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A Fish Called Wanda

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A Fish Called Wanda
US theatrical release poster
Directed byCharles Crichton
Screenplay byJohn Cleese
Story by
  • John Cleese
  • Charles Crichton
Produced byMichael Shamberg
CinematographyAlan Hume
Edited byJohn Jympson
Music byJohn Du Prez
Distributed by
Release dates
  • July 7, 1988 (1988-07-07) (New York City)
  • July 15, 1988 (1988-07-15) (United States)
  • October 14, 1988 (1988-10-14) (United Kingdom)
Running time
108 minutes[1]
  • United Kingdom
  • United States[2]
Budget$7.5 million[3]
Box office$188.6 million

A Fish Called Wanda is a 1988 heist comedy film directed by Charles Crichton and written by Crichton and John Cleese. It stars Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline, and Michael Palin. The film follows a gang of diamond thieves who double-cross one another to recover stolen diamonds hidden by their jailed leader. His barrister becomes a central figure – and jealousies rage – as femme fatale Wanda seduces him to locate the loot.

The picture grossed over $188 million worldwide, becoming the seventh-highest-grossing film of 1988. It received three nominations at the 61st Academy Awards: Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor for Kline, which he would go on to win.[4] A spiritual sequel, Fierce Creatures, was released in 1997. The British Film Institute ranked A Fish Called Wanda the 39th-greatest British film of the 20th century.[5]


London-based gangster George Thomason plans a jewel heist with his right-hand man, Ken Pile, an animal lover with a stutter. They bring in two Americans: con artist Wanda Gershwitz and weapons expert Otto West, a volatile anglophobe. Wanda and Otto are lovers, but pretend to be siblings so Wanda can work her charms on Ken and George. The heist succeeds and the gang escapes with a large sum in diamonds, which they hide. Wanda and Otto then betray George to the police and he is arrested. They return to collect the loot, with Wanda planning to double-cross Otto as well, but it is gone: suspecting duplicity, George had moved it to a safe deposit box and given Ken the key. Wanda sees Ken hide it in his fish tank, steals it, and conceals it in her locket.

To learn where the box is, Wanda decides to seduce George's barrister, Archie Leach. He is in a loveless marriage and quickly falls for her, but Otto's jealous interference causes their liaisons to go disastrously wrong. When Wanda accidentally leaves her locket at Archie's house his wife, Wendy, finds it and delightedly assumes it was a gift for her. Wanda demands that Archie retrieve her keepsake, but Wendy will not give it up. He then fakes a robbery at his home as a cover for its disappearance. It too is interrupted and foiled by Otto. Archie is later able to retrieve the locket, and returns it to Wanda at their next tryst, this time unraveled by innocent intruders. Realizing he will be unable to give her all she seeks; he subsequently telephones her to call off their affair. Otto arrives at Archie's house seeking to apologise for his rudeness's, but Wendy overhears their conversation and learns of Archie's liaison.

George asks Ken to eliminate the Crown's only eyewitness to the robbery, the elderly Eileen Coady. Ken repeatedly tries, but each time accidentally kills one of her three small dogs instead, causing him great distress. Finally, the last's grisly death gives Mrs Coady a fatal heart attack. With no witness, George seems poised to be released. He gives instructions to Ken, revealing the location of the diamonds. When Otto learns that Ken knows this, he tortures him into revealing it by tying him up and putting various items of food up his nostrils and in his mouth before hilariously eating all of his pet tropical fish one by one, leaving Ken's favorite, named Wanda, until last. Ken divulges that the diamonds are at the Cathcart Towers Hotel near Heathrow Airport, but does not know that Wanda has the key.

Even with Otto's knowledge and Wanda's key, the two still need George to remain in prison. Testifying as a defense witness at his trial, Wanda unexpectedly gives evidence incriminating him. Archie is stunned by her statements and flubs his questioning, inadvertently calling her "darling". Wendy, watching from the public gallery, declares their marriage dead. Promising less prison time, Archie asks George about the diamonds and learns of Otto and Wanda's complicity and that Ken knows their location. Archie sees Wanda fleeing the court and shunts her into his car. With his career and marriage ruined, Archie resolves to cut his losses, throw in with her, steal the loot, and flee to South America together.

