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Film / Wanda

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Wanda is a 1971 independent drama film written by, directed by, and starring Barbara Loden, who in her spare time was married to Elia Kazan.

Wanda Goransky (Loden) is a dirt-poor woman living in a dirt-poor housing development that directly abuts a southwest Pennsylvania coal mine. Wanda is beaten down by life – aimless, perpetually melancholy, barely literate, unable to keep a pathetically low-paying job in a garment factory, sleeping on her sister's couch (and her brother-in-law wants her out). She turns up late to her own divorce hearing, at which she apathetically agrees to let her husband have custody of their two children.

Things go from bad to worse for Wanda when she wanders into a movie theater and falls asleep, only to wake up and discover that someone stole the very little money in her wallet. Lacking anywhere else to go, she wanders into a bar, ignoring the agitated man behind the counter who informs her the bar is closed. It turns out that the agitated man is one Norman Dennis (Michael Higgins), an armed robber. Wanda, lacking any other options, latches on for dear life to the abrasive, abusive "Mr. Dennis", soon joining him in a life of crime.

Made on a budget of $100,000, this was the only feature film directed by Loden prior to her untimely death from breast cancer at the age of 48 in 1980.


  • Bath of Poverty: The whole reason Wanda and Mr. Dennis meet in the first place is because Wanda, who is utterly broke and now homeless, dives into a bar to wash up.
  • Cassandra Truth: Mr. Dennis goes to see an older man, an old criminal acquaintance, and tries to get him to be the getaway driver in the bank robbery. The old man declines, saying there's "one chance in a hundred" they'd get away. In the end, of course. Mr. Dennis doesn't get away.
  • Control Freak: Mr. Dennis bosses Wanda around harshly, demanding that she wear only dresses, demanding she wear a hat because he thinks her hair is unattractive. Wanda goes along with all of it.
  • Crapsack World: The deeply depressing coal mining country of southwest Pennsylvania, where even the people who have jobs are living in desperate poverty.
  • Downer Ending: Not that her life with Mr. Dennis offered a lot of hope to begin with, but Wanda is left alone again at the end after Mr. Dennis is shot to death.
  • Even Bad Men Love Their Mamas: Mr. Dennis takes a break from his life of crime to go home and visit his dad. Pop Dennis knows what his son does for a living and thus refuses his son's money, but does say that he likes Wanda.
  • Extreme Doormat: Depression, low self-esteem, hopelessness—whatever the reason, Wanda is only too willing to let Mr. Dennis walk all over her. Wearing only dresses, wearing hats, robbing banks: she'll do what he tells her. When she comes back to the hotel room and finds her wallet in the trash can (Mr. Dennis had rifled through it and was preparing to leave) all she says is "How did that get there?" Most disturbing is when he slaps her across the face while she's chattering about going to get the hamburgers, and after a pause, she keeps chattering.
  • Hassle-Free Hotwire: Mr. Dennis breaks into a car and hotwires it, only for Wanda to pluck the keys from the sun visor and say "Why didn't you use these?"
  • Last-Name Basis: Wanda only ever calls her lover "Mr. Dennis", demonstrating the dominant/submissive nature of their relationship.
  • Meet Cute: It's not very cute, honestly, but it's the kind of setup that could start a romcom: Wanda blunders into a bar while Mr. Dennis is in the process of robbing it, and she goes away with him.
  • Outlaw Couple: She's just kind of tagging along for a while, but they graduate to full Outlaw Couple status by the time Wanda helps Mr. Dennis conduct a home invasion, then rob a bank.
  • Parental Abandonment: At the divorce hearing, Wanda's husband says he'd often come home to find the kids running around unsupervised outside while Wanda slept on a couch inside. She then agrees with barely a shrug to let him have the kids, skipping town with Mr. Dennis soon after.
  • Red Herring: Mr. Dennis is occasionally seen popping aspirins, and in one scene he's in severe distress from a migraine headache. Does he have brain cancer? Is he going to have a stroke? The headaches never lead anywhere.
  • Reveal Shot: At first Mr. Dennis seems to be the bar owner , who is agitated when Wanda entered through the unlocked door after closing time. Then the camera moves and reveals that the bar owner is Bound and Gagged on the floor behind the bar.
  • Stress Vomit: Wanda does this for a little bit before she and Mr. Dennis leave for the big bank robbery.
  • Thousand-Yard Stare: Wanda suffers from the shock of Mr. Dennis's death, only to have to fend off a would-be rapist who picks her up at a bar. She flees from the rapist, running through a forest until she gets clear and wanders into a bar. She winds up getting roped into a table with some drunken revelers. The film then ends with a freeze-frame on Wanda's empty stare, as she gazes off into nothing.
  • Time Bomb: Mr. Dennis' bank robbery plan involves invading the bank manager's house, tying up his wife and daughters, and leaving a time bomb with the threat that it will explode if he doesn't return to disarm it. It turns out to be a dummy bomb.
  • Would Hit a Girl: An agitated Mr. Dennis slaps Wanda across the face when she comes back unexpectedly from the burger run, before he had the chance to ditch her.