples of American influence, among many others, are the life-size cutouts of Hitchcock in Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961) or the obvious references to Bogart in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960). Thus, the mutual appreciation from the part of American and European film directors lead to the emergence of a transatlantic dialogue (also) in film and film theory.

Besides the European influence, the American avant-garde was also an important source of inspiration for the new directors. According to Walter Metz, “it was with the avant-garde of the 1960s that the idea of film’s ‘radical potential’ was first advanced in the United States” (233). Films with such radical potential expressed social criticism while staging people, attitudes and events that were excluded from censored filmic representations, an important feature present in the counter-Hollywood productions of the era. Furthermore, these new directors employed methods borrowed from documentary films and used freeze frames, zoom or slow motion that were not used too much by classical Hollywood movies because, as Elsaesser wrote, went against strong spectatorial identification. According to Elsaesser (2004) and King (2004), the New American Cinema refused many features of classical Hollywood films, a gesture characteristic of the European cinema of that period envisaging a kind of social disillusionment, a disappointment vis-à-vis traditional social values reflected by the rejection of traditional, classical representations of the mainstream Hollywood films. There was no attempt to depict perfect characters in a glamorous setting. On the contrary, in these new American movies viewers rather saw

aimless, depressive or (self-) destructive characters on the screen […] A whole new America came into view […] one came across rural backwaters, motels, rust-belt towns and Bible-belt communities, out-of-season resorts and other places of Americana, whose desolation or poignancy had rarely been conveyed with such visual poetry […] Above all, there is the notable bias for the underdog, the outsider, the outlaw, the working man or disaffected middle class protagonist, whose ideas of happiness and freedom imply emotional bonds that are lived outside the nuclear family, and for whom the romantic, heterosexual couple is not the end-point of the narrative, but doomed from the start, as in the many criminal couple films made in the wake of Bonnie and Clyde. (Elsaesser 38, 58)

But the experimental situation changed radically in 1975 when with Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster, Jaws, Hollywood rediscovered another, more fruitful recipe for the studio’s financial success. Spielberg’s film, thus, put an end to the period when one could discover an America not very often seen in the movies before; it ended a short but rich period of cinematic experimentation in the U.S. As Elsaesser observed, “in the 1970’s one” could “see several forks in the road, leading in directions (regrettably) not taken, and too many talents gave up in frustration, or were sidelined and subsequently fell silent” (Elsaesser 39). One of them was Barbara Loden and her only feature film, Wanda.

III. Wanda’s World

Details. Production year: 1970; Production company: Foundation for Filmmakers. Country: USA; Runtime: 102 minutes; Director: Barbara Loden; Writer: Barbara Loden. Cast: Barbara Loden, Dorothy Shupenes, Frank Jourdano, Michael Higgins, Peter Shupenes, Valerie Manches; Genre: Crime, Drama.

Preliminaries. Barbara Loden read in the 27 March 1960 issue of Sunday Daily News about Alma Malone, a woman who left her family and her children and ran away. After wandering for a while, she sided a man (Mr. Ansley) and became his lover and his accomplice in an attempted bank robbery, appearing in the courtroom on her own because Ansley was shot by the police during the failed robbery they committed. Malone was found guilty and to everyone’s amazement she was grateful to the judge for her twenty-year-long prison sentence. Loden was intrigued by the act that Malone thanked the judge for such a severe sentence, an act the actress could not entirely comprehend; so she decided to look into the case for further details that can explain the unusual behavior of Alma Malone in the court. Lacking the necessary background knowledge and being refused the authorization to meet Malone personally in the prison, Loden decided to use the few pieces of information she had from the media, which she combined with items of her own experience in order to produce the cinematic story of Alma Malone who becomes the eponymous Wanda Goronsky in the film. In this perspective thus, Loden creates the story of the woman she would have become if she did not leave her unaffectionate family and home at the age of 17. In a 1970 Venice interview with Michel Ciment (published in Positif n°168 in April, 1975), Loden emphasized this autobiographic influence saying that “[I]f I had stayed there, I would have gotten a job at Woolworth’s, I would’ve gotten married at 17 and had some children, and would have got drunk every Friday and Saturday night. Fortunately, I escaped.”

The film is twice based on true stories: on what is known about Alma Malone, as the so-called biographical basis with the missing parts of Malone’s story filled with Barbara Loden’s own experience that adds an autobiographic layer to the film; thus the story of Wanda Goronsky unfolds from the mediated story of Alma Malone fused with the personal story of Barbara Loden, the film’s writer and director. Furthermore, the interplay between the characters in the film is further deepened as Barbara Loden gives shape to the character of Wanda not only as writer and director of the film but also as actress playing the title role: she not only plays Wanda, she becomes Wanda in this film. Loden admits and stresses in the interviews she gave on this movie the autobiographical motivation behind the character and the story when she says: “Wanda, it’s me […] I used to be a lot like that. I had no identity of my own. I just became whatever I thought people wanted me to become” (The Los Angeles Times, 1971). Reality as biography and autobiography and fiction (film) are interwoven at the level of Wanda’s cinematic narrative in a way that the borders between genres become hazy, uncertain.

