A Fish Called Wanda
|A Fish Called Wanda|
US theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Charles Crichton|
|Produced by||Michael Shamberg|
|Screenplay by||John Cleese|
|Music by||John Du Prez|
|Edited by||John Jympson|
|Box office||$177.9 million|
A Fish Called Wanda is a 1988 heist comedy film directed by Charles Crichton and written by John Cleese. It stars Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline and Michael Palin as a gang of diamond thieves who double-cross one another to find stolen diamonds hidden by the gang leader. A barrister (Cleese) becomes a central figure as femme fatale Wanda (Curtis) uses him to locate the loot. It was Crichton's last film.
This British-American film was released to positive reviews and was nominated for three Academy Awards including Best Director and Best Original Screenplay, winning Best Supporting Actor for Kline. Cleese and Palin won BAFTA Awards for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor for their performances while Curtis was nominated for Best Actress. 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.
London-based gangster George Thomason and his right-hand man, Ken Pile, an animal lover with a stutter, plan a jewel heist. They bring in two Americans: con artist Wanda Gershwitz and weapons expert Otto West, an ignorant and mean-spirited anglophobe. Wanda and Otto are lovers, but they hide this from George and Ken, pretending to be siblings, so Wanda can work her charms on them. The heist is successful and the gang escapes with a large sum in diamonds. They hide the diamonds in a safe in an old warehouse; soon afterward, Wanda and Otto betray George to the police and he is arrested. They return to collect the diamonds, with Wanda planning to double-cross Otto as well, but find that George has moved them. In Ken's fish tank, Wanda discovers the key to the safe deposit box containing the diamonds and hides it in her pendant.
Wanda decides to seduce George's barrister, Archie Leach, so he can persuade George to plead guilty and give up the location of the diamonds. Archie is in a loveless marriage and quickly falls for Wanda. Otto is jealous, and his interference causes Wanda and Archie's liaisons to go disastrously wrong. Wanda accidentally leaves her pendant at Archie's house, and Archie's wife, Wendy, mistakes it for a gift for her, assuming that the ‘W’ on it is for Wendy. Wanda demands that Archie retrieve the pendant (since she needs the key inside), and after failing to convince Wendy to give it up, he ends up faking a robbery at his own home in order to explain its disappearance. Otto arrives at the house to apologise to Archie for earlier insults and interrupts the robbery, knocking the burglar unconscious before he realises it is, in fact, Archie robbing his own home. Archie returns the pendant to Wanda at their next romantic meeting, but it is interrupted and he subsequently telephones her to call off their affair. Otto arrives at the house again to apologise. Wendy overhears their subsequent garden conversation from an upstairs window, and begins to strongly suspect that Archie is cheating on her.
George asks Ken to kill the Crown's only eyewitness to the robbery, an unpleasant old woman who owns three small dogs. Ken tries three times, but each time accidentally kills one of the dogs instead. This causes him great distress, but the last dog's death gives the woman a fatal heart attack, so he is successful. 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 the location, he tries to force Ken to reveal it by eating Ken's pet fish, leaving Ken's favourite, named Wanda, until last. Ken reveals that the diamonds are at a hotel near Heathrow Airport.
With Otto's knowledge and Wanda's key, the pair wants George to remain in jail. At his trial, Wanda, as a defence witness, unexpectedly gives evidence against him. When Archie, stunned, flubs his questioning and inadvertently calls her "darling", it confirms to Wendy (watching from the public gallery) that Archie has had an affair, and she declares their marriage over.
With no career and no marriage, Archie resolves to cut his losses, steal the loot himself and flee to South America. Promised less jail time, George tells him that Ken knows where the diamonds are. Archie sees Wanda fleeing the courthouse, pulls her into his car and races to Ken's flat. They initially bicker, with Archie criticising her deceit and Wanda bemoaning him breaking off their affair, but soon reconcile. They arrive at George’s flat, and as Archie runs into the building, Otto steals Archie's car, taking Wanda with him. Archie painstakingly coaxes Ken, who is stuttering uncontrollably, to tell him where the safety deposit box is, and they set out for Heathrow on Ken’s moped.
