Suite for Barbara Loden

The best way to sink into a rainy weekend is to watch Barbara Loden’s 1970 film, Wanda,  then read Nathalie Léger’s book that attempts to chase down the ghost of Loden, fill in the gaps, explain some of the heart-piercing gut-punching feeling you’ve just experienced by watching the film. If you’re lucky, the copy of the film you watched came with bonus features of Loden’s appearance on the Mike Douglas show hosted by Yoko Ono and John Lennon. You can safely ignore Douglas’s simpering smirk when he asks questions about her husband (Elia Kazan) helping her make this film (he didn’t) and Lennon’s comment about the perils of having a famous husband.

This article by Bérénice Reynaud contains a quote from Kazan that perfectly illustrates the challenge Loden faced. “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 dramatised her lure, no longer came on as a frail, uncertain woman who depended on men who had the power… I realised 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, 1988, 794). This perfectly echoes the words Wanda’s husband uses in the movie when he’s trying to obtain a divorce.

But to the book itself, Nathalie Léger is supposedly working on a short entry for a film encyclopedia about Wanda. Instead, she produces this 125 page exploration to give more space to this slippery topic. It’s “a woman telling her own story through that of another woman.” Biographical details on Loden are sketchy at best. Léger meets with the great documentarian Frederick Wiseman and tells him her difficulty in trying to piece together Barbara’s life. Wiseman’s advice? “Make it up. All you have to do is make it up.” Well, no. Instead, Léger carefully shades in her own recollections, her mother’s experience, the universal woman’s retreat into numbness to avoid the brutality of men.

Léger is at times quite funny, such as in her recounting the answer Hemingway gave to a journalist who asked what the best early training is for a writer. Léger has him answer “‘An unhappy childhood.’ How he must have sniggered as he helped himself to another Scotch.”

Léger perfectly captures what it is to be a woman. “How could he not understand the sometimes overwhelming necessity of yielding to the other’s desire to give yourself a better chance of escaping it?” Juxtaposed against this, she quotes from Sylvia Plath’s journal: “For instance, I could hold my nose, close my eyes, and jump blindly into the waters of some man’s insides, submerging myself until his purpose becomes my purpose, his life, my life, and so on. One find day I would float to the surface, quite drowned, and supremely happy with my newfound selfless self.” Against this, an impression of Léger’s mother layered on Loden driving around in the film: “she sits the way my mother used to sit next to my father, upright, short, alert, holding her breath, just waiting to be murdered.”

Tracking down the film locations in Pennsylvania, Léger gets a tour of Holy Land from a young man. This is perfection:

We meet in the hall of the Silas Bronson Library. He is a young man. I don’t like young men, I don’t like their bloom, their inflexibility, their grace, their spermatic irritability, their soft hands. I look at young men, I look at them below the belt, I look at them very carefully, I scrutinize them, but I don’t like them, they laugh too easily, which is nice, I make this one laugh easily, it’s nice, it’s boring. I would not want to die in the company of a young man.

I’m not sure if this part was true, but Léger says she meets Mickey Mantle at the Houdini Museum in Scranton to get his impressions of Barbara Loden, whom he knew from the Copacabana where she had danced. Mantle begins to reference Proust, Melville, and Hemingway, and Léger writes: “I mentally go through my notes again: Mickey Mantle, hero of the New York Yankees, a typical American hunk, with regular features, a slightly vacant expression in his eyes, a dimpled smile, an impoverished childhood, sent down into the mines at the age of twelve, an astonishing batman, famous for hitting 530 home runs—his body swinging backward then throwing itself forward in a devastating swing—a hard drinker, a skirt-chaser, a clapped-out liver, a real American tough guy—Mickey Mantle is talking to me about Proust.”

Prescription for a melancholy day: one viewing of Wanda + one reading of this book. Repeat as often as necessary.