The Making of Wanda. As I wrote before, Loden read the article about Alma Malone in 1960. The film’s late premiere ten years later in 1970 was partly because Loden could not raise the necessary sum of money for her independent film production that finally became an extremely low budget movie. The actors, with the exception of Barbara Loden (in the role of Wanda) and Michael Higgins (in the role of Mr. Dennis) were not professionals; the crew had also few members including writer and director Barbara Loden, cinematographer and editor Nicholas Proferes, lighting and sound technician Lars Hedman, and assistant Christopher Cromin. Moreover, the film was shot in 16 mm (usually used for documentary films) that was less expensive than the standard 35 mm used for feature movies; the film was shot with a hand-held camera, giving the film a documentary style because Proferes, the cinematographer, had a serious documentary background: he made Free at Last on Martin Luther King that won the prize for the best documentary in 1969 at the Venice Film Festival, bearing strong traces of cinéma vérité. As Bérénice Reynaud (2004) noted, although these decisions were partly made in order to keep Wanda’s costs down, the film resulted in an intriguing new combination of fiction and documentary: a feature film that gives the spectator a documentary-like, realist picture of the 1960s America.

The intertwining phenomenon of reality and fiction is essential in this film and appears in a very interesting combination: fiction as such is made by using documentary methods with the filmic narrative embedded in a documentary setting. Wanda was shot on a grainy 16mm film with almost exclusively natural light by documentary filmmaker as cinematographer with a production far from the studio system of Hollywood. The movie had many scenes with non-professionals (like one in the local dress factory where Wanda cannot find a job, which is shot in a real dress factory with real workers), adding another layer of documentary touch to this production.

The Story. The character of Wanda is the wife of a Pennsylvanian coal miner and mother of two small children. She is neglecting her duties both as wife and mother, merely letting things happen to her: she is a floater, as Kazan would put it. Wanda allows her husband to have a smooth divorce: she leaves him the children without a word of protest or without even looking at them. After the divorce, Wanda departs as she came, visibly less ready to start anew, with curlers in her hair and with a small white handbag. She has no place to stay and no means of living; she is just hanging around with no particular aim when she meets the opportunist and wrongdoer Mr. Dennis. She becomes his lover and accomplice in a bank robbery. The movie shows their travel towards a dead end: death for the man and prison for the woman. These two characters are no more than two petty criminals, two outsiders travelling across industrial America displaying desolate coal fields, seedy bars and run-down motels, empty agricultural fields and ravaged parking lots―a setting that is seldom or ever even emphasized in classical Hollywood narratives. Showing the different stages of this odd couple’s journey, Wanda is a genuine road movie in an anti-Bonnie-and-Clyde style, giving no place to concessions regarding rarely seen facets of life in America. Loden was often asked if Wanda, released after Bonnie and Clyde (produced in 1967), was inspired by Arthur Penn’s film, but she was clear about the film’s inspiration by stating in a 1971 Film Journal interview that:

I wrote the script about ten years before Arthur Penn made Bonnie and Clyde. […] I didn’t care for [it] because it was unrealistic and it glamorized the characters… People like that would never get into those situations or lead that kind of life – they were too beautiful […] Wanda is anti-Bonnie and Clyde. (qtd in. Reynaud 225)

Don DeLillo in his “Woman in the Distance” saw the same analogy when he wrote that Wanda “is the dark side of the moon of Bonnie and Clyde, flat, scratchy, skewed, without choreographed affect but not without feeling” (2008).


Bonnie and Clyde     //     Wanda and Mr. Dennis


The Journey and Its Demystifying Moments. The first scenes of the film hint to many things in the narrative. Wanda, who soon will abandon her family, wakes up in her sister’s house situated in the middle of a grey coal field. She will never have a home of her own in the film and she will never return to her family: thus the compulsory Hollywood story ends when Loden’s film begins. Moreover, Wanda appears in court because her husband filed for divorce but she is late even then. While waiting for Wanda, her husband tells the court the details of their life and describes his wife’s indifferent behavior. When she eventually appears in front of the judge half-ready with curlers in her hair, her entire presence justifies her husbands’s testimony. Her picture is already drawn by her husband and the same applies to Loden: what the general public knows about her is somehow mediated by the well-known figure of Elia Kazan in his interviews and autobiographical or autofictional writings. Another striking resemblance between the representation of Wanda and the public figure of Loden was pointed out by Reynaud; she stresses the analogies between what is said about Wanda in the film and what is said about Loden 18 years later in Kazan’s autobiography, Elia Kazan: A Life (1988). On the one hand, in the film, Wanda’s husband is complaining about her in the court by saying: “She didn’t care about anything […] never took care of us, never took care of the kids. I used to get up for work, made my own breakfast […]” On the other hand, in his book, Kazan writes about Loden: “She was careless about managing the house, let it fall apart, and I am an old-fashioned man” (Kazan qtd. in Reynaud 233).

