Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Class: A Fish Called Wanda

Beer-Battered Fish & Chips
Creamy Coleslaw
Homemade Tarter Sauce and Ketchup
Jamie Lee Curtis' Favorite Lemon Cake w/Ice Cream

Well, I lied. This is not part two of a Hitchcock double bill. Well, not really lied... it's coming in December. But today I just saw some rare Hitchcock home movies as part of some screenings during the AMIA film archivist convention that's been here in town for the last few days. My old pal Steve Parr, aka Oddball Film, is staying with me. Good times catching up, but also opportunities to see some rare films from various film archives around the world. Steve had some great footage including an incredible interview by some local tv reporter in the early 1960's with Andy Warhol and someone's home movie of the Jefferson Airplane at the Filmmore West. I also saw some amazing home movies from Douglas Fairbanks, John Barrymore, and film shot at a costume party given by William Randolph Hearst at his Santa Monica home. The last film featured shots of people like Clark Gable, Henry Fonda, and Carole Lombard all in costume.

But by far the home movies of Alfred Hitchcock, circa late 20's or early 30's, narrated by his daughter Patricia, were quite the sight. A young Hitchcock riding a bicycle, playing tennis, and one really weird sequence which I'm not really capable of trying to communicate, but it was a bit, well, interesting.

Class went well tonight. It was a good group and the fish n' chips came out flawless. It was a lot of fun and I had a great crew working with me which made it all so pleasant.

This is another one of those film's I knew right from the start was going to get the Chef du Cinema treatment. It's really, really funny. And that's because of all the time that was put into getting it right. That's the thing with comedy. It does take time. And the trick is to make it seem effortless. This one does it well.

A Fish Called Wanda is available for purchase/download/streaming @ Amazon.


"Now let me correct you on a couple of things, OK? Aristotle was not Belgian. The central message of Buddhism is not every man for himself. The London Underground is not a political movement. Those are all mistakes. I looked 'em up."

Let's start here. In a 1988 radio interview with John Cleese and Michael Palin (if you aren't familiar with Monty Python, and the connection to these two men, you better start here. I'll see you later.) when A Fish Called Wanda was released, Cleese said, "Fish have reoccurred throughout my life. I had an early childhood experience with a fish which meant a great deal to me."

Palin, however, revealed: "He was born a fish, actually."

To wit, Cleese admitted what many had thought, but dared not speak: "There was an operation, I'm prepared to go that far."

Now whether you believe this or not, later in the interview, Cleese also noted that, "Wanda was a stripper at the Crazy Horse Saloon in Paris, which is the best strip joint in the world. Terry Jones and I – and our respective wives – went in 1971 and this fantastic stripper named Wanda came on. I tried to get my first wife Connie to call Cynthia [his eldest daughter] Wanda, and then I tried to get Babs [his second wife] to call Camilla [his second daughter] Wanda. So in the end I had to call my main character Wanda."

Is this fact or fiction? In no other interview I read did he ever mention this fact. So you can believe it, or not. It is a good story though. But other things in A Fish Called Wanda and how it came about have some basis in fact.

Back in late 1960's, Cleese met director Charles Crichton on a film project that never materialized. Cleese had been a long time fan of Crichton's work. Crichton had directed several of the comedy classics at Ealing Studios in the 1950's, including The Lavender Hill Mob and The Titfield Thunderbolt. He also directed a segment of the horror classic Dead of Night, featuring the characters of Charters & Caldicott (see my forthcoming post on The Lady Vanishes). "I said to Charlie, who's the most expert director I had ever worked with, 'We'll do something someday,'" Cleese recalled.

A few years later, Cleese partnered in a company, Video Arts, to make corporate training videos, and brought in Crichton to direct. They became friends and then in the early 1980's, Cleese decided he wanted to write a feature film, a black comedy. He barely had a seed of an idea and spent a few days sitting around a poolside with Crichton at a hotel in France to hash it out.

"I wanted to film a scene where someone with a stutter was trying to get out something very important, and the listener had barely contained patience," Cleese said was how it begun. "He [Crichton] had wanted to film someone being steamrollered before he retired."

Why a steamroller? Crichton had a similar experience when he was younger. "We were working [on a film] in the docks and I got my foot under a girder," he recalled. "I waved [the cameraman] through a tight area, and of course he went on the girder. And he said, 'What's the matter?' and went back over it, and I shouted, so he went over it again. That gave me the idea."

They came up with the idea of a jewel robbery and then Cleese had a brainstorm: "Maybe the Gang Boss has a Girlfriend."