They race to Ken's flat. While Archie interrogates him, Otto steals Archie's car, with Wanda in it. Archie painstakingly draws out from an uncontrollably stuttering Ken that the safe deposit box is at an airport hotel. They then set out for Heathrow on Ken's moped. Otto and Wanda recover the diamonds, but Wanda double-crosses him and saps him unconscious in a Heathrow broom cupboard. She reluctantly boards her flight to Rio de Janeiro without Archie. Otto recovers, steals a boarding pass, and makes his way to the tarmac, where he is confronted by Archie. Otto is about to kill him, but is stalled while Ken approaches on a steamroller, seeking vengeance for his fish. Otto finds he has stepped in wet concrete and cannot move. Ken runs him over. Archie joins Wanda aboard the plane. Improbably, Otto again appears seeking to derail things between them. Covered in encrusted cement, he clings outside their window until he is blown off during take-off. An epilogue relates that Archie and Wanda were married in Rio, had seventeen children, and founded a leper colony; Ken became Master of ceremonies at SeaWorld; and Otto became the Minister of Justice for South Africa.



Cleese and Crichton had attempted to make a film together in 1969.[6] Although the project never entered development, they promised each other that they would collaborate again.[7] In June 1983, the two began writing the script for Wanda, and, for the next two and half years, they met three times a month to work on the script.[7] According to Crichton, "We had a week of rehearsals and then a gap of two weeks in which to incorporate any new ideas which had been thrown up and to polish the script."[8] According to Michael Palin, the original title was "A Goldfish Called Wanda".[9]

Cleese told an interviewer that he called his character Archie Leach, actor Cary Grant's real name, because "I feel this film is as near as I'll ever get to being Cary Grant."[10] Cleese, admitting in press interviews that he had no knowledge of how to direct a film, served as co-director, since the studio executives at MGM were worried about Crichton's age—he was 78 at the time.[6][7][11] On the set, Crichton wore a T-shirt presented to him by Cleese and inscribed "Age and treachery will always overcome youth and skill".[11] Cleese cast his real life daughter Cynthia as his screen daughter Portia in the film. Filming began in England on July 13, 1987, and wrapped on September 21, 1987 after 70 days.[7]


Box office[edit]

The film premiered in New York City on July 7, 1988, and in Los Angeles on July 13, 1988, and was released theatrically on July 15, 1988, by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Six weeks later, it reached number one at the box office there.[12] It eventually grossed $62.5 million in the United States and Canada,[12] became the highest-grossing British film of all time with a gross of £12 million.[13] Outside of the US (including the UK), it grossed $126.1 million,[14] for a worldwide total of $188.6 million. It was the number one rental video in the US in 1989.[15]


Kline won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and a nomination for the BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role for his performance.[16][17] Cleese and Crichton received an nomination for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.[16] Crichton was also nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director,[16] Cleese won the BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role and Curtis received nominations for the BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role and the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Motion Picture Comedy or Musical.[18][19][20] Michael Palin won the BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role,[21] while Maria Aitken received a nomination for the BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role.[22]


In 2016, Empire magazine ranked A Fish Called Wanda 35th on their list of the 100 best British films, with their entry calling it "a must-own for any British comedy fan", adding, "it made possible Richard Curtis's later Brit-com oeuvre by establishing that British eccentricism can sell, revived the world's interest in Ealing comedies, and allowed a character with Cary Grant's real name – Cleese's bumbling lawyer Archie Leach – to live again on the big screen."[23] The film is number 27 on Bravo's "100 Funniest Movies".[24] It is also included in the Reader's Digest "100 Funniest Films" list.[25]

In 1999, it was voted 39th on the BFI Top 100 British films list compiled by the British Film Institute. Also in 2000, the American Film Institute placed the film on its 100 Years...100 Laughs list, where it was ranked number 21.[26] Then in 2003, AFI nominated Otto West as a villain from this film for AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains.[27] James Berardinelli of ReelViews awarded the film four out of four stars in his review;[28] it is also number 10 on his "Top 100" list.[29]

On Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds a 96% approval rating, based on 67 reviews, with an average rating of 8.1/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "Smartly written, smoothly directed, and solidly cast, A Fish Called Wanda offers a classic example of a brainy comedy with widespread appeal."[30] On Metacritic, the film holds a score of 80 out of 100, based on 17 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".[31] According to CriticsTop10, "A Fish Called Wanda" appeared on over 60 critics' top ten lists, making it the fifth most acclaimed film of 1988.[32] Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "A" on an A+ to F scale as of July 2020.[33]


