A Fish Called Wanda
|A Fish Called Wanda|
US theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Charles Crichton
|Produced by||Michael Shamberg|
|Screenplay by||John Cleese|
|Story by||John Cleese
Jamie Lee Curtis
|Music by||John Du Prez|
|Edited by||John Jympson|
United International Pictures
A Fish Called Wanda is a 1988 heist-comedy film written by John Cleese and Charles Crichton. It was directed by Crichton and stars Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline, and Michael Palin. Kline won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as Otto. Cleese and Palin won BAFTA Awards for Best Lead and Best Supporting for their acting.
The plot involves members of the crew of a successful diamond heist as they manipulate and double-cross one-another in an effort to find the diamonds, which have been hidden by the gang's leader just before he was arrested, having been set-up by one of his subordinates. His barrister, played by Cleese, becomes a central figure in the crew's schemes as femme fatale Wanda (Curtis) uses him to locate the loot.
London-based gangster George Thomason and his right-hand man, Ken Pile, an animal lover with a bad stutter, plan a jewel heist. They bring in two Americans to help: con artist Wanda Gershwitz and "weapons man" Otto West, a loud-mouthed Anglophobe who fancies himself an intellectual and hates being (correctly) called stupid. Wanda and Otto are lovers, but they hide this from George and Ken, pretending to be brother and sister, so Wanda can work her charms on them. The robbery goes well, and the thieves get away with a large sum in diamonds. However, they are briefly spotted during their getaway by Mrs. Coady, an elderly lady walking her three dogs. The group then hide the loot in a safe in an old workshop. Soon after, Wanda and Otto betray George to the police and he is arrested. They return to collect the loot, with Wanda planning to double-cross Otto as well, only to find that George has moved it. Wanda decides to seduce George's barrister, Archie Leach, so that he can persuade George to plead guilty and give up the location of the diamonds. Unhappily married, Leach is brow-beaten by his vindictive wife, Wendy, and spoiled daughter, Portia, and he quickly comes under the spell of Wanda's charms.
Otto is insanely jealous, and his interference, combined with instances of bad luck, causes Wanda and Archie's attempted liaisons at his friend's flat to go disastrously wrong. Wanda reveals that she likes Archie but would stay only with a rich man. Archie eventually calls off their attempted affair when a family walk into the flat, having agreed a new tenancy without his knowledge. Meanwhile, George gives Ken the task of killing Mrs. Coady, the Crown's only eyewitness. During his various attempts to murder her, Ken accidentally kills off her three Yorkshire Terriers one by one. This causes him great grief, as well as suffering bodily harm as each attempt goes wrong. When he kills the last of her dogs, Mrs. Coady suffers a fatal heart attack, and finally Ken is successful in his mission. Wanda and Otto want George to remain in jail; but, with no witness, he now seems set to get off. At his trial, defence witness Wanda gives evidence that will lead to a conviction rather than an acquittal. Archie, stunned by her unexpected testimony, flubs his cross-examination and inadvertently calls her "darling." Enraged, George starts a brawl that leads to everyone fleeing the courtroom. Archie is confronted by Wendy, who is now convinced he has had an (unconsummated) affair and decides to divorce him.
With his career and his marriage in ruins, Archie resolves to cut his losses, steal the loot himself, and flee to South America. Promised less jail time, George tells Archie that Ken knows where the diamonds are. Archie sees Wanda fleeing the courthouse, pulls her into his car, and races to Ken's apartment. They review what has happened, and he asks why he should take her to South America with him. She counters that she has the key to the safe deposit box where the loot has been moved. While the court drama is unfolding, Otto has been trying to get Ken to reveal the location of the diamonds. He torments Ken by eating the fish in his aquarium one by one, leaving the fish called Wanda until the end. Ken gives away the location of the diamonds, at a hotel near Heathrow Airport. Otto is leaving just as Archie runs into the building. Otto steals Archie's car, taking Wanda with him. Ken tells Archie, as quickly as he can – given his stutter – where they are going, and the two give chase. The protagonists all end up at Heathrow. Otto and Wanda recover the diamonds, but Wanda quickly double-crosses Otto and leaves him unconscious in a locked cupboard.