Wanda lets her husband have a divorce, without looking at him once, without even glancing at her children, who remain alluded, off-screen characters. Wanda is there, alone and isolated, with those curlers that seem to be out of context in serious atmosphere of the courtroom. As Nathalie Léger remarked, Wanda wears those curlers as if that was important to her but she will never have the desired effect a ready-made hair can induce despite the fact that she has a Marilyn Monroe-like blonde hair. This is also a fight back, a revolutionary response to Hollywood’s representational clichés about (mostly glamorous) women. At the same time, this also suggests that Wanda is someone who will never succeed in what is expected from her in the society because she is not willing to comply with any expectations: even though she puts on the curlers (an excessive sign of femininity), she will never have the hairdo/attitude/ narrative she is supposed to have (by mainstream filmmaking or society).

After the courtroom scene where she loses her family, Wanda goes to the local factory where she used to work and finds out that she is not needed anymore. The so-called American dream is more and more out of her reach driving her to spend the following night with the first man who seems interested in her and who leaves her on the street in the morning. Then, to find shelter, Wanda enters a movie theatre, the par excellence place of dreaming, where she falls asleep. When she wakes up, the audience has already left the theatre and she discovers that someone has stolen her money. The cinema, the place where dreams (might) come true becomes thus an unsafe, perilous site where she is robbed of what little she still has. It is hard not to see this scene as Loden’s strong criticism of Hollywood’s studio ideology; even more so by knowing that after the production of Wanda, Loden broke totally up with Hollywood. But this scene in the movie can be interpreted at a personal level of the filmmaker as well: Hollywood literally takes Loden’s artistic life away when Faye Dunaway is chosen instead of her to play Loden’s implied life in Kazan’s The Arrangement.

After being robbed, Wanda is left with nothing but her own body; all she has is the clothes she is wearing and an empty white handbag she seems to be attached to. And this is exactly at this moment of her complete dispossession, when she has nothing left to lose, that she enters a bar and meets a man, Mr. Dennis, with whom she will stick. He is actually robbing the bar but Wanda doesn’t realize this. He tries to get rid of her but for the first time she insists on staying and expresses her own will. This is prevalent in the restroom scene when Wanda looks in the mirror and pulls herself together: she wants to stay with him no matter what. He finally accepts and the two leave the bar together as a couple.


Mirror scenes


Wanda becomes his lover and his accomplice in stealing cars and in committing other petty crimes. They rarely speak to each other; most of the time they are silent and rather let their gestures speak. And even when they talk, especially when Mr. Dennis speaks to Wanda, he does that with violence and arrogance. Dennis has nothing to do with the criminals of Bonnie and Clyde or of Breathless who are rather romantic, loving men. Mr. Dennis is incapable of being tender or compassionate; he gives orders telling Wanda what to do and what not to do. He even prescribes her what to wear:  “No slacks! When you’re with me, no slacks!” he orders her and scolds her by saying “I thought I told you to get a dress.” She is obediently following his instructions by putting on a white dress, taking a pair of white shoes with high heels he gives her and, as a finishing touch to her imposed feminine look, she applies a layer of nail polish on her fingernails while getting into their stolen car. As a result, Wanda looks like a young bride in her wedding dress but the promising moment of happy ending is immediately spoiled by Mr. Dennis, who starts to ask her questions about her husband and children. Loden’s film hints here at the absurdity of the compulsory Hollywood story and endings by displacing and subverting it through the outlook and attitude of Wanda and Mr. Dennis in the parking lot.

Another example of an allusion to the compulsory story comes later in the film, too. After an elliptic cut, the spectator can see Wanda entering a hotel room where Mr. Dennis is preparing something. Wanda is visibly pregnant―with the spectator being invited to cherish the idea of a possible happy ending by the sight of a child by Wanda and Mr. Dennis coming―but it turns out quickly that her pregnancy is a fake one; it is only part of the role she is asked to play in the scenario of the planned bank robbery. This is a role she is not willing to accept first. “I can’t do this,” she says before entering the bathroom of the hotel room, but Mr. Dennis, who calls Wanda by her name for the first and only time in the course of the entire film, convinces her to act out her role. This is the second time viewers see a mirror in the scene; however, this time Wanda is not alone: she and Dennis are standing together in front of it as if repeating the scene of their first meeting with a difference.

