Categories
Film Essay

Second Chances Are Fighting Chances: “Wanda” & “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”

Wanda walks among piles of coal in a landscape shot of eastern Pennsylvania that lingers for almost two minutes. Her hair pinned in rollers, dressed in all white, she is the only vision in a terrestrial matter of darkness. She moves forward on a track that is unknown and undisturbed, for the while being; she knows just as well as the audience knows where she is going: nowhere. This doesn’t seem to matter.

Alice is solipsistic in the way many a small girl lives: playing Dorothy in her own private Wizard of Oz. This scene of fiction is suddenly disrupted by an arid Socorro, New Mexico, where Alice is now 35 years old, no longer an actress in her own world, now with people to answer to. Her face pink and her movements rigid, she is exhausted by routine: her personal liberties are dead in the water, so she obliges. She’s tired, and the American housewife is, too.

***

In 1970, Barbara Loden, acclaimed theater actress who had only appeared on screen briefly in the works of her partner, then-husband, Elia Kazan, premiered her first, and only, writing and directing feature, Wanda, at the 31st Venice Film Festival. She won the International Critics’ Circle award for her film and she was, at the time, the only woman to earn the Pasinetti Award for Best Foreign Film. Before Wanda, Loden was a pin-up girl, model, and Copacabana dancer in New York City by the age of sixteen. In 1957, Loden made her theater debut in Compulsion, appearing in The Highest Tree and Night Circus the same year; with the aid of her first husband, Larry Joachim, Loden landed her first screen-role in the Ernie Kovacs Show, as the titular character’s promiscuous sidekick (a position in which she was initially denied if not for Joachim’s influence as a television producer). Maturing from her odd-jobs in the entertainment realm, Loden ushered in her life’s “Kazan era.” With the condemned director Elia Kazan, who in 1952 had offered the names of several colleagues associated with the Communist Party to the House Un-American Activities Committee in an act of gross self-service, Barbara Loden began a professional and romantic relationship. In Kazan’s Wild River she played a small, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role and in Splendor in the Grass, a slightly larger part where, with her bare-bones character, she gracefully, poignantly elevates the film’s tragedy.

Barbara Loden as Ginny Stamper in Splendor in the Grass (1961), a devastating scene.

It was, however, during the Broadway production of After the Fall in 1964, starring Loden and directed by Kazan, that both Loden’s knack for portraying a certain type of tragic blonde bombshell and her romantic relationship with Kazan became fossilized. After the Fall, written by Arthur Miller, is a semi-autobiographical critique of Miller’s own life and relationship with former wife, Marilyn Monroe, in which her thinly-veiled character write-in, Maggie, was played by Barbara Loden. Vapid and unnervingly starved of attention and love, Loden’s Maggie not only piqued the interest and acclaim of critics, the performance winning her a Tony award for best actress, but also dangerously mirrored Loden’s own personal history of bereavement.

***

Loden was born in 1932 to a poor household in Asheville, North Carolina. After her parents divorced early in her childhood, Loden spent the better part of her adolescent years living with her grandparents in the rural Marion, North Carolina. Loden held little reservations, later in life, lamenting the emotional vagrancy of her childhood, reflecting that much of her artistic process in the creation of Wanda was the consequence of both her upbringing and her place as a woman, married to such a powerful and domineering man for a significant amount of time in her short life. In Katja Raganelli’s 1991 documentary, filmed in 1980, on Barbara Loden entitled I Am Wanda, Loden acknowledged that, “Whether it’s good or bad, that’s all we have to draw on: our life experience…I accept what I am. I was born in a very small town in North Carolina, called Marion, and I lived out in the country in a rural area. My mother and father were separated and my mother worked in another town and my father worked in town, so I lived with my maternal grandparents. I remember I was very lonely.” In the same sit-down conversation with Loden in Raganelli’s documentary, she broadcasted, “When I was very little I used to sit behind the kitchen stove all the time. I didn’t know who I was or what I was doing there–I wasn’t that conscience of it–but looking back I know, really, what must’ve been going on unconsciously was, ‘What am I doing here? How did I get into this place?’ So you might’ve said I had a little identity problem there, and it’s taken me many years to find out who I am and what I’m about. I’m not that clear, still, but I’m a little bit more.” Within this small concession, Loden discerns that not only were there certain ramifications of her lonely childhood upon her development as an adult, but also as a woman who rose to a stage of morally eclipsing proportions that she, herself, never expected.

