A Fish Called Wanda

A Fish Called Wanda is a 1988 British-American 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.

A Fish Called Wanda
US theatrical release poster
Directed byCharles Crichton
Produced byMichael Shamberg
Screenplay byJohn Cleese
Story by
  • John Cleese
  • Charles Crichton
Music byJohn Du Prez
CinematographyAlan Hume
Edited byJohn Jympson
Distributed by
Release date
  • 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$8 million[3]
Box office$62.5 million[4]

The 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.[5] 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.[6]


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, a stupid 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 them 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 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, which Archie's wife, Wendy, mistakes for a gift for her. At Wanda's insistence, Archie recovers the pendant by staging a burglary. Eventually, Archie, feeling guilty, ends the affair.

George asks Ken to kill Mrs Coady, the Crown's only eyewitness to the robbery. Ken tries three times, but each time accidentally kills one of her dogs instead. This causes him great distress, but last dog's death gives her a fatal heart attack, so he is successful. With no witness, George seems poised to get off soon. He gives instructions to Ken, revealing the location of the diamonds, but Otto accidentally learns Ken now knows their whereabouts. Otto tries to force Ken to reveal the place by eating his 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, defence witness Wanda unexpectedly gives evidence against him. When Archie, stunned, flubs his questioning and inadvertently calls her "darling", Wendy realizes that Archie has had an affair and 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 Archie that Ken knows where the diamonds are. Archie sees Wanda fleeing the courthouse, pulls her into his car and races to Ken's flat. As Archie runs into the building, Otto steals Archie's car, taking Wanda with him. Ken and Archie give chase. Otto and Wanda recover the diamonds, but Wanda double-crosses him and leaves him unconscious in a broom cupboard. Recovering, Otto shoots his way out and is confronted by Archie. Otto is about to kill him, but Archie stalls him by taunting Otto about American failures such as the Vietnam War. 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.



Cleese and Crichton had previously attempted to make a film together in 1969.[7] Although the project never entered development, they promised each other that they would eventually collaborate on a film.[8] 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.[8] 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."[9] According to Michael Palin, the original title was "A Goldfish Called Wanda."[10]

Cleese told an interviewer that he called his character Archie Leach, Cary Grant's real name, because "I feel this film is as near as I'll ever get to being Cary Grant."[11]

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.[7][8][12] On the set, Crichton wore a T-shirt presented to him by Cleese and inscribed "Age and treachery will always overcome youth and skill".[12]

The film was shot in London during the summer of 1987.[8]


On Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds a 93% approval rating, based on 61 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."[13] On Metacritic, the film holds a score of 80 out of 100, based on 17 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews."[14]

After six weeks of wide release in the United States, it reached number one at the box office.[4] It eventually grossed $62,493,712 in the US.[4] It was the number one rental video in the US in 1989.[15]

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

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.[23]

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.”[24]


Award Category Name Outcome
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
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 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

The film is number 27 on Bravo's "100 Funniest Movies".[25] It is also included in the Reader's Digest "100 Funniest Films" list.[26]

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.[27] Then in 2003, AFI nominated Otto West as a villain from this film for AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains.[28]

James Berardinelli of ReelViews awarded the film four out of four stars in his review;[29] it is also number 10 on his "Top 100" list.[30]

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.[31]

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.

A loose Indian adaptation, Padmashree Laloo Prasad Yadav, was released in 2005.[32]

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.[33]


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  2. http://www.afi.com/members/catalog/DetailView.aspx?s=&Movie=55759
  3. "'A Fish Called Wanda' turns 30: an oral history of a comedy classic". SBS. April 2, 2018. Retrieved February 2, 2019.
  4. "A Fish Called Wanda (1988)". Box Office Mojo.
  5. McCall, Douglas. "Monty Python: A Chronology, 1969-2012, 2d ed." Google Books. 21 July 2014.
  6. British Film Institute - Top 100 British Films (1999). Retrieved August 27, 2016
  7. Oliver, Myrna (September 16, 1999). "Charles Crichton; British Director of Movie Comedies". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved December 29, 2015.
  8. Harmetz, Aljean (March 26, 1989). "'Fish Called Wanda' a Crichton keeper". The Milwaukee Journal. Retrieved December 29, 2015.
  9. Vallance, Tom (September 15, 1999). "Obituary: Charles Crichton". The Independent. Retrieved December 29, 2015.
  10. Palin, Michael (2009). Halfway to Hollywood: Diaries 1980-1988. St. Martin's Press. p. 412. ISBN 978-0-312-68202-6.
  11. 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.
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  13. A Fish Called Wanda at Rotten Tomatoes
  14. A Fish Called Wanda at Metacritic
  15. "Vid biz often outsmarts b.o.". Variety. December 27, 1989. p. 1.
  16. "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 Awards". awards.bafta.org. Retrieved August 12, 2016.
  23. "10 People Who Literally Died From Laughter". March 17, 2015.
  24. "The 100 best British films". Empire. Retrieved September 4, 2019.
  25. "Bravo's 100 Funniest Movies List is Laughable". Projectbravo.com. June 2, 2006.
  26. Stefan Kanfer. "The Top 100+ Funniest Movies of All Time". Reader's Digest. Archived from the original on October 7, 2010. Retrieved December 16, 2010.
  27. "AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs" (PDF). American Film Institute. Retrieved August 18, 2016.
  28. "AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved August 18, 2016.
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  32. Neelam Sidhar Wright (2015). Bollywood and Postmodernism. Edinburgh University Press. p. 218. ISBN 9780748696352.
  33. Eden, Richard (June 14, 2008). "Memories of Jamie Lee Curtis make John Cleese sing again". The Daily Telegraph. London. Retrieved April 23, 2010.
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