When Wanda finally accepts to take part in the robbery, Mr. Dennis gives her a piece of paper with the planned steps of action she has to learn the same way an actress has to learn her part. This act, as pointed out by Isabelle Huppert in an interview (on the DVD Wanda), becomes a metaphor for Loden’s overall relationship to cinema in general and to Kazan in particular. As Reynaud also observed, here it becomes evident that “Loden was commenting about her own experience as an actress (and the fact that Higgins was wearing Kazan’s suit only confirms this interpretation)” (241). Wanda is thus asked/made to learn her role while Mr. Dennis, wearing clothes similar to Kazan’s, is giving her instructions just like a film director. Later on, everything seems to go according to the plan but Wanda, who must join Mr. Dennis at the bank, loses her way and arrives too late at the robbery scene only to find out that he was already shot dead by the police.

Seeing this, Wanda starts her solitary wandering again. Towards the end of the film she returns to a starting point: alone again, with nothing but her empty white handbag in a similar situation as after her divorce. Wanda is drifting again, “trying to get out of this very ugly type of existence, but she doesn’t have the equipment,” as Loden explained on The Mike Douglas Show. Wanda is thus moving without getting anywhere. When she is shown in a bar, drinking with a man, it seems that we have already seen this scene at some point of the film. The repetition is, however, with a major difference. This is the first time that Wanda is making her voice heard, this is the first time she says no to a man who is trying to have sex with her. When the night comes, she finds shelter in a bar being invited by an unknown woman. The next scene of the film shows her sitting with a crowd of people drinking. Yet the final freeze frame―homage to Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959)―shows her again as an isolated person. This final freeze frame is, in a way, the counterpart of the long panning shot that followed Wanda from a distance at the very beginning of the film, showing, as DeLillo wrote, that the “distant figure in a landscape of grey slag is now a fully formed person, sitting alone in a crowd, in silence and pain, thinking” (2008).




IV. Wanda’s Afterlife

Loden’s film, with the director in the leading role, did not receive significant attention in the United States despite the fact that it was enthusiastically welcomed by European critics. The movie was released in the United States in a New York cinema only to quickly disappear into oblivion. After producing Wanda, Loden continued working with cinematographer Nick Proferes, with whom they wrote a number of new film scripts. The positive critical reviews helped her build the necessary self-confidence in order to attempt to continue her career as a woman film director until her premature death in 1980 (when she was only 48). After the release of Wanda, Loden stated in an interview with McCandlish Phillips: “I never knew who I was, or what I was supposed to do” until she made Wanda (Phillips 25). In spite of this, Loden could never again raise enough money to make another film. Besides, Kazan also realised the profound change in Loden’s life. He was quite articulate about this change in his autobiography, where he wrote:

When I first met her, she had little choice but to depend on her sexual appeal. But after Wanda she no longer needed to be that way, no longer wore clothes that dramatized her lure, no longer came on as a frail, uncertain woman who depended on men who had the power […] I realized I was losing her, but I was also losing interest in her struggle […] She was careless about managing the house, let it fall apart, and I am an old-fashioned man” (Kazan qtd. in Reynaud 233)

Although full of projects, Loden never had the chance to make a feature film again; instead, she went on working as actress and stage director with her own theatrical group. But with Wanda, an important independent film by a woman about a woman, she left behind the stereotypes of Hollywood and Broadway. Disillusioned by the mainstream filmmaking, she gave up her possibilities in Hollywood and on Broadway for an independent filmic career during the last ten years of her life when she worked in Off-Off-Broadway productions, often with Nick Proferes. Miloš Forman, the founding chair of Columbia University’s Film Program found Loden’s career quite impressive; he said that while he was “unaware she had been diagnosed with cancer, [he] had offered her a job in the Film Department of Columbia University” but she “gracefully suggested Proferes in her stead;” this “turned out to be the gift of a lifetime” because it is due to Loden than “he still teaches there” (Reynaud 234).


Barbara Loden as Wanda Goronsky in Wanda (1970)


At the time of its release in 1971, Wanda was screened in only one New York movie theatre and was quickly forgotten in the U.S. However, a number of American critics were quite enthusiastic about this independent film. Roger Greenspun, for example, wrote that “it would be hard to imagine better or more tactful or more decently difficult work for a first film” (1971). Another critic, Vincent Canby praised the movie simply but adeptly when he stated that “Wanda is a wow” (Canby 1971), adding that this movie is “made unconventional by the absolute accuracy of its effects, the decency of its point of view and the kind of purity of technique that can only be the result of conscious discipline” with the “good things in Wanda” not happening “by accident” (Canby 1971). Kevin Thomas of Los Angeles Times praised this “extraordinary movie;” while Rex Reed’s article in The Daily News pointed out that “Out of Wanda’s Leaden Life Miss Loden Makes Pure Gold” in this film promoted also by the Long Island Press as “beautifully acted and without a false note.” Loden was even invited to the famous The Mike Douglas Show in 1972, hosted by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, to talk about her film but no other publicity was done to this work of cinematic art. Interestingly, Loden’s name is hardly ever mentioned in most American film histories; moreover, Wanda has been either neglected by feminist film critics or harshly criticized by some viewers, who saw in Wanda only a woman unable to profit upon her freedom.