Another thing Cleese was very keen on was how London was to be depicted. "I'd seen Manhattan a few weeks before I started to write this movie, I had been very struck by how Woody Allen had made a very ugly city like New York City look so beautiful, so I tried to do the same for London. Wherever I could find a beautiful location, we went for it," he noted.

As for the man with the stutter, Cleese had only one actor in mind - Michael Palin. "[T]he reason I knew that would be beautifully played by Michael is that his father had quite a stutter, and he was able therefore as a child to observe it," Cleese stated. "There is a very obvious way of doing a stutter which I guess, frankly, most actors would do which wouldn't be right and wouldn't be funny. And it's the little sort of subterfuge, the little tactics that people with a stutter or a stammer use to try and hide it that Michael knew about and was able to incorporate in his performance." (More on the whole stuttering business below.)

In March of 1986, Palin wrote in his diary: "John explains to me his new film 'A Goldfish Called Wanda.' I am to play a man with a stammer who kills Kevin Kline by running him over with a steamroller. John bemoans the fact that he's written himself another 'boring uptight authority figure,' but otherwise sounds very enthusiastic and is very anxious to plan ahead so it can fit in with my dates."

Cleese also knew from the beginning he wanted to work with Kline whom he had been impressed by and befriended while the two of them worked on Silverado. "Kevin moves like no other actor I have worked with," Cleese said. "He is elegant in every physical move, inventive and possesses amazing athleticism.” One has to remember that at the time, even though Kline had been in a few films, including The Big Chill, The Pirates of Penzance, and Sophie's Choice, he wasn't a household name, and was mostly known for his stage work in New York.

As for the girlfriend role, he had thought about various British actresses, but after seeing Jamie Lee Curtis' performance in Trading Places, he decided she had just the kind of energy he was looking for. "I had never seen her in the horror movies she was famous for in America," he noted.

"From the moment Jamie was on board, which was 18 months before we started to shoot the movie, she and I were in constant contact," Cleese said. Elsewhere, he added, "Jamie also contributed a lot of lines. I was sending her early drafts of the movie, particularly asking her for anything that was colloquial from an American point-of-view because I don't feel I write very good American dialogue. So, Kevin and Jamie were constantly phoning and faxing me suggestions."

Even though he had commitments from the other cast members, there was still the matter of completing the script. He had a solid opening - the jewel robbery. He also had the finish - Palin trying to stammer out the information and him running Kline over the with the steamroller. He knew there was to be a romance between he and Jamie Lee's character. But where he was stuck was in fleshing out the second act. He couldn't figure out what both Palin and Kline would be doing.

"[T]he puzzle was: 'What was Ken up to? And what was Otto up to?'" he recalled. "I tried at the very beginning to create a totally separate thread of the story for Kevin, but I discovered it just didn't work. It didn't go anywhere. So I abandoned those scenes, and then, of course, I got the idea that he would be extremely jealous of what was going on between my character and Jamie. And from then on, it was a question of whenever I wrote a romantic scene between me and Jamie we would put Kevin in the background being jealous. So that took care of what Kevin's character was up to."

"I [later] spent two weeks thinking about what is Michael's character going to do in the middle of the movie," he continued. "And I slowly got there by starting from the fact that he would be trying to kill the old lady. Then I thought every time he tries to kill her something else happens. Then I thought, 'Okay, what's he going to kill instead? A pet.' Then I got dogs. Then I thought, 'Okay, that's much more funnier and ironic if Michael is an animal rights activist.' And so the whole thing was constructed highly logically.... Very frequently the funny idea is inherent in what you've already got, you don't necessarily have to have a new idea, you just have to try to examine as closely as possible the nature of what you already have, and try to see what might be missing."

Of course, one other thing was still missing... the money. According to a New York Times article, Cleese "spent $160,000 of his own money in preparing and packaging A Fish Called Wanda without any guarantee of a payback - indeed, four of the five big studios in Hollywood had already passed on the film when MGM picked it up."

Cleese admitted on The Tonight Show that, "When we were selling the story to MGM, I told them it was basically a love story between me and Jamie Lee Curtis, and they said, 'You can have the money provided if you take your clothes off, but provided Jamie Lee keeps hers on.'"

It was a gamble,” MGM's Greg Morrison, then worldwide marketing president for the studio told The Hollywood Reporter. “It was a small English picture. Very few studios would have stepped up to it.”