Barbara Loden in I Am Wanda (1991).

The process of making Wanda came first with Loden’s inspiration to write a screenplay as prompted by her friend, Harry Shuster, who, in 1966, offered her $100,000 to make her own movie; loosely inspired by a true account of a woman who became involved with a bank robbery turned awry, Wanda‘s original script was also somewhat based upon her own volition as a wandering woman. Finalizing her script, Loden struggled to pitch her story to any production company, as she came to find that any resource available to her (limited to begin with) would rob her creative control, so she opted to tell her story upon her own distinction. Shot on 16 mm stock with a skeleton crew of four and a script that was hardly referred to during shooting, Wanda became rubricked as the prophetic story of Barbara Loden’s own fare, as Loden told her documentarian, “Wanda was a woman who was ill-equipped to deal with life. She had no preparation for life, she had hardly any education, she was not particularly bright, she came from very poor, working-class people, and she could hardly function even as a working person. She married very young and had several children, there again she was hardly what would be called a ‘good housekeeper,’ or even a good mother.” The definitive lines between character and actress, story and director, are so thinly guarded by the inhibited affairs of Wanda’s life and Barbara Loden’s own mistrust in why she was born into life at all. Shortly after the documentary was filmed, Loden passed away from breast cancer on September 5, 1980, at 48 years old. If you have seen Wanda, but have never accompanied the film with Katja Raganelli’s sensitive and affecting documentary, I highly suggest you do. Wanda, in every way Loden tells it, is more than a solipsistic portrait of a woman’s life, void of the pleasantries of human connection or even kindness in small: it is a capture of self that Loden had the liberty of creating on her own terms, to canonize the uniqueness of her experience as a woman with touchstones of remarkable empathy.

***

In 1972, Ellen Burstyn earned her first Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress in The Last Picture Show, a category she would familiarize herself with in coming years, once again nominated in 1973 for her supporting role in The Exorcist. With two nominations under her belt and a stage career that had prompted her snowball success as an actress, Burstyn’s growing esteem would lend beautifully to the impact of and acclaim for her turn as Alice Wyatt in 1974’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. The same year that Burstyn would win Best Actress for Alice, she also won a Tony award originating the role of Doris in Same Time, Next Year (for which she would earn another Best Actress nomination in 1978’s film adaptation), and became a member of the American Film Institute Directing Workshop for Women’s first graduating class. Needless to say, 1975 was a big year for Burstyn; she planted seeds in many places as a newly-minted Academy favorite. In tandem, the subject matter of the film was as timely as the road to Alice’s success; as Barbara Loden was the dovetailing force for the making of Wanda, Ellen Burstyn was such the vehicle for the production of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.

In lieu of her Academy nomination for The Last Picture Show and her wild success in The Exorcist, Burstyn had “earned” the autonomy to become more selective with scripts, and after finding nothing of considerable merit for a while, recalling in a 2004 mini-documentary entitled, Second Chances: The Making of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, that, “All of the women’s parts were the wife, the mother, or the whore: the three standard roles for women. But they were all in relation to the man: the man’s story, the woman was the assistant,” she happened upon first-time screenwriter Robert Getchell’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Confident that this was the film she wanted to bring to fruition on screen, as it reflected her own rite as a woman at that certain point in her life, Burstyn was asked if she wanted to direct the picture as well as act. In 2014, she reflected on this proposal, “Back in the 70s, the idea of a woman directing was pretty unheard of…when I brought Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore to John Calley at Warner Bros, he asked me, then, if I wanted to direct it. I said I didn’t feel I was ready to act and direct at the same time. AFI made me more confident, but somehow it never came together and I never got asked again the way that John had asked me.” Even an assured woman like Burstyn could not be confident that a directorial debut would be impressive or successful enough to nullify the conversation of gender and let the nuance of the film speak for itself with no accommodations or special reservations, simply as a field equal.