Nonetheless, Wanda was not completely forgotten on the global scene; and this was due to the recognition it earned in Europe, and especially in France. The film’s European premiere was in 1970 at the Venice Film Festival and it received the International Critics’ Prize; it was then presented at the Cannes International Film Festival but out of filmic competition and also screened at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in 1979 and later, in Deauville in 1980. (Loden died on the 5th of September 1980, the day she was supposed to fly to Deauville with Elia Kazan for the screening of her Wanda.) In France, the film was first released in 1975 and then, with a revival, in 1982. Marguerite Duras, the French writer and leading intellectual of the time, became so fond of the film that she decided to buy the rights and distribute it in order to make it available to a wider public in France. Eventually, it was not her but the actress Isabelle Huppert, who succeeded in obtaining the distribution rights of the film and so she released a DVD of Wanda in France in 2004. She also went to the United States to take Wanda back to New York for a screening in October 2005. Nathalie Léger, a contemporary French writer and director of Institut mémoires de l’édition contemporaine (IMEC) saw the film on DVD (distributed by Huppert), became an instant and ardent fan of Loden and was inspired to write and then publish Supplément à la vie de Barbara Loden [Supplement to Barbara Loden’s Life] in 2012 at the P.O.L. publishing house. This book, Supplément à la vie de Barbara Loden, was a success, winning the Prix du Livre Inter the same year. However, this is not the end of Wanda’s afterlife in France; the stage director and actress Marie Rémond presented her play Vers Wanda [Toward Wanda] in 2013 at the Théâtre National de la Colline. This play is based on Loden’s film and Léger’s book among other related documents, with the play’s director who, ironically, plays the title role in a performance directed by herself (as Loden did in/with Wanda).

Thanks to Isabelle Huppert’s engagement, one of the landmarks of the 1970’s American cinema began to resurface in the United States in 2005, after decades of neglect. One year later, in 2006, the release of a DVD in the United States brought the film to a somewhat wider audience than before. But the real breakthrough came by a most lucky coincidence in 2007: Ross Lipman, a film preservationist at UCLA and independent filmmaker found Wanda’s original camera rolls in an abandoned, about-to-be-demolished film- and video laboratory in Hollywood. The film was restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive with funding provided by Gucci and The Film Foundation. In 2010, Wanda was presented at the Eighth MOMA International Festival of Film Preservation – To Save and Project, where it was introduced by a contemporary American woman film director, Sofia Coppola. The same year, Wanda was brought again at the Venice Film Festival. In 2011, the film was screened at the BFI London Film Festival and also at the Festival of Preservation in Los Angeles. Furthermore, the Maryland Film Festival projected Wanda in 2012, where the film is cited by filmmaker John Waters as one of his favourite films. Another critic, Jonathan Rosenbaum has even ranked Wanda among his top 100 movies. It seems that the French revival of this film bought an increasing number of positive reviews and Wanda starts to be recognized as a valuable work as time passes by. Even though the film has hardly ever been mentioned in the official histories of American cinema, it seems that it is becoming a cult film on both sides of the Atlantic now being considered a milestone of the New Hollywood era and a seminal work of independent American cinema.

Wanda is a counter-Hollywood production with features that associate it with other films of the New American Cinema: it is low-budget film, shot in documentary style with a hand-held camera on grainy 16mm film, using exclusively available lighting and locations; it is produced with a small crew and with untrained actors and tells the story of people on the margins of the society by showing the less seen side(s) of America; moreover, it reflects the influence of French new wave (with Loden herself mentioning Godard’s Breathless as a significant source of inspiration) that expresses the societal malaise familiar from European films. One of the most interesting features of Wanda―present at different cinematic levels―is the way Loden treats the fusion of reality and fiction. Loden is trespassing genres while blurring or continuously displacing the boarders separating them. The true story of Alma Malone, supplemented with her real life experiences are fictionalized through the embodiment of Wanda, a fictive figure played by the director-writer herself. In Léger’s words, a woman tells “her own story through that of another one” (Léger 14) and this is how biography (or the biopic) diverts in the direction of biofiction while autobiography turns into autofiction or rather into something I would call auto-bio-fiction. Moreover, the fictional story of a real woman shot in documentary style is enhancing the feeling that a realist motivation is constantly interfering with fiction. Reality, embedded in the context of fiction, appears through self-reflexive elements when the director allows implicit references to her own experiences (her work as an actress, as a woman director, as Kazan’s wife living and working in the shadow of her famous husband) and her relation to Hollywood and to American cinema in general.

One major point that connects Léger’s contemporary novelisation with Loden’s film is the revitalization of the transatlantic dialogue already mentioned in relation to New American Cinema alongside the idiosyncratic presence of biographical, autobiographical and fictional elements. Léger’s book is an adaptation, though not in the usual direction: it is a contemporary novelisation adapting an American film to (French/European) literature. The narrator of the book is asked by an editor to write a short article for an entry on Barbara Loden in a Film Encyclopaedia. However, the narrator is overtaken by the subject she writes about (as was Loden with Alma Malone); she becomes so obsessed with it that finally she ends up writing a book―the book we are reading, Léger’s Supplément à la vie de Barbara Loden in which the narrator of the book as the mediator of the filmic world tells the story of Loden’s Wanda shot by shot, from the beginning to the end.