Award Category Nominee(s) Result
Academy Awards[34] Best Director Charles Crichton Nominated
Best Supporting Actor Kevin Kline Won
Best Screenplay – Written Directly for the Screen John Cleese and Charles Crichton Nominated
American Comedy Awards Funniest Actor in a Motion Picture (Leading Role) John Cleese Nominated
Kevin Kline Nominated
Funniest Actress in a Motion Picture (Leading Role) Jamie Lee Curtis Nominated
ASCAP Film and Television Music Awards Top Box Office Films John Du Prez Won
British Academy Film Awards[35] Best Film Michael Shamberg and Charles Crichton Nominated
Best Direction Charles Crichton Nominated
Best Actor in a Leading Role John Cleese Won
Kevin Kline Nominated
Best Actress in a Leading Role Jamie Lee Curtis Nominated
Best Actor in a Supporting Role Michael Palin Won
Best Actress in a Supporting Role Maria Aitken Nominated
Best Original Screenplay John Cleese Nominated
Best Editing John Jympson Nominated
David di Donatello Awards Best Foreign Screenplay John Cleese Won
Directors Guild of America Awards[36] Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures Charles Crichton Nominated
Edgar Allan Poe Awards Best Motion Picture Screenplay John Cleese Nominated
Evening Standard British Film Awards Best Film Charles Crichton Won
Peter Sellers Award for Comedy Won
Golden Globe Awards[37] Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy Nominated
Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy John Cleese Nominated
Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy Jamie Lee Curtis Nominated
Goldene Kamera Golden Screen Won
Nastro d'Argento European Silver Ribbon John Cleese Won
Writers Guild of America Awards[38] Best Screenplay – Written Directly for the Screen John Cleese and Charles Crichton Nominated

Laughing death[edit]

During the initial run of the film, a Danish audiologist named Ole Bentzen died while laughing during a screening, which led newspapers to report that he had died from laughter.[39][40][41] The official cause of death was heart fibrillation, which may have been caused by an increased heart rate due to extended laughter.[42] Cleese considered using the event for publicity, but ultimately decided that doing so would be in bad taste.[40]

Sequels and adaptations[edit]

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 or audiences as A Fish Called Wanda.[43] The novelization of Fierce Creatures, written by Iain Johnstone, who co-wrote the film, begins with a letter from Archie (John Cleese's character in the first film) to his brother Rollo. 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, apparently showed up with a bag of tropical fish as a peace offering but did not even get close before Ken had security guards throw Otto out of the park. Otto as an act of final revenge empties the bag of fish into his mouth and swallows with no remorse.

In 2008, it was reported that John Cleese and his daughter, Cynthia (who played his screen daughter, Portia), had started to work on a stage musical version of the film.[44]