***

Perhaps an intelligent (though unfortunate) maneuver to drop the prospect of directing, Burstyn began scouting an up-and-coming director with a gutsy prowess. She was pointed in the direction of a young Martin Scorsese, who, at the time, had only a few feature-length films to his name. One of these films was the 1973 crime-drama, Mean Streets, an early exercise in a genre that would later find itself a staple in his directorial body of work. Burstyn watched and fell in love with the film. It’s no secret that Scorsese is not exactly known for his canon of female characters, but Alice was his first significant female-centric picture, and Burstyn enclosed his occupation as director under his earnest concession of knowing next-to-nothing about women with a willingness to learn from Alice, and that the crew of the film would be predominantly female. Scorsese agreed: Toby Carr Rafelson (then director Bob Rafelson’s wife) was hired as a production designer, Marcia Lucas (married to director-producer George Lucas at the time) as the film’s editor, Audrey Maas a producer, and Sandra Weintraub an assistant producer. In the early days of his already-promising career, Scorsese was completely sincere about bringing the realized woman to film, letting Ellen Burstyn call the shots while guiding with the confidence of hand that Burstyn already loved and knew she could trust. Interestingly, as much as the film is a pivot from Scorsese’s usual scene, it does not fasten itself completely in his body of work; Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore exists somewhere outside of his personal canon, inhabited fully by the vital life that Ellen Burstyn not only sources from Alice Wyatt, but within every pull of the film’s reality.

Ellen Burstyn in a scene from Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974).

There is no mistaking Alice to end tied nicely with a bow, but it is the kind of familiar portrait of the American woman trying to make ends meet, who, for better or worse, does, that consolidates the taxing go-at-things women were really registering at the time; Alice was to be a story of fiction that could be as dangerous as Harvey Keitel’s flippant violence or promising as Kris Kristofferson’s gentle companionship, flexible to fit the ever-changing mold of what it meant to be a woman in the 1970s. As Burstyn put it, “The point was to have Alice go through the transformation that so many of us were going through at the time: to start out in the place of the wife who was there to assist the husband, and then, for whatever reason, in Alice’s case it was the death of her husband, in my case it was the divorce, to be on her own. And to discover a sense of self, that there was more to life than planning dinner and doing the dishes afterwards. Perhaps she could be living the life that was meaningful to her, taking pride in the tips she got and the responsibilities she was taking on and taking care of her son. And it was working out.” Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore had a very specific tone upon its release: “this is a story about the kind of tough-as-nails woman who has already been provided, through economic or racial means, to repurpose herself as a woman outside of a domestic ecosystem.” Though there are beats of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore that are remarkably understanding of the unique struggle of being a woman widowed, divorced, or stuck in an unhappy marriage, that relate Alice’s processing of why or how the picture could be different, or better, to the average American woman, Alice was, and still is, a film that rings very sympathetically for a very specific audience: white women in the process of estranging themselves from a certain paradigm of unfulfillment, whether it becomes their choice or not, with the kind of stock that allows them to do so intermittently. Alice Wyatt is an attractive, educated American white woman living in the 1970s whose husband unexpectedly dies under these unforeseen circumstances, has to pack up her stationary life and make a living for reasons concerned only with her son at first. The difficulty of making a living soon infiltrates her well-being, welcoming reconciliation with how unhappy she was in her past and married life. Because Alice checks all of these boxes—white, educated, and attractive—she is allowed to be the principal of her own story, not about her whiteness or the privilege this necessitates, but the kind of rubric of struggle that only white women were allowed to endure, and, in effect, champion. 

***

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is not a kind of universal story of staggering womanhood, but rather a secular feminist touchstone: the kind of story a white, god fearing nation was willing to, and could, digest about a white woman who subverts expectations of herself and her environment, but doesn’t challenge or reject the society in which she lives. Because, ultimately, this society is able to throw her some crumbs, when Black women or women of color were (and still are) pardoned none the same. As a film, Alice isn’t completely universal; a story told by white people, it exists in only a universe of white people. There are stories as simple as Alice’s that aren’t built upon an advantaged whiteness, and just the same, there are audiences that merit stories of redemption, rooted in reality, but bookended by satisfying fiction. Though Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is transparent about the topical pressures and anxieties that Alice piles through, and though it does ultimately feel more like Ellen Burstyn’s film than Martin Scorsese’s, it is still small picture, eclipsed by bigger, perhaps more influential/disconcerting films about women or of Scorsese’s filmography in whole. It is the willingness by men to take a back seat in the process that ultimately makes Alice a narrative remembered for its triumph; still a process that not every woman has the privilege to, those who cannot be the champion of their own story.