Léger’s book has a salient aspect, striking at first sight, and this concerns its fragmented structure. The author explains in an interview that this fragmentation is supposed to give the book a certain rhythm, similar to film’s rhythm with the white space between two paragraphs built as the off-screen space of a film, representing what remains unwritten (Devésa 2012). Moreover, this structure allows the narrator to easily jump between the different layers of the narrative, that is, between the story of Wanda Goronsky, the life and work of Barbara Loden, and episodes from the narrator’s and her mother’s life. As the narrator tells the story of Loden’s film, the narrative space of the movie is gradually unfolding with other stories, and other narrative, written spaces emerging, as if from some hidden folders of the film.

The narrator is watching Wanda in the company of her mother, whose after-divorce experience of floating for hours in Cap 3000 (a modern shopping centre inaugurating in 1969) associates her with the freshly divorced, wandering character of Wanda. The mother and daughter are having a conversation about the film and they also discuss the quest undertaken by the narrator, who is more and more possessed by her subject: from the original plan of writing a short article she arrives to a stage where she’s striving to find out everything about Barbara Loden and her film. The narrator confesses her serious research: she is reading all available documents, contacting all who could have possibly known Loden. She is sparing no effort in order to get as close as possible to Loden’s life. The narrator’s original motivation, the one that engages her in her quest, is biographical in its nature and aims to provide a close to complete description about Barbara Loden. It is the same pattern that relates Loden to Alma/Wanda. In order to achieve her goal, the narrator flies to the U.S. revisiting the places where Loden made the film and literally retracing Wanda’s journey as well as some important episodes of Loden’s life. The filmic spaces of Wanda, along with their biographic implications concerning Loden reappear in the book and receive an autobiographic aspect as they become the stations of the narrator’s own journey or road movie. Other autobiographical elements (e.g.: the mother’s story, the narrator’s life, her research work, her experience of writing the book), which are in some way conjured up by the film, are also inserted between paragraphs about the film. This strategy helps build a narrative in which biographical elements conjure up autobiographical ones and vice versa.

However, the narrator of Léger’s book is quite conscientious: she is looking for authentic sources and reliable documents and she is careful about quoting precisely while trying to get closer to the real events of her heroines. She thus recreates the documentary attitude so much present in Loden’s film at both the thematic level and in its technical manner. In order to enhance the reader’s trust in the book’s authenticity, Léger’s narrator is sharing with readers her writing methods as well as the problems and difficulties she encounters. “I consulted biographies with zeal” (Léger 13, my translation), she says, suggesting that what she is trying to write is a biography. Than the problem of the how arises here and the narrator puts it this way: “How to describe her, how to describe someone we don’t know?” (Léger 18, my translation) She quickly answers the question:  “One reads accounts, watches pictures, appropriates an unknown face and rescues it from oblivion for a moment” (Léger 18, my translation). With a hint to the narrator’s adherence to objectivity, she adds: “I aimed for more and more objectivity and rigour. Describe, nothing but describe.” (Léger 26, my translation). As a result, she is continuously commenting on what she’s doing, reflecting―with the help of metadiscursive elements―on what it is like to be a writer, in the same manner as Loden, who is reflecting―with the help of cinematographic means―on what it is like to be an actress in Hollywood or a film director shadowed by Kazan. By sharing with the reader the difficulties she meets in (re)creating Loden’s world, the narrator is suggesting that she doesn’t hide anything, that she is completely honest:

I had very few things at my disposal […] I tried to find her name in the indexes of American Film Histories, but she is systematically absent from them. I searched for those who had known her […] but the obstacles were numerous” (Léger 34-35, my translation).

Even though obstacles are numerous and even though the narrator has very few information at her disposition, the book needs to be written. The first warning sign that readers need to be cautious of is the intrusion of the personal (and possibly fictional) narrative layer into the biographical one with the narrator’s journey to the U.S.: the two narrative threads―Loden’s and the narrator’s―meet; they are closely interwoven making it impossible to tell fiction from reality. The invocation of Frederick Wiseman the narrator meets is an important sign depicting the same phenomenon. She says:

I went to see Frederick Wiseman, the inventor of the documentary film without interviews, without commentaries, the inventor of documentary without documentation. […] I told him about the difficulties I faced when trying to reconstruct the life of Barbara Loden, and he, who never works on anything but what exists, calmly told me: “Make it up, you only have to make it up.” (Léger 36, my translation)