Otto and Wanda recover the diamonds, but Wanda double-crosses Otto and leaves him unconscious in a broom cupboard at Heathrow. Before boarding her flight to Rio de Janeiro, Wanda telephones Archie, demonstrating that she does genuinely care for him, but when she gets no response, she reluctantly boards. Otto recovers, shoots his way out of the cupboard, secures a boarding pass from a gullible passenger (listed in the credits as Hutchison) and makes his way to the tarmac, where he is confronted by Archie. Otto is about to kill Archie, but Archie stalls him by taunting Otto about America's defeat in Vietnam. Ken arrives, driving a steamroller, seeking vengeance for his fish. Otto, who has stepped in wet concrete and cannot move, is run over but survives. Archie and Wanda board the plane and Otto, clinging to the window outside, curses them until he is blown off during takeoff.
- John Cleese as Archie Leach
- Jamie Lee Curtis as Wanda Gershwitz
- Kevin Kline as Otto West
- Michael Palin as Ken Pile
- Tom Georgeson as George Thomason
- Maria Aitken as Wendy Leach
- Cynthia Cleese as Portia Leach
- Patricia Hayes as Mrs Eileen Coady
- Geoffrey Palmer as Judge
- Roger Brierley as Davidson
- Llewellyn Rees as Sir John
- Stephen Fry as Hutchison
- Al Ashton as Warder
Cleese and Crichton had previously attempted to make a film together in 1969. Although the project never entered development, they promised each other that they would eventually collaborate on a film. 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. 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." According to Michael Palin, the original title was "A Goldfish Called Wanda."
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 years old at the time. On the set, Crichton wore a T-shirt presented to him by Cleese and inscribed "Age and treachery will always overcome youth and skill".
The film was shot in London during the summer of 1987.
On Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds a 94% approval rating, based on 65 reviews, with an average rating of 8.01/10. 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." On Metacritic, the film holds a score of 80 out of 100, based on 17 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews." According to CriticsTop10, "A Fish Called Wanda" appeared on over 60 critics' top ten lists, making it the fifth most acclaimed film of 1988. Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "A" on an A+ to F scale.
After six weeks of wide release in the United States, it reached number one at the box office. It eventually grossed $62.5 million in the United States and Canada. It was the highest-grossing independent British film of the year with a gross of £12 million. Outside of the US (including the UK), it grossed $115.4 million, for a worldwide total of $177.9 million. It was the number one rental video in the US in 1989.
Kline won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance. 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 Best Actress in a Leading Role at the Golden Globes and BAFTA awards. Michael Palin won a BAFTA for Best Actor in a Supporting Role and Maria Aitken received a BAFTA nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role.
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.”
During the initial run of the film, a Danish audiologist named Ole Bentzen died during a screening when his heart rate rose to an estimated 250–500 beats per minute from laughing at a scene too hard, leading to a fatal heart attack.
|Academy Awards||Best Director||Charles Crichton||Nominated|
|Best Supporting Actor||Kevin Kline||Won|
|Best Original Screenplay||John Cleese and Charles Crichton||Nominated|
|British Academy Film Awards||Best Film||Nominated|
|Best Actor in a Leading Role||John Cleese||Won|
|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 Film Editing||John Jympson||Nominated|
|Golden Globe Awards||Best Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy||Nominated|
|Best Actor - Motion Picture Musical or Comedy||John Cleese||Nominated|
|Best Actress - Motion Picture Musical or Comedy||Jamie Lee Curtis||Nominated|
Also in 2000, the American Film Institute placed the film on its 100 Years...100 Laughs list, where it was ranked number 21. Then in 2003, AFI nominated Otto West as a villain from this film for AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains.
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 or audiences as A Fish Called Wanda.
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, but did not even get close before Ken had security guards throw Otto out of the park.
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.
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