In 1979 I avoided this movie. Such were my tastes then. Most people in my age group at the time, late 20s, were somewhat aghast about the whole Brooke Shields-as-a-movie-star concept. People in my age cohort will remember how she was regarded back then: a little bit gawky, and with her long dark hair, flawless skin, and overpowering eyebrows, she was also seen as preternaturally adult-like, uncomfortably so. Her mother exacerbated that discomfort, with her apparent intent to get her daughter cast into roles to highlight and exploit that preternatural adult-like quality, to essentially sexualize her preteen, early-teens daughter. Mom seemed convinced she had the next Elizabeth Taylor on her hands which she was determined to cash in on. The camera loved Brooke, no question, still and moving cameras alike, she was photogenic her entire life, but this nevertheless was a phase when watching her on screen was on the uncomfortable side. With all that I took a pass in 1979, and never really thought about it again. Brooke went on to have a credible career as a real adult, particularly on television, and particularly after she began making her own career decisions. When thinking about Brooke Shields as she was, her early career, and her being sexually exploited, I've flashed on Pretty Baby and The Blue Lagoon. Wanda Nevada was forgotten about, at least by me.
Wanda Nevada was on cable TV this weekend, and I decided to watch it. I must say, it surprised me. Premium cable being what it is, movies shown are shown over and over, so I watched it twice. It is a charming, almost whimsical little movie. Equally charming is Brooke Shields in it.
A few things about the movie bothered me, but overall I found myself liking it more than not. This movie is largely Peter Fonda's movie. He directed and he starred as the male lead opposite Brooke Shields, but he didn't write it and he didn't produce it, the importance of which distinctions will become clear below. Fonda directed the players, mainly himself and Brooke. And with Brooke, he did it well. Little Brooke steals the movie.
One little thing Fonda could have corrected if he had known to is the annoying repetitive pronunciation of Wanda's last name as "Nev-ah-da," the way many east coast people say it. This movie was set in the desert southwest, where people know how to properly pronounce Nevada, something I know, because I'm from there. Nev-aaa-da. The middle "a" is a short "a", as in bad, mad, sad or dad.
Another thing I could've done without was the supernatural sub-text. The Native American lore was great. Even the psychological fear of Indian ghosts by itself would've been great. But when glowing ghost Indian arrows start flying, actually harming and killing real characters, verisimilitude goes out the window, and it stops being a movie which takes itself seriously.
My biggest problem with the movie relates to my comments above about the sexualization of Brooke Shields. First, let's be clear: Brooke Shields IS NOT sexualized in this movie, nor is she exploited in that way either. The story itself is nevertheless disturbing. Brooke Shields and her character were 13 years old here, and Fonda and his character were 38. There is no way to mistake or misinterpret the implied intended love interest between them, especially with them riding off into the sunset with one another, which is what we are left with, him 38 and her 13, together, that way, end of story. Beaudray is clearly not Wanda's father figure, guardian, big brother, or business partner. Happily, nothing overt, untoward, or even suggestive between them is explicitly depicted. No touches, kisses, embraces, not even any coy glances or facial expressions. Peter Fonda deserves enormous credit for this. My guess is whoever put this movie project together, along with the stage mother, conceived it as another explosively hot vehicle for Brooke Shields as the marquee player, fresh off Pretty Baby the year before, with The Blue Lagoon to follow the next year. In other words, to be exploited the same way. They knew what they wanted, and Peter Fonda was thusly told to follow the script as written. Fonda meanwhile recognized what this material was, and he knew what NOT to do with it. I read elsewhere that Fonda's acting performance was not good here, that Brooke out-performed him. Maybe that's for a reason. Maybe Fonda the actor was trying to take the Beaudray Demerille character some place other than that of a 38-year old man who would take a 13-year old girl as his lover, layering him with other nuances, giving him other motivations. Remember, Peter Fonda's daughter, Bridgette, is just a year older than Brooke Shields. Men with 14-year old daughters don't want such aged girls in the way this story goes, nor are they remotely titillated by the idea. Usually it's a repulsive thought. Which I submit is what may have been going on here with Peter Fonda. Left to his own devices and given the freedom, I say he would've told a little different story, and probably a better one too. Riding off into the sunset as they did, into the ever-after, was a disturbingly poor ending under the circumstances.
Chalk it up to the times. In the 1970s movie makers either pushed the envelope with these themes, or seemed oblivious to what they were doing. Summer of 42, Taxi Driver, Pretty Baby, The Blue Lagoon, Wanda Nevada. Could these movies have ever been made at any other time, before or since? Of those, maybe Wanda Nevada, maybe because Peter Fonda saved it from itself. Say what you want about the Fonda clan, but sexploitation of 13-year olds is not their style. And by the way, watch for the cameo of Henry Fonda.