It's an unlikely pairing to say the least, but translator/director Bryan Doerries is convinced that the ideal audience for many ancient Greek plays is a military one; that despite the 2,500 year gap between when they were written and the present, they're more relevant than ever. Bryan is a friend and writing partner of mine, and yesterday he invited me down to San Diego to a staged reading he's translated and directed of several scenes from Sophocles' Ajax and Philoctetes. But the venue wasn't some blackbox theater and the audience wasn't comprised of typical theatergoers; it was the Marine Corps' annual Combat Operational Stress conference, in which about 800 top brass gather to talk about how to handle Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in the military. Four-star generals sitting down to hear actors from New York read ancient Greek plays? Yep -- and they loved it.
Of course, these weren't just any actors -- the cast was comprised of David Straithern, who earned an Oscar nomination for playing Edward R. Murrow in Good Night and Good Luck, Jesse Eisenberg (The Squid and the Whale, Rodger Dodger), Broadway powerhouse Bill Camp and the talented Heather Raffo, whose one-woman show Nine Parts of Desire put her on the map a few years ago. And these weren't just any Greek plays: Ajax is about a hero who, psychically worn down after nine long years of war, snaps at a perceived insult upon returning home and goes mad, slaughtering animals as if they were men -- and finally, himself. Philoctetes concerns an injured man left behind years ago by fellow soldiers on a tiny island, whose wounds, both physical and mental, have only grown more chronic with time. (Would that I had video of the performances, I could share them here; suffice to say, the plays have aged well.)
The reason they're so relevant today -- especially to a military audience -- seems to lie in the fact that Greek civilization was not only the birthplace of drama, but was a highly militarized society, in which all able-bodied males were compelled to serve. Theatrical audiences were comprised mainly of men; therefore, by veterans. And the urge to tell stories, to create these dramas, came out of the need to share battle stories with one another. Moreover, Sophocles was himself a twice-elected general in the Greek army; he knew of what he wrote. And the military assembled for Bryan's reading responded with accolades, with heart-wrenching stories, and with a plea: if we can share our stories the way these people, who seemed to share our values, 2,500 years ago did, then we can start to relieve some of the psychic pain conferred upon us by war.
The BBC, AP and LA Times were in attendance; when these stories hit, I'll certainly be posting bits of them.
All the above photos I shot during a rehearsal; the performance itself was in panel format, seen below. Bryan Doerries is on the right, introducing the material.
UPDATE: here's a link to the Associated Press' story on the reading.
In 1988, the British heist comedy A Fish Called Wanda had audiences in the UK and across the pond rolling in the aisles. Thirty years later, the Oscar-winning ensemble movie about a clueless (but don’t call him stupid) weapons expert, a bumbling barrister, a quick-witted femme fatale, and a stuttering con artist remains a cult favorite. Starring John Cleese, Kevin Kline, Michael Palin, Jamie Lee Curtis, and of course, the eponymous fish, the film is packed with smart writing, silly slapstick, and some of the strongest comic performances of its starring actors’ careers. Here are 11 facts about A Fish Called Wanda for your unreserved enjoyment (just don’t ask us to repeat the part in the middle).
1. IT WAS DIRECTOR CHARLES CRICHTON’S FIRST FILM IN TWO DECADES.
Back in the 1950s, Charles Crichton was a famous director of Ealing Comedies—a series of comedy films produced by London’s Ealing Studios—who was known for his work on films like The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953), Hue and Cry (1947), and The Lavender Hill Mob (1951). By 1988, however, he hadn’t directed a feature film in two decades (though he had worked on TV shows and documentary shorts). He came out of semi-retirement to work on what would become his final film at the behest of John Cleese.
2. CRICHTON AND JOHN CLEESE SPENT FIVE YEARS WRITING THE FILM.
A Fish Called Wanda was years, even decades, in the making. Cleese and Crichton first met and began discussing ideas for a comedy heist film, inspired by The Lavender Hill Mob, all the way back in 1969. Though they parted ways professionally, Cleese continued to look for opportunities to collaborate on a film with Crichton. More than a decade later, he finally got his chance when he found himself working with Crichton on a series of business management training videos.
Though Crichton was already in his late seventies, Cleese managed to convince the semi-retired director to brainstorm ideas for a feature film with him. For the next few years, the two met periodically to throw around ideas and work on the script. All in all, the entire scriptwriting and pre-production process took more than five years and cost $150,000 of Cleese’s own money.
3. IT WAS INSPIRED BY THE EALING COMEDIES.
Unsurprisingly, A Fish Called Wanda was heavily indebted to the Ealing Comedies, especially Crichton’s own The Lavender Hill Mob, a heist comedy which starred Alec Guinness and Stanley Holloway as a pair of bumbling bank robbers. Cleese, however, claimed the parallels between the Ealing Comedies and A Fish Called Wanda were unintentional, but embraced the comparison.
