It’s hard to believe that A Fish Called Wanda turns 30 this year. And yet, despite the ‘80s fashion, the crime caper farce still feels remarkably fresh. Its bitingly witty script (co-written by John Cleese and director Charles Crichton), rich characterisation, superb comedic performances and effortless eccentricity is a lightening-in-a-bottle combination modern filmmakers would kill for. Though, whether they’d eat live tropical fish for it is another question.
Three diamond robbers – Otto, the doltish lothario who likes to think he’s a genius (Kevin Kline), whip smart-and-sexy manipulator Wanda (Jamie Lee Curtis), and shy tropical fish enthusiast and chronic stutterer Ken (Michael Palin) - are on the hunt for their missing jewels. Meanwhile, uptight barrister Archie Leach (Cleese, who named the character after Cary Grant’s given name) gets caught up in the bumbling romp.
Bold, inky-black, laugh-out-loud funny, and a biting commentary on American/British culture clash, the critics largely praised the film. To the surprise of everyone involved, A Fish Called Wanda was a massive hit on its release in 1988, earning $US62.5 million in America from an $US8 million budget, to become at the time, the most successful British comedy ever to be released there.
In a relative rarity, it was a comedy recognised by the Academy Awards, with two nominations for original script and direction, and Kline winning for best supporting actor.
“This was totally a collaborative effort, and I’m afraid it’s spoiled me.”
- Jamie Lee Curtis
Kevin Kline: “I remember John once saying, ‘Look, we’re all going to direct this.” MGM
“Most films, one person is in charge, and you're afraid even to raise your hand with a suggestion. That's frustrating if you're a bright person and trust your instincts. But this was totally a collaborative effort, and I'm afraid it's spoiled me.'' The New York Times
John Cleese: “I said ‘I’ve got this idea for a scene in which you would be in some state of nudity. How do you feel about that?’”
Jamie Lee Curtis: “[I said] ‘You know John, why don’t you be the one to take off your clothes? I think that would be a lot funnier if the guy took off his clothes.’” MGM
“She enjoys being herself and she’s not cold-hearted, not vicious”
- Jamie Lee Curtis
John Cleese: “I didn’t think that I was going to make Wanda American until my daughter took me off to see Trading Places, and Jamie walked on the screen and I thought, who is this girl?”
Jamie Lee Curtis: “I remember him saying, ‘I’m planning on writing this movie for myself, Kevin Kline, Michael Palin, and I would like you to play the female lead. Nobody says this to you in show business and follows through. So you kind of go, ‘Ok, sure, whatever. You’re English, you’re kind of odd, ok!’ MGM
“[The way Wanda was originally written] she was a sexually brazen, cold-hearted manipulator, who simply wanted money. I didn't find that real. I decided she didn't altogether know what she wanted, but finds a wonderful power in manipulating people and feels personal satisfaction in trying to fool them. She plays a slightly different role for each man, yet she enjoys being herself, and she's not cold-hearted, not vicious.” The New York Times
“[He’s] actually alive and adventurous and open minded.”
- John Cleese
John Cleese: “I was kind of embarrassed writing the romantic scenes with Jamie. I didn’t know how to play them and I don’t think of myself as a romantic lead. [Producer] Michael Shamberg was the one who started at the beginning saying that this relationship between Archie and Wanda, it’s the emotional core of the movie.”
Jamie Lee Curtis: “The idea of Wanda, this kind of barracuda of a woman falling for this kind of geeky barrister is lovely, and is unexpected, and is part of the charm of the movie.” MGM
John Cleese: “[He’s] actually alive and adventurous and open-minded, but has an emotional conditioning so deep it's a lifetime's work to escape from it.” The New York Times
“I ended by finding myself both repelled and drawn to him.”
- Kevin Kline
Kevin Kline: “[John said] ‘I want to write a movie where you get run over by a steamroller and eat a lot of Michael Palin’s tropical fish.’ I said ‘Great. I’m in. Let’s do it.’” Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
“I mean, I was the sociopath, the person who gets in terrible rages with people, the one who's fun to perform, while he was relegated to the romantic lead. I told him, you've written the John Cleese part for me.”
“[Otto’s] trying so desperately to create an image, and fails so miserably, he's almost endearing. You can't help appreciating his energy and his extraordinary commitment to himself. I ended by finding myself both repelled and drawn to him.” The New York Times
“He’s bottled up with frustration.”
- Michael Palin
Michael Palin: “I felt that Ken was the sort of person you see in North London, looking very serious as he goes from the bookies to the pub……… He's bottled up with frustration, so much so that the lid goes spinning into the air, and he ends up running someone over with a steamroller. I walked like Ken. I felt like Ken, people treated me like Ken and I resented them because they were doing better out of life than Ken.” The New York Times
MICHAEL PALIN ON THE PLAYLIST
“I have a tougher, slightly blacker sense of humor than most people.”
- John Cleese
(American test audiences found A Fish Called Wanda’s comedy a little too black for their taste. While little dogs meeting untimely deaths, Ken having his nostrils and mouth stuffed with hot chips and a pear respectively as Otto eats his beloved fish alive, and Otto being run over by a steamroller remained, a warmer ending was reshot to replace the original dark one, which featured Curtis in “shark shoes”.)
Jamie Lee Curtis: “Literally the last shot of the movie was going down my leg and freeze framing on the shark shoe. And right then, you knew she was going to take him for everything. The minute they got off the plane, she was going to bop him on the head, take the stuff, and leave. That was the original ending of the movie so we played the whole movie with this very sort of dark intent, it was very black comedy, and of course, when they tested the movie in America, it tested very funny, except that people didn’t like that there was no real love story.” MGM
John Cleese: ''I don't think there's any question that I and my friends have a tougher, slightly blacker sense of humor than most people. Do you know what W. C. Fields said? You can make the average man laugh by having a man dressed up as an old woman potter down the street and fall down a manhole. To make a professional comedian laugh, it really has to be an old woman.'' The New York Times
Watch 'A Fish Called Wanda'
Saturday 4 April, 10:25pm on SBS VICELAND
Sunday 12 April, 7:30pm on SBS World Movies
UK, USA, 1988
Genre: Comedy, Crime
Director: Charles Crichton
Starring: John Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline, Michael Palin
What's it about?
Barrister Archie Leach becomes discombobulated when Wanda, the ladyfriend of a gangster he is defending, makes a pass at him. Actually, Wanda wants to extract information out of Cleese about some diamonds that she and her boyfriend have hoisted with the help of her 'brother' Otto and an animal-rights freak named Ken. Wanda wants those diamonds for herself, and Ken has already been subjected to her feminine wiles. This comedy classic won Kevin Kline the 1988 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
The morning of September 11, 2001 is shown through multiple video cameras in and around New York City, from the moment the first WTC tower is hit until after both towers collapse.