Thursday, April 15, 2010

An Oscar for a jester

Oscars are so rarely given out for flat-out comedic performances. On Monday night, I was glad to be reminded of at least one exception to that rule.

My wife and I were in need of a good comfort movie from our collection, one that would make us laugh. As I observed to her at the time, it's rare that you can laugh wholeheartedly at a movie from your own collection -- especially one you've seen as many as ten times, which is about how many times I've seen A Fish Called Wanda. You watch these movies not because you really expect to laugh out loud again at them -- one of the keys of laughter is surprise, and you aren't going to be surprised by something you've seen more than a half-dozen times. Instead, you watch them to be reminded of the gales of laughter you produced upon first viewing, with the best possible outcome being broad smiles and perhaps a few snickers.

That is, unless it's A Fish Called Wanda, featuring one of the best comedic performances I've ever seen -- so good they had to recognize it during awards season.

Kevin Kline won the 1988 best supporting actor Oscar for his work as weapons expert and pseudo intellectual Otto, a role so gut-bustingly funny that it overcame the Academy's usual preference for honoring dramatic work with its precious Oscar statues. There have certainly been actors who've won an Oscar for being funny before and since -- Jack Palance for City Slickers and Cuba Gooding Jr. for Jerry Maguire come to mind. But Kline's Oscar is the only one I can think of that was given just for being funny. In those other examples, the actors had moments of both levity and seriousness. Not Kline. He's just a clown from start to finish, an ostentatious ass that you love despite the fact that he's totally disagreeable.

And I couldn't believe how much I was actually laughing out loud at Kline's creation. Maybe not having seen it for seven or eight years restored some of its surprises, even though I feel like I can quote half the movie. Or maybe it's just so funny that it defies my theory of how many times you can laugh out loud at the same thing.

To be sure, A Fish Called Wanda owes a debt to the other three leads -- John Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis and Michael Palin -- and a considerable debt to its script, co-written by Cleese and director Charles Crichton. In fact, on this viewing I marveled at how tight the script is. But Kline gets far more than his share of the laughs, and it's amazing to me how fully he develops Otto into a collection of consistent tics and mannerisms -- which is also a credit to Cleese and Crichton. Let's look at what we learn about Otto over the course of the movie:

1) He doesn't like to be called stupid;
2) He reads philosophy, but doesn't understand it;
3) He drives an American car (where did he get it?) on the streets of England, and repeatedly yells "Asshole!" after side-swiping other drivers on the wrong side of the road;
4) He can speak Italian -- or at least, produce a fair number of random Italian words -- and uses it as foreplay;
5) He has trouble with lists of options, and frequently asks people to repeat them;
6) He loves America and will defend it until the ends of the earth;
7) He hates all non-Americans, particularly the British;
8) He's incredibly jealous and has a bad habit of letting his jealousy spoil an otherwise smart plan;
9) He doesn't like animals, particularly fish;
10) He inhales deeply of his arm pits in times of crisis and/or insecurity;
11) He likes taunting people with disabilities, particularly, stutterers;
12) And, perhaps most surprising, he's an absolutely whiz with guns, knives, crossbows, and other weapons.

Can you think of another character whose quirks are so clearly and unobtrusively established?

This script is excellent with repetition, one of the keys to comedy. We get multiple instances of each of Otto's quirks, as well as such repeated gags as Palin's Ken repeatedly killing the dogs of the woman he's supposed to be bumping off.

Kline also makes almost all his dialogue quotable. Some examples:

"I love watching your ass when you walk! Don't go near him, he's mine! A pound says you won't kill her!"

"K-k-k-Ken is c-c-c-coming to k-k-k-kill me!"

"Avoid the green ones. They're not ripe yet." (mocking laughter)

"I'm so very very sssss ... FUUUUCK YOU!"

"Don't touch his dick!"

"Wake up limey fish!"

"I'm Harvey Man-fren-gin-son-fred." (Seen that spelled a couple different ways online.)

And my favorite exchange between him and Cleese:

"You pompous, stuck-up, snot-nosed, English, giant, twerp, scumbag, fuck-face, dickhead, asshole!"
Archie: "How very interesting. You're a true vulgarian, aren't you?"
Otto: "You're the vulgarian you fuck!"

In fact, I had a funny realization while watching -- one of Kline's lines from this film is something I say every time I watch House. In that moment about 51 minutes into the hour, when House's eyes go all far away and he considers some diagnostic angle that had previously eluded him, I say "Wait a moment!" in a British accent, and my wife always laughs. I always thought I was imitating some imaginary British inspector discovering a breakthrough in the case, but really, I'm just quoting Kline from this movie: "What do the English usually eat with chips to make them more interesting?" And continuing in a British accent: "Wait a moment! It's fish!"

Okay, so I don't mean for this post to turn into a rote recitation of what makes A Fish Called Wanda so great. Its fans, of which I hope most of you are, already know all this stuff, and there's only so much nodding along you can do.

So back to my original point: An Oscar for straight comedy. I applaud it. Obviously Kline is genius here, but what makes this performance different from all the other genius comedic performances that have never even been considered for nomination? I don't have the answer to that, and will just have to be thankful that the stars aligned to make it so.

It's hard for us to recognize what comic actors do as acting, per se. You might say "Kevin Kline was hilarious in that," or "Kevin Kline was great in that." But you wouldn't be very likely to say "What great acting by Kevin Kline," would you? We think of "acting," in the strictest sense, as using a different accent, or playing someone with a disability. We define it by the very difficulty of it, by the way it requires the actor to be in some way different from his/her true self. Whereas it's very easy to imagine Kevin Kline being some variation on this jester in real life, albeit probably less insecure and douchey.

Like most discussion points about films, it's an open-ended question. I'm just glad the Oscar voters got it right 22 years ago. I guess it wasn't a deep year for supporting actor performances -- one of the other nominations was also for a comedic performance (Dean Stockwell in Married to the Mob), while the other three were for movies that didn't exactly capture the zeitgeist (Alec Guinness for Little Dorrit, Martin Landau for Tucker: The Man and His Dream and River Phoenix for Running on Empty, which I actually love).

But I'll take it however I can get it. Any other perspective on it would be ... well, stupid.

And I don't like to be called stupid any more than Otto does.

1 comment:

Mike Lippert said...

I couldn't agree more. I haven't seen this movie since high school, but now I want to go dust it off the shelf. But yes, Kline is brillant in this movie, as is everyone. I can't think of many movies funnier than this one. Michael Palin trying to kill that old lady and only managing to kill her dogs would be worth the price of admission alone.