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 by||Charles Crichton|
|Produced by||Michael Shamberg|
|Screenplay by||John Cleese|
|Music by||John Du Prez|
|Edited by||John Jympson|
|Box office||$62.5 million|
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. 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, 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.
- 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 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."
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".
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." 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.
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.
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.”
|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 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.
A loose Indian adaptation, Padmashree Laloo Prasad Yadav, was released in 2005.
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