Actually, this is what Loden does with the story of Alma Malone: she invents the character of Wanda, who is based on what she knows of the real Alma Malone. But, Wiseman’s sentences are good advice given to Léger, who later writes: “I could never have access to the documents that would allow me to retrace the life of Barbara Loden” (75, my translation). In Léger’s view, the best way to get close to a person is through a novel, more precisely through an autofiction―fiction thus is very much needed in order to approximate what is meant to be real(ity); fiction―if anything―can lead to the truth about somebody. With the remark concerning Kazan’s work (where Léger’s narrator seems to suggest that it is a matter of taxonomy to call today autofiction what was called a novel in 1968), the narrator also seems to be implicitly commenting on the debate about the notion of autofiction that has not faded since its first appearance in Serge Doubrovsky’s Fils, published in 1977 as a reaction to Philippe Lejeune’s autobiographical pact. Today there is a vivid theoretical debate about the relationship between autobiography, autofiction and fiction and their relation to each other―advocated especially by Vincent Colonna, Marie Darrieussecq, François Flahault, Philippe Gasparini, Jacques Lecarme, Annie Richard, Régine Robin, Jean-Marie Schaeffer and many others. In this context, Nathalie Léger finds her way to reflect on the theoretical debate about the notion of autofiction that animate the contemporary literary circles through the text of the novel itself considered as one possible answer to the theoretical reflections.

She also seems to imply that, after all, it is a vain effort to try to find someone else’s truth. As Léger states,

Even though Kazan says that “truth constitutes the best foundations for fiction,” there is no reason either to take this text for something else than it is (a novel), or to take Gwen for the one she will never be (Barbara). (Léger 77, my translation)

In other words, the mere intention of trying to give account of someone else’s life fictionalizes the same life. Nevertheless, the best, as Léger says, one can aim for is to establish a connection between the present and the past of some feelings lived by others (53-54). Although the intention to relate a life is made explicit in the text, the “inescapable gap between a past life and its narrative recounting” (Middeke 13) becomes more and more evident in the novel. What can be observed in Léger’s text is, according to Merle Tönnies, a characteristic feature of biography or biofiction born after the advent of postmodernism, a type of fiction that “often includes metabiographical elements in which the genre demonstrates its awareness of its own rules and limitations” (305).

At the end of Léger’s book, Wiseman is quoted once more: “You should meet Mickey Mantle, said Frederick Wiseman right at the beginning of my quest. He knew Barbara Loden when she was dancing at the Copacabana” (Léger 135, my translation). And so she does; then the narrator tells how she met Mickey Mantle in the New York Houdini Museum and how they talked about Loden, Marcel Proust and about ways to write an autobiography. It is true that Mickey Mantle was a client in the Copacabana at the time when Loden was a dancer there; so they might have known each other. But it is quite unlikely that the narrator really met Mantle and had a conversation with him, who was one of the greatest baseball players of the 1950s and 1960s but who died well before the hypothetical talk between him and the narrator took place (in 1995)―a fact the reader knows about only if she starts to track back the credibility of the narrator words. This meeting shows a story that is not necessarily true, though it seems quite possible; it is a meeting that gives the narrator the opportunity to discuss writing, biographical and autobiographical writing with a person who might have known the subject of the narrator’s inquiry. And most importantly: this meeting reveals that the narrator―who is pretending to be objective and truthful, who is scrupulous about her documentary working methods―is the least reliable after all leaving the reader without any solid point of reality reference as to what is, or might be fiction or what is not. Doubt emerges, and this might exactly be, as Marie Darrieussecq writes, one of the many functions of literature: “One of the functions of literature is to plant the seed of doubt, to provoke anxiety in the literal sense: to disturb language habits and the resulting somnolence […] autofiction contributes to it and, more generally, all the practices that question the stability of the reference, the pact commonly accepted between language and the real” (2007, my translation).

The examples I mentioned above are all motivated by the wish to illustrate the means that allow novelisation to adapt the story of a film and highlights the problems and questions raised by the interplay between fiction and reality inherent in both literature and film. In this case the question of the relationship between biography, autobiography and fiction turns rather to that of the self-reflective nature of art, the subject of manifold reflections, along with the notions of adaptation and novelisation once again revived among French-speaking theorists today. Is it with a wink at them implying that adaptation is itself the supplement that Nathalie Léger chooses her title, Supplément à la vie de Barbara Loden?