“I knew that my memory of all these great Ealing films was very present, although I wasn’t consciously trying to write an Ealing comedy,” Cleese explained. “But I do remember when we interviewed Johnny Jympson when we were looking for an editor, and Johnny’d read it, and he came in and sat down, and Charlie said, ‘What’d you think?’ and Johnny was almost nervous and he hemmed and hawed a little bit and then he said very uncertainly, ‘Well, it’s an Ealing comedy, isn’t it?’ and we both said, ‘Yes!’”
4. THE ACTORS HELPED SHAPE THEIR CHARACTERS.
Cleese encouraged Kevin Kline, Michael Palin, and Jamie Lee Curtis to contribute ideas and help develop their characters. Curtis, in particular, was responsible for major changes to Wanda’s personality. "She was a sexually brazen, cold-hearted manipulator, who simply wanted money,” Curtis told The New York Times. “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.''
Curtis told The New York Times she reveled in the rare opportunity to shape her own character: ''Most films, one person is in charge, and you're afraid even to raise your hand with a suggestion,'' she explained. ''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.'' She was, apparently, so enthusiastic a contributor over the course of a two-week rehearsal period that Palin gave her a shirt that read, “Wait, I have an idea.”
5. KEVIN KLINE’S CHARACTER WAS INSPIRED BY A LOS ANGELES SELF-HELP GURU.
In A Fish Called Wanda, Kline’s Otto is a pseudo-intellectual who constantly misinterprets everything from the teachings of Buddhist philosophy to the writings of Nietzsche. According to Cleese, his character was inspired by the real-life self-help guru Zen Master Rama, sometimes called the “yuppie guru.”
“I got the real key to the character out of Los Angeles Magazine,” Cleese explained in an interview. “I found a double-page spread for a guru, and I’m pretty sure his name was Zen Master Rama, and he looked about 32 and very unsure of himself, and he had a funny sort of hairstyle like a dandelion at the end of September. But the key thing was the line across the top of this two page advertisement for the seminars he ran at weekends, which was ‘Buddhism gives you the competitive edge.’ And I thought this was unbelievably funny.”
6. CLEESE’S CHARACTER WAS NAMED AFTER CARY GRANT.
Cleese named his character Archie Leach after movie star Cary Grant, who was born Archibald Leach. Though Cleese’s bumbling lawyer has little in common with the famously debonair Grant, Cleese explained that he chose the name because he and Grant shared a hometown, and because it was the closest he would ever get to “being Cary Grant.”
7. THE ORIGINAL ENDING WAS MUCH DARKER.
A Fish Called Wanda started off as a much darker comedy, but test audiences in America were apparently uncomfortable with the film’s cruelty, and lack of romantic payoff, so Crichton and his cast went in for a few re-shoots. In addition to softening Palin’s character a bit, they ended up re-shooting the film’s ending three times.
“We played the whole movie with this very sort of dark intent—it was a 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,” Curtis said, further explaining:
“The original ending of the movie was much darker. The costume designer and I had a really great time costuming this character, and in a department store in London on sale, we found a pair of shark shoes, and we bought them because we just thought, ‘Well, she’s just a shark.’ And we wore them in that last scene, and 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.”
8. CLEESE CUT A BIG CHUNK OF THE CATHCART TOWERS SCENE.
In addition to changing the ending, Cleese cut several minutes from the film’s penultimate scene, in which Archie tries to get the stuttering Ken (Palin) to telling him where Wanda, Otto, and the diamonds are. Ken, whose stutter gets worse under pressure, can’t seem to utter the two words “Cathcart Towers.”
Initially, the scene was a Monty Python-esque series of increasingly absurd stunts—Ken attempting to sing the words (which remains in the final film), Archie trying to feed a tissue through a typewriter, Ken writing in toothpaste on a window—but Cleese worried the scene, which arrives at the climax of the film, was overly long and dragging the plot down, and so deleted most of it.
9. ONE AUDIENCE MEMBER LAUGHED HIMSELF TO DEATH.
Ole Bentzen, a Belgian audience member, was so tickled by the scene in which Ken has French fries stuck up his nose, that he actually laughed himself to death. The scene reminded him of a similar experience at a family dinner, in which his family had shoved cauliflower up their noses to great comic effect. He began laughing so hard, his heart rate escalated dangerously, causing a fatal heart attack.
10. IT WAS NOMINATED FOR THREE OSCARS.
Comedy movies rarely fare well at the Oscars, but A Fish Called Wanda was an exception. The film was nominated for three awards: for Best Original Screenplay (for Cleese and Crichton), Best Director, and Best Supporting Actor for Kevin Kline, who took home the statuette.
11. IT WAS THE TOP VIDEO RENTAL OF 1989.
A Fish Called Wanda beat a number of higher-budget blockbuster movies, including Die Hard (1988) and Coming to America (1988), as well as the Oscar-winning Rain Man (1988), to become the top video rental of 1989. Its success was due, in part, to an advertising partnership with Cadbury Schweppes, which plastered grocery stores for weeks with ads for the film.