Indian adaptations[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "A Fish Called Wanda (15)". British Board of Film Classification. June 15, 1988. Archived from the original on November 3, 2016. Retrieved November 2, 2016.
  2. ^ "A Fish Called Wanda". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. Archived from the original on January 18, 2012.
  3. ^ "'A Fish Called Wanda' turns 30: an oral history of a comedy classic". SBS. April 2, 2018. Retrieved February 2, 2019.
  4. ^ McCall, Douglas (July 21, 2014). Monty Python: A Chronology, 1969–2012 (2nd ed.). Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company. p. 128. ISBN 978-0-78647-811-8 – via Google Books.
  5. ^ "British Film Institute – Top 100 British Films". Cinemarealm.com. 1999. Retrieved August 27, 2016.
  6. ^ a b Oliver, Myrna (September 16, 1999). "Charles Crichton; British Director of Movie Comedies". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved December 29, 2015.
  7. ^ a b c d Harmetz, Aljean (March 26, 1989). "'Fish Called Wanda' a Crichton keeper". The Milwaukee Journal. Retrieved December 29, 2015.[permanent dead link]
  8. ^ Vallance, Tom (September 15, 1999). "Obituary: Charles Crichton". The Independent. Archived from the original on November 24, 2015. Retrieved December 29, 2015.
  9. ^ Palin, Michael (2009). Halfway to Hollywood: Diaries 1980–1988. St. Martin's Press. p. 412. ISBN 978-0-312-68202-6.
  10. ^ Alexander, Michael (August 15, 1988). "His Love Life May Be Fawlty, but John Cleese Is Reeling in Cash and Kudos with a Fish Called Wanda". People. Retrieved July 12, 2018.
  11. ^ a b Bergan, Ronald (September 14, 1999). "Charles Crichton". The Guardian. Retrieved December 29, 2015.
  12. ^ a b "A Fish Called Wanda (1988)". Box Office Mojo.
  13. ^ "UK Box Office's Weekend Record-Breaker". Screen International. August 16, 1996. p. 23.
  14. ^ "UIP's $25M-Plus Club". Variety. September 11, 1995. p. 92.
  15. ^ "Vid biz often outsmarts b.o.". Variety. December 27, 1989. p. 1.
  16. ^ a b c "The 61st Academy Awards (1989) Nominees and Winners". Oscars.org.
  17. ^ "Nominees & Winners for the 61st Academy Awards". Oscars.org. August 24, 2012. Archived from the original on March 8, 2012.
  18. ^ "Fish Called Wanda, A". Goldenglobes.org. Archived from the original on April 14, 2013.
  19. ^ "The 46th Annual Golden Globe Awards (1989)". Goldenglobes.org. Archived from the original on November 24, 2010.
  20. ^ "Jamie Lee Curtis". Goldenglobes.org. Archived from the original on April 14, 2013.
  21. ^ "Awards Database (1988)". Bafta.org.
  22. ^ "1989 Film Actress in a Supporting Role". BAFTA.org. Retrieved August 12, 2016.
  23. ^ "The 100 best British films". Empire. Retrieved September 4, 2019.
  24. ^ "Bravo's 100 Funniest Movies List is Laughable". Projectbravo.com. June 2, 2006.
  25. ^ Kanfer, Stefan. "The Top 100+ Funniest Movies of All Time". Reader's Digest. Archived from the original on October 7, 2010. Retrieved December 16, 2010.
  26. ^ "AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs" (PDF). American Film Institute. Archived from the original (PDF) on June 24, 2016. Retrieved August 18, 2016.
  27. ^ "AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains Nominees" (PDF). American Film Institute. Archived from the original (PDF) on November 4, 2013. Retrieved August 18, 2016.
  28. ^ Berardinelli, James. "A Fish Called Wanda". ReelViews. Retrieved October 25, 2017.
  29. ^ "Berardinelli's All-Time Top 100". ReelViews. Retrieved October 25, 2017.
  30. ^ A Fish Called Wanda at Rotten Tomatoes
  31. ^ A Fish Called Wanda at Metacritic Edit this at Wikidata
  32. ^ "Best Movies of 1988". CriticsTop10.com.
  33. ^ "Movie Title Search". Cinemascore. Archived from the original on December 20, 2018. Retrieved July 27, 2020.
  34. ^ "The 61st Academy Awards (1989) Nominees and Winners". Oscars.org. Archived from the original on May 2, 2019. Retrieved July 31, 2011.
  35. ^ "BAFTA Awards: Film in 1989". BAFTA. 1989. Retrieved September 16, 2016.
  36. ^ "41st DGA Awards". Directors Guild of America Awards. Retrieved July 10, 2021.
  37. ^ "A Fish Called Wanda – Golden Globes". HFPA. Retrieved July 10, 2021.
  38. ^ "Awards Winners". Writers Guild of America. Archived from the original on December 5, 2012. Retrieved June 6, 2010.
  39. ^ Goad, Jim (March 17, 2015). "10 People Who Literally Died From Laughter". Thoughtcatalog.com.
  40. ^ a b King, Darryn (July 12, 2018). ""Just a Concoction of Nonsense": The Oral History of A Fish Called Wanda". Vanity Fair.
  41. ^ Archived at Ghostarchive and the Wayback Machine: The Late Show with Stephen Colbert (July 24, 2018). "John Cleese Says Trump Reminds Him Of A Pro Wrestler". YouTube.
  42. ^ Bjørnkjær, Kristen (April 10, 2013). "Manden, der døde af grin" [The man who died from laughter]. Dagbladet Information (in Danish). Videnskaben anerkender ikke, at man kan dø af grin, men i praksis dør man nogle gange under et latteranfald. Pulsen kan ryge drastisk i vejret. Den officielle dødsårsag for Ole Bentzen var hjerteflimmer.
  43. ^ "Fierce Creatures". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved July 21, 2014.
  44. ^ Eden, Richard (June 14, 2008). "Memories of Jamie Lee Curtis make John Cleese sing again". The Daily Telegraph. London. Archived from the original on June 17, 2008. Retrieved April 23, 2010.
  45. ^ FC, Team (November 21, 2020). "From Mammootty's Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha To Mohanlal's Kaka Kuyil: Eight Malayalam Films Restored And Streaming".
  46. ^ Wright, Neelam Sidhar (2015). Bollywood and Postmodernism. Edinburgh University Press. p. 218. ISBN 978-0-74869-635-2.

External links[edit]