HOW A FEW PYTHONS ALMOST MADE IT...
by Hans ten Cate
Friday, 10 May 1996

Thus far, two Pythons have come close to walking up to the Oscar podium. Both Terry Gilliam and John Cleese received Oscar nominations in separate years for Best Screenplay.

Terry Gilliam received an Oscar nomination in 1985 for Best Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen for the movie "Brazil." He shared this nomination with fellow writers Tom Stoppard and Charles McKeown. This came as an exceptionally sweet reward given Gilliam's long struggle to have the film released by Universal Pictures. "Brazil" was not officially released until early 1986, but had already won three Los Angeles Film Critics Association awards including Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Screenplay. Even though Gilliam's film failed to win any recognition from the New York Film Critics Circle (another influential film industry group), it scored two respectable Oscar nominations: one for screenplay and one for Norman Garwood's Art Direction.

Terry Gilliam shared his nomination in good company. Czech-born Tom Stoppard is a well known playwright, having gained recognition at age 29 in England for his one-act play "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead." In addition to a number of plays and one novel, Stoppard has since written a number of screenplays, including those for "Empire of the Sun," "Billy Bathgate," and "The Russia House." Although Stoppard has won several Tony Awards, "Brazil" is his only Oscar nomination to date. Says Gilliam, "it seemed a good idea to get somebody who's as clever verbally as the pictures were going to be - that's really why [Stoppard] was involved. It was a tidying-up operation - Tom was trying to make sense out of many jumbled thoughts, which he did. We tightened up much of it."

Charles McKeown, on the other hand, is certainly not new to the Python group, having starred and collaborated in several Python-related films, including: "Life of Brian," "Time Bandits," "Erik the Viking," "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen," as well as "A Private Function." As an actor-writer, McKeown proved useful in the final draft of the screenplay. "After Tom had done a few drafts, I started working with Charles McKeown to finish it off in its present form," revealed Gilliam.

The "Brazil" writing team lost the Oscar to the screenplay writers of "Witness" and the Art Direction Oscar went to "Out of Africa."

Three years later, in 1988, John Cleese and Charles Crichton were both nominated in the Best Screenplay category for "A Fish Called Wanda." It was a testimony to the notion that hard work really does pay off. "A Fish Called Wanda" had been several years in the making. Cleese remarked on script, "I believe it's almost watertight... It was just a question of working on it a very, very long time, and going through the story again and again and again, and being prepared to rewrite the story every time you had a new idea that you wanted to fit into the movie that would require more rewrites."

Rewrites, indeed. The script apparently underwent at least thirteen major redrafts (most films only go through about five major drafts). "I went through at least three completely different plots before we got anywhere near what we finished up with, which probably then took another six or eight drafts, plus a lot of rehearsal. Almost every scene in there was reshaped and done in different ways," explained Cleese.

Charles Crichton, who helped write the screenplay, was an accomplished British film director who had been directing films for over fifty years. Among Crichton's most notable accomplishments was the 1951 Oscar-winner, "The Lavender Hill Mob." Charles Crichton made his directorial comeback in 1988 with "A Fish Called Wanda," having been on hiatus for nearly twenty years. His work on "Wanda" also earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Achievement in Directing (although he did not win in this category). Crichton's two Oscar nominations for his "Wanda" directing and screenplay credits are his only two to date. Crichton also directed and produced a number of training videos for Video Arts, a management training organization co-founded by John Cleese.

Cleese and Crichton lost the Oscar for Best Screenplay to "Rain Man" and Crichton lost his Director's award to Barry Levinson, also for "Rain Man." But Kevin Kline did win an Oscar that year for his performance as Otto in "A Fish Called Wanda" (see related story below).

Outside of the Oscars, there have been at least a few awards to recognize the true creative geniuses that are Python. We've mentioned the Los Angeles Film Critics Association awards to Terry Gilliam for "Brazil." In 1988, Michael Palin won a Best Supporting Actor Award from the British Film Institute (BFI) for his role as Ken in "A Fish Called Wanda." The BFI is the British equivalent of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the nonprofit organization that presents the Oscars every year.