Works cited

  • Anderson, Melissa. 2010. “Scraping by With Barbara Loden’s Wanda.” Village Voice. Oct 27 2010. Accessed May 26, 2014. Available at: http://www.villagevoice.com/2010-10-27/film/scraping-by-with-barbara-loden-s-wanda/
  • Canby, Vincent. 1971. “Wanda’s a Wow.” The New York Times, March 21, 1971. Accessed: May 26, 2014. Available at: http://wandathemovie.com/
  • Ciment, Michel. 1970. Entretien avec Barbara Loden. (Initially published in Positif n°168, April, 1975.) Accessed May 26, 2014. Available at: http://www.colline.fr/sites/default/files/documents/dpeda_wanda.pdf
  • Darrieussecq, Marie. 2007. “Je est unE autre.” Conference given in Rome, published in Annie Oliver ed. Ecrire l’histoire d’une vie. Rome: Spartacco. Accessed May 26, 2014. Available at: http://www.docstoc.com/docs/132698194/Marie-Darrieussecq-Je-est-unE-autre-ou-pour-qui-elle-se-prend
  • Devésa, Jean-Michel. 2012. Entretien avec Nathalie Léger. Librairie Mollat, Bordeaux, France. Accessed May 26, 2014. Available at: http://www.mollat.com/livres/nathalie-leger-supplement-vie-barbara-loden-9782818014806.html
  • DeLillo, Don. 2008. „Woman in the distance”. (Initially published in The Guardian Saturday, November 1, 2008.) Accessed May 26, 2014. Available at: http://kinokorner.blogspot.hu/2008/11/woman-in-distance.html
  • Elsaesser, Thomas. 2004. “American Auteur Cinema. The Last–or First–Picture Show?” In Thomas Elsaesser, Alexander Horwath and Noel King, eds. The Last Great American Picture Show. New Hollywood Cinema in the 1970s. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 37-72.
  • Greenspun, Roger. 1971. “Young Wife Fulfills Herself as a Robber: Barbara Loden’s Film Opens at Cinema II ‘Wanda’ Improves With Its Turn to Action.” The New York Times. March 1, 1971. Accessed May 26, 2014. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9F0DE2D6113FE63ABC4953DFB566838A669EDE&pagewanted=print
  • Huppert, Isabelle. 2004. Interview. Accessed May 26, 2014. Available at: http://www.colline.fr/sites/default/files/documents/dpeda_wanda.pdf
  • Kazan, Elia. 1967. The Arrangement. New York: Stein and Day.
  • King, Noel. 2004. “The Last Good Time We Ever Had.” Remembering the New Hollywood Cinema.” Thomas Elsaesser, Alexander Horwath and Noel King, eds. The Last Great American Picture Show. New Hollywood Cinema in the 1970s. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 19-36.
  • Léger, Nathalie. 2012. Supplément à la vie de Barbara Loden. Paris: P.O.L.
  • Metz, Walter. 2001. “What went wrong?” The American Avant-Garde Cinema of the 1960s. In: Paul Monaco ed. “The Sixties: 1906-1969.” History of the American Cinema (Volume 8). New York: Scribners and Sons. 231-260.
  • Middeke, Martin. 1999. “Introduction”. In Martin Middeke and Werner Huber, eds. Biofictions: The Rewriting of Romantic Lives in Contemporary Fiction and Drama. Rochester and Woodbridge: Camden House, 1-25.
  • Phillips, McCandlish. 1971. “Barbara Loden escaped ‘Wanda trap.’” Daytona Beach Morning Journal. Mar 20, 1971. 25. Accessed May 26, 2014. Available at http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1873&dat=19710320&id=QU4fAAAAIBAJ&sjid=jtEEAAAAIBAJ&pg=703,4983573
  • Reynaud, Bérénice. 2004. “For Wanda.” In Thomas Elsaesser, Alexander Horwath and Noel King, eds. The Last Great American Picture Show. New Hollywood Cinema in the 1970s. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 223-248.
  • Taubman, Howard. 1964. “A Cheer for Controversy.” The New York Times, February 2, 1964. Accessed May 26, 2014. Available at: http://partners.nytimes.com/books/00/11/12/specials/miller-newrep.html
  • Tönnies, Merle. 2006. “Radicalising Postmodern Biofictions: British Fictional Autobiography of the Twenty-First Century.” In: Sabine Coelsch-Foisner and Wolfgang Görtschacher, eds. Fiction and Autobiography. Modes and Models of Interaction. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 305-14.


Cited Films and Shows
  • Godard, Jean-Luc, dir. 1960. Breathless (A bout de souffle). SNC-Imperia Films-Les Productions Georges de Beauregard.
  • Hopper, Dennis, dir. 1968. Easy Rider. Columbia Pictures.
  • Kazan, Elia, dir. 1960. Wild River. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.
  • Kazan, Elia, dir. 1961. Splendor in the Grass. Warner Bros.
  • Kazan, Elia, dir. 1969. The Arrangement. Warner Bros.
  • Loden, Barbara, dir. 1970. Wanda. Foundation for Filmmakers.
  • The Mike Douglas Show hosted by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Accessed May 26, 2014. Available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PtBuOTWoRpw
  • Nichols, Mike, dir. 1967. The Graduate. Embassy Pictures.
  • Penn, Arthur, dir. 1967. Bonnie and Clyde. Warner Bros.-Seven Arts.
  • Resnais, Alain, dir. 1961. Last year at Marienbad (L’année dernière à Marienbad). Argos Films.
  • Truffaut, François, dir. 1959. The 400 Blows (Les quatre cents coups). Les Films du Carrosse.