Otto shoots his way out of the cupboard and is briefly captured by Archie, only to turn the tables. As Otto is about to kill his love-rival, Archie manages to stall by taunting Otto about his nation's failures, such as the Vietnam War. Before Otto can shoot, he is distracted by the arrival of Ken driving a steamroller, seeking vengeance for the demise of his fish. Otto accidentally stands in wet cement (which has partially dried) and is soon run over after he runs out of bullets. Archie joins Wanda on board the plane, which taxis for takeoff. Through the plane window, Otto, who has survived the steamroller attack, curses them until he is blown off as the plane takes off.
A closing text explains what happens to the gang members after the events of the movie. Archie and Wanda move to Rio de Janeiro, have 17 children, and start a leper colony. Ken, his stutter lost, becomes the Master of Ceremonies at London's Sea World. The immoral Otto moves to South Africa and becomes Minister of Justice (at the time of filming, South Africa was still ruled under apartheid).
- John Cleese as Archie Leach
- Jamie Lee Curtis as Wanda Gershwitz
- Kevin Kline as Otto West
- Michael Palin as Ken Pile
- Maria Aitken as Wendy Leach
- Tom Georgeson as George Thomason
- Patricia Hayes as Mrs. Eileen Coady
- Cynthia Cleese as Portia Leach
- Geoffrey Palmer as Judge
- Roger Brierley as Davidson
- Llewellyn Rees as Sir John
- Stephen Fry as Hutchison
- John Bird as Clerk of the Magistrate's Court (Uncredited)
The film was an enormous critical and commercial success. Kline received wide acclaim and won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his work. Cleese and Crichton received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Crichton was also nominated for Best Director, Cleese won a BAFTA for Best Actor in a Leading Role and Curtis received nominations for Leading Actress at the Golden Globes and BAFTA awards. Michael Palin won a BAFTA for Best Supporting Role and Maria Aitken received a BAFTA nomination for Best Supporting Actress
In 2000, the American Film Institute ranked the film 21st on AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs, its list of the 100 funniest movies ever made. The film is number 27 on Bravo's "100 Funniest Movies". It is also included in the Reader's Digest "100 Funniest Films" list. As of November 2013, the movie holds a 93% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with the consensus reading: "Smartly written, smoothly directed, and solidly cast, A Fish Called Wanda offers a classic example of a brainy comedy with widespread appeal."
Sequels and adaptations
The principal cast reunited in 1997 for Fierce Creatures (dubbed an "equal" rather than a sequel or prequel, by Kline), playing different roles. Fierce Creatures was not as well received by critics as was A Fish Called Wanda.
The novelization of Fierce Creatures, written by Iain Johnstone, who co-wrote the film, begins with a letter from Archie to his brother Rollo (John Cleese's character in the film). According to the letter:
- Archie and Wanda are still living happily in Rio, and Wanda enjoys having a new child (or multiple children) each year;
- Otto visited them once, having left South Africa after Nelson Mandela's election and the end of the apartheid regime; he is looking for like-minded individuals to form a similar group of National Socialists, and Archie and Wanda are both heartily glad when he is gone;
- Ken is still Master of Ceremonies at the London Sea World; before visiting Rio, Otto "looked him up" as if they were old friends, but didn't even get close before Ken had security guards throw Otto out of the park.
A Danish audiologist named Ole Bentzen died of laughing whilst watching a scene with John Cleese. His heart was beating 250-500 times a minute. It is thought he finally gave out to cardiac arrest.
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- 9 People Who Died Laughing - Death - Book of Lists - Canongate Home (version archived by the Internet Archive)
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