As Cleese and Crichton neared the start of production, Cleese and Kline went to Jamaica for eight days, "during which [we] really finalized Otto," Cleese explained. "I mean we both improvised. He and I sat there with pen and then I rushed back to England and put it all down. So by the time [Kline and Jamie Lee] both came onto the set – this is what was so fabulous about the way we were able to make this film, the process by which we made it – they were so at ease with those characters, they knew who they were because they created them themselves. And therefore on the first day of shooting, everybody was acting and there without what you sometimes get the first week which is people being a bit tentative and trying to find their character."

However, Kline was reportedly always insecure about his performance. Palin wrote in his diary that, "Kevin spends most of the day racked by doubt – even when he's done the most brilliantly inventive take he stands, shrugs, and looks like a man who's been given a tin of contaminated beef."

"I remember the first day’s shooting," Kline said. "I kept saying, 'Whew. Too much, right?' And John said, 'More.' [I'd ask:] 'Too big?' [and he'd answer,] “Bigger!” [H]e’d seen The Big Chill and he [jokingly] said, 'You’re so fucking boring when you’re doing those [contained performances].'"

Kline said of his character Otto, "He'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."

Although Crichton received full directing credit, as per Cleese's wishes, the two worked very closely together. "Charlie takes total charge of the cameras and I do quite a lot of direction of the actors," Cleese explained. "He sets up the camera angles and when he's ready he calls me in. And then I interfere a bit and make suggestions." Crichton had no problem with this arrangement and noted, "I think this is the ideal way to work, with everybody contributing their special talents and feeling they are part of the film."

In case you don't know, Cleese's character's name "Archie Leach," was Cary Grant's real name. “I was born 20 miles from where the real Archie Leach came from and it is the nearest thing I'll ever get to being Cary Grant!” he told the Los Angeles Times.

They finished principal photography in five weeks. But after putting together a rough cut, Cleese brought the film to the US to do some test screenings. A few things he learned were quite surprising. People had no problem with Palin's character even though he goes about killing dogs. “People always say 'Do you get any protests about killing the dogs?' Nobody ever says, 'Do you get any protests about killing the old woman?'” Cleese laughed.

However, they did have a problem with the murder of the second dog which had squashed guts coming out of it. They had to reshoot it with no guts. They also had to recut to tighten up the "chips up the nose" sequence as audiences were getting a bit squeamish and concerned for Palin's character's well-being.

Writer Robert Towne came up to Cleese after a screening in LA and suggested he beef up the relationship sequences between Cleese & Curtis. Cleese did that as well in reshoots.

The last of the reshoots was the final shot of the film where we see Kevin Kline's character peering in on the wing of the plane. Apparently, test audiences felt that Kline's character didn't deserve to die, just be run over by a steamroller.

But it all paid off in the end. A Fish Called Wanda broke all records in the US for previous British films. Crichton and the screenplay were both nominated for Oscars. Kevin Kline won his Oscar, and Cleese and Palin both won BAFTA awards for their performances. Crichton was also nominated for a Director's Guild award, and the script garnered a Writer's Guild nomination. Both Cleese and Jamie Lee Curtis received Golden Globe nominations.

A decade later, the cast reunited for a non-sequel to Wanda, Fierce Creatures, which was unfortunately not as funny nor as well-received.


The idea that someone might be upset about this movie is not surprising given the kind of black comedy it is, and that some people have reasons (sometimes valid, sometimes not) for feeling more sensitive regarding certain subjects. You might think animal activists might have found it insulting. Or old ladies with dogs (you don't want to mess with them!). Or lawyers. Or the entire British people considering some of the jokes directed at them. One group did, at first, take offense. There was some outcry about Palin's stuttering.

"Actual stutterers had mixed reactions to the role," wrote Palin in an Op-Ed in the Los Angeles Times earlier this year. "Some were pleased that a stutterer figured so prominently in the film and that he got revenge in the end on those who had taunted him for his affliction. Others felt that stutterers themselves were being mocked.

"My father's stutter was never discussed. Some days it was negligible and I would hope that perhaps he was getting over it. Then the next day it would be back, and worse. Simple statements blocked up in his mouth. One of us might unwittingly make things worse by hurrying him into what we thought he wanted to say.

"If you stutter, your life is different. Simple things that the rest of us take for granted, like telling a joke or addressing a group at work or giving a speech at your child's wedding, become potential minefields of embarrassment. For my father, daily dialogue was a frustrating ordeal. It is no wonder he had a short fuse.