***

Barbara Loden is talked about in certain circles to be the female counterpart of John Cassavetes; both filmmakers organically defended and captured the female experience, both died tragically young: Cassavetes at 59, Loden at 48. Both were prophets of an audience that registered the bizarre, disruptive, and melancholy stories of the human experience, opposed to those hyper, or even tangible, stories of fiction. When Gena Rowlands gave her touchstone, perhaps career-defining, and certainly most recognizable performance in Cassavetes’ 1974 picture, A Woman Under the Influence, it was Ellen Burstyn who went toe-to-toe with her in both an awards race, and in a polar canon, wherein both hers’ and Rowlands’ defined how women felt, or were beginning to feel, during the third quarter of the 20th century. Really, Rowlands and Burstyn are like comparing apples to oranges, in terms of career-defining performances (both coincidentally given the same year) and bodies of work in full. The fares of both women and the characters that they portrayed in 1974 are products of two types of experimental filmmaking that were beginning to cement themselves in the post-studio system climate of American cinema: Alice Wyatt of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is a product of realism polished by fulfilled fantasy or expectation while Mabel Longhetti of A Woman Under the Influence is a product of realism scuffed by the sharp edges of life that do not promise goodness to be sealed within hardship and misfortune. The trials and mistruths engulfed by Gena Rowlands as Mabel Longhetti discover themselves quickly to be at the comparative end of Barbara Loden’s Wanda; she is a sound prophet to the way in which John Cassavetes captured women in his films (who were, more often than not, his wife Gena Rowlands), but completely accomplished on her own practice.

John Cassavetes directing Gena Rowlands in a scene from A Woman Under the Influence (1974).

The story that Loden tells with Wanda is not of a woman departed from her first life to be born again with the wishful divination of a second chance, because this is not a life given to Wanda to be born again with plentiful opportunity for her to become more or better, but a story of a woman who has no choice but to live, as she can’t fully comprehend why she’s alive at all, or even how she could bring an end to things. How Cassavetes and Scorsese told, with their acute world-building, the fortune of second chances, though lined with hiccups, are an optimistic vision of what Loden builds with Wanda; she is a woman upended by Loden at different points of her life, and it is through the unnerving portrait of Wanda’s life, Wanda’s America, Wanda’s relationship with men and people, that we can understand Barbara Loden as a person, much more the haunting marginalization of women who are never given a chance to become, at all. It is interesting to know the artist behind the art, much more if they are a vision of a begone time or movement, much less if their horrific anxieties of personhood plague their art and inflict violence or calamity on their female characters. Barbara Loden was a woman who came with her characters, whoever they were: she eulogized them completely; more or less, it was all she knew, purely her own visage and wanting to become a person of substance. What’s more, is that Wanda tells us that she was.

***

We can only begin to understand the stage on which women perform if we are able to see them, organically. Time has only known certain women on film to be impoverished, starved of humility, or received by copious amounts of it; there are compartments by which women are allowed to exist, and if they’re lucky, exercise movement in. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and Wanda examine how flexible a narrative can be as a product of a time’s relation to filmmaking fads, much more how its women are tokenized and given a fighting chance. Works of fiction can register just as well as a work of almost complete linear realism: Alice and Wanda are stakeholders in that truth, and staples of canons that seek to eulogize the chances that some women will never have.

References:

Fleming, Mike Jr. “Emmy Nominee Ellen Burstyn Sets Long-Awaited Feature Directorial Debut.” Deadline, 25 August, 2014.

I Am Wanda. Directed by Katja Raganelli, Diorama Film Munich GmBH, 1991.

Second Chances: The Making of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Automat Pictures, 2004.