When’s Wanda Nevada going to team up with Sparks Nevada?
Actress Brooke Shields became an overnight celebrity after appearing in the controversial Pretty Baby in 1978. This led to a string of starring roles for her during her teens, one of which was 1979’s Wanda Nevada, now out on Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Lorber.
It’s the American southwest in the year 1950. Beaudray Demerille (Peter Fonda, Easy Rider), a wandering gambler, wins a girl in a poker game. The girl, a wannabe country singer named Wanda Nevada (Brooke Shields, The Blue Lagoon), joins Beaudray on his cross-country travels. The pair ends up with a map of the Grand Canyon, taken from an old prospector, which may or may not lead to hidden gold. They head out in search of the treasure, not knowing two killers are on their trail.
What an oddity. When I read the log line, “A man wins a young woman in a poker game,” I prepared myself for some ’70s exploitation sleaze at its exploitation sleaziest. The poker game, though, exists only as an excuse to get the two characters together so we movie can do the mismatched-pair-on-a-road-trip thing. You’ve seen road trip movies before, so you know what to expect. Wanda and Beaudray can’t stand each other at first, learn to get along, and end the movie as friends. Because of their age difference, the movie leaves us with a big ol’ question mark as to whether they’re more than friends. Other than that, Wanda Nevada forgets its scandalous-sounding poker game hook and instead offers by-the-numbers road trip fare.
It’s easy to see why Brooke Shields exploded into popularity as a movie star in the early ’80s. She takes this mediocre-at-best script and makes it better, all through the power of her feistiness. Why doesn’t Wanda run in terror from some stranger who wins her in a poker game? One, it’s because the movie forgets its own premise. But two, and more importantly, Shields commits to her performance so wholeheartedly that when she says she can see good in Beaudray that no one else can, it comes off as so sincere that we see the characters in a new light. Peter Fonda, who also directed, brings his usual ’70s manly swagger to the role. His character goes from caring about no one but himself to growing a heart by the end. He does all this without ever losing his “I’m the coolest guy in the room” smirk, though.
Not everything about the movie works. About an hour and fifteen minutes into the movie, we meet an old Native American man with mystic powers, and suddenly there’s a ghost, and some business about a glowing skull. If you’re going to have ghosts and magic in your movie, that’s really something that needs to be set up in the first act. A few lines of dialogue about the conflict in Korea would seem an attempt to recreate the counterculture feel of Fonda’s Easy Rider, but they feel tacked on. Most importantly, though, is the movie’s constant shifts in tone. At times it feels like a playful comedy, but there are no jokes or slapstick. At other times, there are some brutal murders, but the movie is too light to be an action thriller. Here’s a movie that just doesn’t know what it wants to be.
Wanda Nevada benefits from location filming at the Grand Canyon, and that lovely scenery is where the Blu-ray’s 1.85:1/1080p visuals really shine, with vibrant colors and rich details. The DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio is decent, at its best when the ’70s country tunes start playing. The only extras are the trailer for this and three other movies.
This is not a good movie, but at its center is a pair of good performances by Brooke Shields and Peter Fonda. Just ignore that business about winning a person in a poker game, because the movie ignores it too.
Before the verdict could be read, Miss Nevada escaped and hit the road again. Police would have pursued, but she’s just so darn cute.