Friday, May 5, 2023

Two Women: “Wanda” and “Iris”


By happenstance I recently saw two old films named after their leading female characters.  It’s always refreshing for me to watch a movie with a female focus. But Wanda and Iris couldn’t be more different.

 Wanda, from 1970, has nothing to do with a fish. (I loved the zany British black comedy, A Fish Called Wanda, which came out in 1988, featuring members of the Monty Python crew and a pre-Oscar Jamie Lee Curtis)  It is instead an ambitious indie, written and directed by Barbara Loden, an actress who had famously played the Marilyn Monroe role in Arthur Miller’s semi-autobiographical After the Fall at Lincoln Center. The play had been directed by the great Elia Kazan, who mentored Loden and subsequently  married her in 1966.

 Despite her years as an actress and a glamorous New York model, Loden understood from her own upbringing how a woman can be vulnerable to self-doubt and male manipulation. That’s why she chose to feature in her film-directing debut a blue-collar young woman from small-town Pennsylvania whose fundamental passivity makes her easy prey for conniving men. Immediately following her divorce (she arrives in court late, with her hair full of rollers) and the loss of all her cash, Wanda ends up in bed with a violent small-time crook who initiates her into a life of crime. This is hardly Bonnie and Clyde, in which a n attractive young woman discovers self-expression by learning to knock off banks. Wanda (convincingly played by Loden herself) is terrified, but lives for her man’s faint praise when she follows his lead.

 Despite its title character’s dependence on male approval, Wanda is considered a pre-feminist landmark, parly because it’s the rare film of its era made by a woman. It’s a straight-forward character study that knows how to put its limited resources on the screen. Upon release, it won an award at the prestigious Venice Film Festival. Years later, it was lovingly restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive, and in 2017 was inducted into the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. Though Loden next planned a cinematic version of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, she succumbed to cancer at age 46. 

 In contrast to Wanda, with its unsung heroine, Iris (2001) is about a very famous woman indeed: the much-honored British novelist Iris Murdoch. I’m often annoyed by films that hop around in time, but this one justifies its complicated structure by playing the college-age Iris (Kate Winslet) off against her elder self (Judi Dench). The youthful Iris is vibrant, reckless, and intensely sexual; her older counterpart is a revered public figure, until she starts succumbing to the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease. Thus we cut from young Iris blissfully ocean-swimming in the nude to the old one recoiling in terror from the sea. Both actresses have been lauded for their performances, but equally impressive are Hugh Bonneville and Jim Broadbent, who play Iris’s ever-loyal swain-turned-husband, a scholar named John Bayley. Broadbent was to win a well-deserved Oscar in his supporting role. The film is based on the memoir Bayley published after Iris’s death, and one of its central strands is the ordeal of watching someone you love disintegrate before your eyes into a person you don’t know.   

 The British film industry is so good at exploring complicated lives. Having seen this intelligent, beautifully conceived film, I’m eager to spend more time with Murdoch’s fiction. But the exploration of her lapse into dementia also remind me, oh so painfully, of my grandmother’s similar decline. Is Alzheimer’s the cruelest disease of them all? 


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