"I don't mean to paint a portrait of unalloyed gloom. We had many happy times together. But there were also awkward moments

When the film played on American television in 1990, ABC announced it would edit out some of Otto's taunts to Ken to appease the folks at the National Stuttering Project. Which, however, wasn't what the folks at the National Stuttering Project had wanted. They had asked ABC to tag a disclaimer at the beginning of the film, and offer a short program that would discuss the problems stutters have after the film.

Kline offered an apology at one point, noting how his character "was not meant to be taken as a role model for any civilized person when talking to a stutterer."

Watching the movie you'll note that the only person in the entire movie who calls attention to Ken's stuttering is Otto. Everyone else is the movie - true no one else causes Ken to stutter as much - even comments about it. He is completely accepted by everyone else as an equal. As Jamie Lee's character says to Otto at the very beginning: "It's OK, Otto. Ken's good." The only person who mocks him is the oft-described-as-stupid sociopath Otto.

If I may. If any grown adult would think it funny to actually mock someone with any speech impediment, I doubt trying to convince them otherwise in a sensitive, honest way is going to work. If they're that insensitive or dim-witted, you've got to start at the very beginning and get them to actually care about other human beings. These kinds of beliefs are usually not one-offs. It's typically attached to a deeper root.

But let's not forget audiences cheered Ken on as he rolled over Otto at the end. And so, as things got a little heated up, the folks at the National Stuttering Project later wrote a letter to John Cleese, quoted in the booklet accompanying the DVD, which said, in part, “We have regretfully been remiss in acknowledging your brilliant funny work in the hit movie A Fish Called Wanda, and how that has, in the final analysis, helped people who stutter worldwide.” The letter goes on to say that the film served to further awareness of the “cruelty shown to stutterers.”

This story ends with Michael Palin. "Four years after the movie's release, I was contacted by Travers Reid, a successful businessman and a funny, warm and delightful person," Palin wrote. "He was also a stutterer. He and a speech therapist, Lena Rustin, were wondering if I'd support the establishment of a clinic in London to treat stuttering in children. That is how, in 1993, the Michael Palin Centre for Stammering Children was born."


"Hey! Great fish! A little squeeze of lemon, some tartar sauce.... perfect!"

Now you would probably think the idea of serving fried fish and fried potatoes together would date back to the dawn of cooking.... but we don't know of that appearing until the 1800's in England.

The story actually begins about 200 years earlier when battered fried fish first arrived in England thanks to the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions, forcing Jews to flee those countries to anyone who'd take them. Jewish families eventually settled in England and brought with them their favorite dish... fried fish.

"Having fled first to the Netherlands, they went on in the 16th and particularly the 17th centuries to England, where their religious freedom was assured," according to an article in the Los Angeles Times. "'Jewish fried fish' (which was originally served cold, by the way) was admired by 19th-century English food writers, and even Thomas Jefferson developed a taste for it; a recipe shows up in his personal recipe collection."

Chips, or French Fries, which may or may not be French (Belgium also lays claim to its creation), also arrived in England about the same time.

Potatoes themselves have a strange history with England when they first arrived from the New World in the 16th century. According to writer Debbie Stoller, "Sir Walter Raleigh was cultivating potatoes on the Emerald Isles as early as 1576, but when he presented them to Queen Elizabeth, it was a disaster: the cook served the greens to the Queen and threw away the tubers. She was not pleased, and rejected the disgusting meal.... The Scots found no mention of the potato in the Bible and deemed the vegetable unholy.... The Irish, however, could not afford to be so cautious. They were suffering from inadequate food supplies, and the tuber grew fabulously in their climate."

As late as 1733, Stoller quotes English gardener/writer Stephen Switzer who said of the potato: "a food fit only for Irishmen and clowns."

Now you have a choice of two stories to believe as to who brought the two foods together - because before that "Jewish" fried fish was generally served with just bread and, eventually once it became accepted food for "unclownish" Brits, baked potatoes.

Claim #1: A 13-year old Jewish boy living in London named Joseph Malin, in order to help supplement his families' rug weaving enterprise, started selling in 1860 (or 1865, depending on the source) the two items together - first as a street vendor, then eventually opened a shop. In 1968 the National Federation of Fish Fryers put up a commemorative plaque at Malin's of Bow, his shop, recognizing its founding place in the fish & chip industry.

The footnote to this story is that in 1969, British actor-turned-Merv Griffin sidekick, Arthur Treacher, (actually Arthur Treacher Inc. - and apparently, according to Wikipedia, no one is quite sure if Mr. Treacher was actually involved with company that bears his name!) bought Malin's of Bow, and their recipe became the basis of the Arthur Treacher's restaurant empire in the United States.

