A Fish Called Wanda
|A Fish Called Wanda|
US theatrical release poster
|Produced by||Michael Shamberg|
|Screenplay by||John Cleese|
|Music by||John Du Prez|
|Edited by||John Jympson|
|Box office||$62.5 million|
A Fish Called Wanda is a 1988 American-British heist comedy film, written by John Cleese and Charles Crichton. The film was directed by Crichton (his final film) and stars Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline, and Michael Palin as 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.
The film 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. A spiritual sequel named Fierce Creatures, with different story and characters but with the same cast and similarities in its tone and humor, was released in 1997.
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 mean-spirited Anglophobe who thinks 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 Yorkshire Terriers. 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. Leach is fed up with his rich but obnoxious wife Wendy and their 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 misfortune, 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 still-unconsummated 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 dogs one by one. This causes him great anxiety, as well as suffering bodily harm as each attempt goes wrong. But he still succeeds, as Mrs. Coady suffers a fatal heart attack when the last dog dies. 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". Furious, George starts a brawl that leads to everyone fleeing the courtroom. Wendy, who was in the spectators' gallery, is now convinced that Archie has had an affair and decides to divorce him.
With his career and his marriage over, 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 characters 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 overpowered 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 traps himself by standing in partially dried cement and is soon run over after he runs out of bullets. Archie joins Wanda on board the plane just before it leaves. Otto, who has survived the steamroller attack, climbs onto the outside of the plane and curses them through the window until he is blown off during takeoff.
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. Otto moves to South Africa and (under apartheid) becomes Minister of Justice.
- 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)
Cleese and Crichton had previously attempted to make a film together back in 1969. Although the project never entered the development stages, Cleese and Crichton promised each other that they would eventually collaborate with each other on a film. In June 1983 Cleese and Crichton began writing the script for Wanda, and for the next two and half years, they met three times a month working 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."
Cleese, despite admitting in press interviews that he had no knowledge of how to direct a film, served as a 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".
On Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds a 93% approval rating, based on 59 reviews, with an average rating of 8/10. 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."
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 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
|Academy Awards||Best Director||Charles Crichton||Nominated|
|Best Supporting Actor||Kevin Kline||Won|
|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 Actress - Motion Picture Musical or Comedy||Jamie Lee Curtis||Nominated|
|Best Actor - Motion Picture Musical or Comedy||John Cleese||Nominated|
Also in 2000, the American Film Institute placed the film on its 100 Years...100 Laughs list, where it was ranked #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 was.
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.
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- A Fish Called Wanda at Metacritic
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