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A Fish Called Wanda
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A Fish Called Wanda

A Fish Called Wanda (1988), one of the best-loved British comedies of the past 20 years, is a caper story full of wacky characters and clever twists. It sends up British stereotypes (inhibition, formality) and American stereotypes (intuitiveness, lack of sophistication). More interestingly for film buffs, it's a blend of two grand traditions of British comedy: the wry 1950s Ealing Studios style and the outrageous, sometimes cruel nature of 1960s Monty Python.

While 77-year-old director Charles Crichton had made the Ealing classics The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953), by 1988 he hadn't directed a feature in 20 years. He received sole credit on this finished film, but Monty Python alum John Cleese's name was listed in the credits through production mainly as insurance in case Crichton died or would be unable to complete the film. In truth, though, Cleese generally worked with the actors on the set while Crichton guided the overall production. On the first day of shooting, Cleese gave Crichton a t-shirt that said "Age and Treachery Will Always Overcome Youth and Skill." Sure enough, Crichton's years of experience paid off: the production finished shooting every day at 6pm and still came in under budget. To top it off, Crichton received an Oscar nomination - as did the original screenplay by Crichton and Cleese.

The script was a true collaboration. The two men worked together on thirteen drafts and also sought input from their cast, even organizing script readings a full 8-10 months before shooting. One such read-through encouraged Cleese to make his character - a straightlaced, uptight barrister - "a bit more like me. More real, more vulnerable and more romantic about Wanda, as opposed to just wanting to get into bed with her." Cleese's character, by the way, is named Archie Leach - Cary Grant's real name - because Cleese and Grant were from the same English hometown, and because, Cleese explained, "it's the nearest I will ever get to being Cary Grant."

On the set, Cleese created a relaxed atmosphere for the actors so that the collaboration could continue. (Kevin Kline described Cleese as having "hosted" the film.) It worked - for everyone. Jamie Lee Curtis turned in one of her best-remembered performances. Kevin Kline, a comic delight as a stuttering, armpit-sniffing animal lover, won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Cleese's own performance benefited, too. He said he tended to find acting dull because, having written the dialogue himself, there was no sense of discovery for him. "But on Wanda I got interested again, because when we came to the more romantic scenes with Jamie, she said, 'Don't rehearse. Let's just see what happens.' I'd never done that. It's scary if you're addicted to rehearsing, as I am - like pushing a boat off from shore without any oars. Sometimes, between takes, Jamie would see me running lines in my head. She'd say 'Don't' and wave a finger at me." Curtis was so full of advice, in fact, that co-star Michael Palin gave her a t-shirt that read, "Wait, I have an idea."

As hilarious as A Fish Called Wanda is, it was not an easy film to finance and produce. Cleese spent over $150,000 of his own money on development and pre-production while trying to arouse interest from the Hollywood studios. Four of them passed before MGM/UA finally agreed to put up the $8 million budget. A good call, for the movie made over $100 million worldwide and became a gigantic hit on video. In fact, A Fish Called Wanda became the most successful British comedy ever released in the U.S. Interestingly, while the picture debuted on July 15, 1988, it didn't reach No. 1 in the weekend box-office rankings until Sept. 16 - a testament to its incredible popularity and still the longest a film has ever taken to reach the top of the weekend rankings.

Test screenings led to some of the more cruel humor being toned down, including a shot of a dog's entrails displayed in a pattern and a scene where Kline uses cats' tails for target practice. The title was a challenge to translate for international release. In Japan, the film was called Wanda, the Diamond, and the Good Guys."

Producer: Steve Abbott, John Cleese, Lee Rich, Michael Shamberg, John Comfort
Director: Charles Crichton
Screenplay: Charles Crichton, John Cleese
Cinematography: Alan Hume
Film Editing: John Jympson
Art Direction: John Wood
Music: John Du Prez
Cast: John Cleese (Archie Leach), Jamie Lee Curtis (Wanda Gershwitz), Kevin Kline (Otto West), Michael Palin (Ken), Tom Georgeson (Georges), Maria Aitken (Wendy Leach).
C-108m. Letterboxed.

by Jeremy Arnold

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