Claim #2: John Lees who supposedly began selling his version of fish & chips out of a wooden hut in 1830 in the North of England and then opened a shop in Oldham. There is also a plaque commemorating the location of where his restaurant was there.

Regardless of whose story you choose to believe, by 1910, there were upwards of 25,000 fish & chips shops (known colloquially as "chippies") in England, and ten years later there were more than 35,000.

According to the Daily Mail (UK), "Today, Britain's 10,500 fish and chip shops have an annual turnover in excess of £650 million (US$1,036,533,124)."

Now if you'd like to learn how to make fish & chips like a real professional, the Federation of Fish Fryers offers a one or three day training course.

But if you're just into eating, on your next trip to England you may want to check out the winners of the latest National Fish & Chip awards.

I hesitate to say whether my recipe will win any awards, but they certainly won the approval of my stomach. I hope it will do the same for yours.

Phew! I'm outta here. But as always.... cook, watch, eat and enjoy!

Beer-Battered Fish & Chips
Click Here for Printer-Friendly Version

Serves 4

2 cups all-purpose flour + 1/2 cup for dusting
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon ground thyme
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
6 ounces sparkling water, must be very cold!
6 ounces beer (see note), must be very cold!
4 5-ounce fillets Pacific cod (avoid Atlantic as it's endangered), pollock, or haddock (Use fresh, not frozen which will taste dry.) Keep in fridge until ready to use.
canola oil, for frying

Put the 2 cups of flour in freezer for 15 minutes before using. (Don't ask me why. I read it somewhere and I like the mystery of it.)

Meanwhile, preheat your fryer to 375*. If not using a fryer heat a deep pan and add enough oil to cover half the fish (the pan should only be at most 1/2 full with oil - you don't want a lot of splatter. and you want room for the fish to float).

Mix the 1/2 cup flour for dusting with the thyme and black pepper in a plate or shallow baking pan.

Combine the water and beer in a measuring cup.

In a bowl, mix the 2 cups of flour, salt, and baking powder together.

Now, begin by whisking in 1 cup of the beer/water mixture into the bowl. ADD ONLY as much of the mixture to the bowl as needed to achieve a thick batter (like a pancake batter or whipping cream - not like a paste, not like a soup). If you need to do something else now, put batter in the fridge until ready to use.

Pat fish fillets to dry with paper towel, lightly coat with dusting flour/thyme/pepper (shake off any excess), then dip to coat in batter mix (hold over bowl to let excess run off).

Don't overcrowd the fryer or frying pan. Cook in batches if necessary. Put in fryer until golden and crispy - keep your eye on it so it doesn't brown. Move fish around a bit while in fryer which helps give fish a more interesting texture. If in frying pan, turn at the half way mark. Remove fish and let drain on paper towels.

NOTE: Obviously the kind of beer you choose will affect the flavor, and obviously a darker, richer beer will add more flavor than a lighter. (I like a medium brown beer – Newcastle Ale or Shiner Bock will do.)

For "The Chips":

2 pounds russet potatoes [* See Note]
canola oil, for frying
sea salt, to taste

Preheat your fryer to 350*. If not using a fryer heat a deep pot (the pan should only be at most 1/2 full with oil - you don't want a lot of splatter. and you want room for the potatoes to float).

Cut potatoes as you please. The thinner they are, the faster they cook. Place in ICE cold water to keep from discoloring.

When ready, dry potatoes thoroughly.

Prepare paper towels on a large plate or shallow baking pan.

Add potatoes in batches - with enough room for them to float around. Stir to move them around. Remove when JUST BARELY beginning to turn gold.

Let drain and cool on paper towels. (You can actually do this a day in advance!)

When ready to eat. Heat oil up to 375-400*. Again, add potatoes in batches and cook, stirring about 2-3 minutes until they are perfectly golden and crisp.

Remove and again place on paper towels. Toss with salt and serve.

Note: Feel free to try other varieties, but russets are the standard. Peeling is optional.

John Cleese Introduces A Fish Called Wanda @ YouTube
1988 KCRW Radio Interview w/John Cleese & Michael Palin, by Bob Claster
Michael Palin Centre for Stammering Children

A Fish Called Wanda (Two-Disc Collector's Edition) DVD
A Fish Called Wanda OST CD
A Fish Called Wanda: The Screenplay
Halfway to Hollywood: Diaries 1980--1988, by Michael Palin
The Potato: From the Andes in the 16th Century to Fish & Chips, The Story of How a Vegetable Changed History, by Larry Zuckerman

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