A Fish Called Wanda airs Sunday, March 20th at 3:00 AM
A Fish Called Wanda was released in 1988, a year in which American comedies were sweet (Big), subversive (Heathers), silly (Ernest Saves Christmas), spoofy (The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad), scary (Beetlejuice) and satirical (Tanner ‘88). And that’s only the s’s.
Wanda, to coin a phrase, was something completely different, a farce that is indubitably…what’s the word I’m looking for? Take it away, Phil Donahue.
“British,” proclaimed the iconic American talk show host in an featuring the film’s core cast promoting the film: John Cleese and Jamie Lee Curtis via satellite, and Kevin Kline and Michael Palin in studio. Donahue called the film “aggressive, irreverent and bold in ways that escape the creative artists in this nation.”
Case in point, he noted: “We would never kill three Yorkies in one movie.”
“I love the film,” Palin wrote in Halfway to Hollywood: Diaries 1980-1988. “Nothing I’ve done gives me as much unqualified pleasure.” No, wait; he was referring to East of Ipswich, the semi-autobiographical drama he wrote for British television. Wanda’s six-year journey to the screen, he chronicled, was more fraught, but in a good way.
A Fish Called Wanda sounds like it could be an animated children’s film, which it certainly is not. Asked in another what the film was about, Cleese offered, “It’s basically about this very attractive, dashing, debonair, and dare I say, rather sexy English lawyer who finishes up with diamonds worth $20 million bucks and a girl called Jamie Lee Curtis.”
For her part, Curtis countered, “Actually, the movie is really about this very bright, very interesting American woman who seduces all these stupid men and gets all the diamonds,” while Palin (Kline was not present), corrected, “It’s about this struggling, courageous animal rights liberationist with very tight trousers who fights for what he believes in.”
Actually, Wanda is a heist film, and the only thing better than a heist film, is a bungled heist film, in which a quartet of thieves each has their own agenda and whose trustworthiness is suspect. The most suspect of all is Curtis’ Wanda Gershwitz, who indeed has not only each member of the gang in her thrall, but also Cleese’s buttoned-up barrister, Archie Leach (Cary Grant fans will get the joke), who is defending the gang’s supposed ringleader.
The film is a collaboration of British comic royalty. Cleese, formerly of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and the co-creator and star of Fawlty Towers, wrote what would be his first solo feature film script.
The venerable Charles Crichton, best known for his classic Ealing Studios comedies, The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953), directed. He and Cleese had worked together on comic management training short films Cleese created for his film company, Video Arts. Crichton was 77 and had not directed a feature film in over two decades when Cleese recruited him for Wanda. He went to bat for Crichton when studios objected, citing concerns about his age and health, including a bad back (which was alleviated by acupuncture).
Cleese has always been about ensemble, and Wanda is not the star vehicle one might have expected a screenwriter to create for himself (although his character does get the girl). Casting a net, Cleese has said he was inspired by the legendary Beyond the Fringe troupe of Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller. In “Something Fishy,” a making-of documentary included on a “Special Edition” of the Wanda DVD, Cleese explained that “if you get four funny characters, there are so many combinations you can do…you never quite get bored.”
Palin, a Python colleague, was always in the mix. Cleese pursued Curtis after seeing her fearlessly funny performance in Trading Places (1983). He pitched Kline about playing a character who was the most evil man in the world, and, as the part evolved, also perhaps one of the stupidest. Cleese, playing against type, is the voice of reason, but in the classic tradition of farce, is nonetheless swept up in all the madness.
A Fish Called Wanda plays swimmingly and benefits from repeat viewings. The film’s most quotable dialogue is one word shouted by Kline’s Otto when he discovers a double cross: “Disappointed!” The memorable seduction-interruptus scene gets a subversive kick by having Cleese, and not Curtis, shed his clothes. This was Curtis’ idea; just one of several that finally compelled Palin to gift her with a t-shirt that read, “Wait, I Have an Idea.”
But Wanda’s saving grace is that it is a film that remains true to its darkly comic muse. In Ealing terms, it is closer to The Ladykillers (1955) than the more whimsical Whiskey Galore! (1949). About those Yorkies: what makes their tragic demises so shockingly “I-shouldn’t-be-laughing-at-this” funny is that their deaths are the last thing Palin’s animal-loving character wants. He has been charged with killing a nasty elderly witness, but his attempts on her life each end up going awry, taking a horrific toll on one of her pets.
Another example of a darker British sensibility at work is the scene in which Otto tortures Palin’s Ken by sticking French fries up his nose and one-by-one swallowing his beloved fish. As Cleese told Vanity Fair: “The torture scene, I thought, was the funniest thing I’d ever seen. And yet when we showed it to audiences, there was a squeamishness we couldn’t understand. At some point, we had someone with a tape recorder go in so we could listen during the scene. And there were a lot of ‘eurghhh’ sounds. They were worried that Michael couldn’t breathe. They just didn’t think it was as funny as we did.”
The film does go a tad soft at the end. So invested were test audiences in Archie and Wanda that they gave a thumbs-down to the original more sinister ending in which it is suggested that Wanda, ever the femme fatale, will dupe and abandon him. But Archie’s declaration of love goes no further than, “Behave yourself from now on, or I’ll break your neck.”
A Fish Called Wanda was a minnow in a very big pond. Its budget was a mere $8 million. Initially in theaters as a limited release, it opened on July 15 against the Dirty Harry entry, The Dead Pool, and a re-release of Disney’s Bambi (1942). Coming to America, Die Hard, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Big and Bull Durham, some of the year’s biggest films, were still in theaters.
One initial review of the film was not auspicious. Writing in The New York Times, Vincent Canby was inclined to throw A Fish Called Wanda back. “It's not easy to describe the movie's accumulating dimness or to understand what went wrong,” he wrote. “A private joke to be enjoyed only by the members of the cast and crew who made it.”
But he was in the minority. Roger Ebert called it “is the funniest movie I have seen in a long time; it goes on the list with The Producers, This is Spinal Tap and the early Inspector Clouseau movies.” Richard Schickel called it “the next best thing to a Looney Tunes-Merrie Melodies Summerfest.”
A Fish Called Wanda, was nominated for three Academy Awards, rare for a comedy: Best Original Screenplay, Best Director and Best Supporting Actor, which, even rarer for a comedy performance, Kline won. In 1999, The BFI ranked Wanda 39th on its list of the top 100 British films of the 20th century, right between Alan Parker’s The Commitments (1991) and Mike Leigh’s Secrets & Lies (1996).
Palins’s own assessment upon seeing the film cut together for the first time was positive. Cleese, he wrote, “gave his best all-round performance since Basil Fawlty,” while Kevin and Jamie were “immaculate.”
Following the screening, he said, John had the cast in for a session of thoughts and reactions. “Thorough to the end,” he wrote.