Loden, Barbara (1934–1980)

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Loden, Barbara (1934–1980)

American actress and film director. Name variations: Barbara Loden Kazan. Born Barbara Ann Loden in Asheville, North Carolina, in 1934; died of cancer in New York City on September 5, 1980; daughter of George T. Loden and Ruth (Nanney) Loden; attended local schools; married film producer Laurence Joachim (divorced); became second wife of Elia Kazan (the director), in 1967; children: (first marriage) Leo Alexander Joachim; Jon Marco Joachim.

Describing herself as a "hill-billy's daughter," Barbara Loden was born in 1934 in Asheville, North Carolina, and grew up in the poverty of the Appalachians. She later called her childhood "desperate," a time she spent fantasizing about the good things that might happen to her some day. A Marilyn Monroe look-alike by age 16, Loden escaped to New York, where she took jobs modeling for detective stories and romance magazines, and danced in the chorus line at the Copacabana nightclub. Eventually, she started playing minor parts in the films of Elia Kazan, including Wild River (1960) and Splendor in the Grass (1961), and from 1960 to 1964 was a member the Lincoln Center Repertory. Her break came when Kazan, with whom she was having an affair, cast her as Maggie in Arthur Miller's After the Fall (1964), a character based on Miller's wife Marilyn Monroe. Loden won a Tony Award for her stunning performance and was, by all accounts, headed for stardom. She shunned opportunities, however, turning down script after script and distancing herself from the theater scene. "I didn't enjoy the fame and sort of became a recluse," she said. "I had two sons to raise, and acting just seemed rather unimportant compared with life."

In 1967, after divorcing her husband, film producer Laurence Joachim, Loden married Kazan, who had also been married at the time of their affair. (His first wife Molly Day Thatcher died in 1963.) In his autobiography, Elia Kazan: A Life, Kazan took most of the credit for Loden's success on the stage. "There was a naked truth in her acting that we rarely see," he wrote. "I knew I'd made this possible by giving her confidence in her talent, encouraging her boldness, bringing her to Miller and urging him to accept her. So I was pleased."

In 1971, Loden resurfaced from her self-imposed retirement as the producer, director, and star of Wanda, an extraordinary film about a woman from the Appalachian coal-country of her own childhood. In reviewing the film, critic Rex Reed described it as:

a portrait of people for whom nothing ever happens, in which Miss Loden is simply brilliant as an ignorant [woman] from the coal mines of Appalachia who does nothing, thinks nothing, gives up her children to a judge because they'll be better off, and heads down the highway toward a depressing encounter with a bank robber and ends up with an empty life of greasy hamburgers eaten in lonely motel rooms and a future blank and gray as a mortuary slab.

Loden had originally asked Kazan to direct her in the film, but he had no interest in the project and encouraged her to direct it. Assisted by her friend Nicholas Proferes, who helped her craft the screenplay and encouraged her to direct it, Loden embarked on the project with a tiny budget of $100,000, a three-person crew, and only two professional actors. Shooting in 16mm (blown up to 35mm), she worked in a European cinema verité style. "I know Wanda is crude," she told Reed, "but I wanted to make an anti-movie, to present a story without manipulating the audience and telling them what their responses should be. To do that you have to take chances and you can't depend on anyone else."

The film not only won a number of awards, including the International Critics Prize at the 1970 Venice Film Festival, but sparked a storm of controversy as to whether it was profeminist or antifeminist in intent. Loden insisted that the film had nothing to do with the women's movement, which was just becoming a media obsession around the time she finished shooting. "It was really about the oppression of women, of people," she said in an attempt to clarify her theme. But debate only escalated, eventually diminishing Loden's image as a pioneering filmmaker. One misguided reviewer suggested that the only films worth viewing were those about women achieving and setting examples. "Those are the people who wouldn't want me to exist," Loden said, "and they would say that I was not valid or that I shouldn't be heard." Loden's debut film also served as her swan song. Although she was eager to tackle additional projects exploring the neglected side of American life, she was stricken with breast cancer and died at the age of 46.


Acker, Ally. Reel Women. NY: Continuum, 1991.

Butterfield, Marni. "After A Long Silence, Barbara Loden Speaks on Film," in Show. July 1971, pp. 39–41.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts