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“Puts head in mouth of Hollywood lion, and directs first American studio film.”

-- Terry Gilliam

Director Terry Gilliam may have had doubts regarding filming The Fisher King.  But the result ofthe elusive grail his efforts is one of the oddest films to ever be produced by a major studio.  We, the viewer, need to celebrate this oddity, for it is both an extraordinary and exceptional achievement.  To find beauty within the Hollywood system is a rare event.  In The Fisher King, Gilliam was able to mould together the cinematic equivalent of the Holy Grail, despite attempts by fearful executives, wary insurance agents, and other suits whose sole creativity lies in their amazing ability to rip out the soul of film productions. 


The Acting

This film is a testament to Terry Gilliam’s ability to garner organic and genuine performances from his actors (as evidence, please see Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt’s acting chops in Gilliam's 12 Monkeys, where they arguably both played their best roles to date -- in fact, Pitt won a Golden Globe).  The Fisher King is led by the four lead performances. 

jack and parry storyboardMany have argued that Jeff Bridges was most deserving of an Oscar nomination; his role was certainly the more difficult, in that it required him to anchor Robin Williams' wild portrayal of Parry.  Bridges certainly does put in a solid performance, and is able to keep his character likeable to the viewer even when his behaviour is rather rotten.  It takes a certain degree of charisma and charm, and a sprinkle of ferocious talent, to grab the viewers attention in Bridges’ subtle manner.  At the very least, this reviewer feels that if Williams received a nomination, Bridges was undoubtedly deserving of one as well.  Both actors are great in their roles -- and both are channelling their talent directly from its intangible source. 


As for Williams, there is a scene after the hilarious Chinese Restaurant sequence that threatens to tear one’s heart out, ala Spielberg’s Temple of Doom.  It starts with such an innocent display of Parry’s touching love and devotion to Lydia.  The truth and good of Parry's character are revealed guilelessly.  His emotions are deeply felt.  All Lydia can say in reply is,

“You’re real, aren’t you?”

And it’s just after this moment, just when all seems right with the world, and the fairy tale has come to its happy conclusion, that Parry glances at his distorted reflection in the window.  parry's transformation

He pleads, “Let me have this.”

The subsequent scene allows the audience to bear witness to Williams’ versatility.  Within the confines of a handful of scenes, he has gone from singer, to comedian, to romanticist, to pain and suffering, and finally madness.  And throughout it all, he's made us believe. 

Mercedes Ruehl’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Anne Napolitano needs little mention for the plain fact she was made for the part.  Strong, feisty, independent, spirited…every scene she’s in is filled with intensity, usually verbal, emotional, or sensual, and sometimes all of these at once.  She’s not “nice” or “passive” and certainly not “submissive”.  Anne’s as real as you can get.  It just takes Jack the whole movie to figure this out. 

The characterization of Lydia almost becomes a caricature.  It’s tempting to say that of all Amanda Plummer’s quirky roles, this is the quirkiest.  But then one would have to discount her stints in Pulp Fiction and The World According to Garp.  Of the four leads, this role is the most limited, as the result of having the least amount of screen time.  But Plummer does accomplish the laudable feat of making her character unforgettable.  She’s both clumsy and yet somehow exquisite.  As Parry exclaims, “Look at that jaw!”

parry, anne, jack & lydia


The Cinematography

The camera is alive in this film, as in most of Gilliam’s escapades.  Near the beginning, there is a view of the New York sky that quickly dips all the way down, revealing Anne’s “Video Spot” store stuck between towering buildings.  A very simple shot.  Yet it establishes the setting in a spectacular manner while also symbolizing Jack's descent -- he used to live at the top of one of those skyscrapers, but now he's barely above street level. 

Roger Pratt’s camera work is wild and varied, but always graceful.  From weaving through the crowd of waltzing commuters in Grand Central Station and the audacious chases with the Red Knight, to the eloquent clouds drifting over Central Park at midnight and the slow pan backward in the Chinese Restaurant as Parry lovingly recites “Lydia the Tattooed Lady”. 

Jack's shadow: vibrantYou know Gilliam is hunting for the impossible angles and perfect contrasts.  Near the climax of the film, as Jack scales the castle-house, his shadow is lit so vibrantly as to almost steal our eyes away from the flesh and blood character.  To his much-deserved credit, Pratt misses none of the Gilliamesque details, while still managing to focus on the crux of the story:  the characters. 


The Director

In this film, Terry Gilliam is fully in his element.  Fantastic images, idiosyncratic characters, fantasy clashing with reality…this is the essence of his artistic themes.  Surprisingly, this was the first film he directed which he didn’t also have a hand in writing.  One could say it’s the best script he never wrote.  But for all the flash of the Red Knight, the quest to find the Holy Grail, and the hilarity of the “Little People”, it’s the small character scenes that dominate the film.  It’s a testament to the man with a million ideas that he never loses his focus. 

There is little doubt that Gilliam was made for this film.  Inparry as drawn by gilliam the hands of anyone else, the magic of The Fisher King would’ve fallen through the cracks.  Who else would see New York commuters in rush-hour and think to himself -- what if they all suddenly fell in love and started to waltz? He may have put his head into the mouth of the Hollywood lion to direct this film, but he came out as cunningly inventive as ever. 


The Script

All films are based on the foundation of the words put on the page by the screenwriter.  In the first script he penned himself, Richard LaGravenese certainly hit it out of the ballpark.  One could argue he has never matched this witty, innovative and resonate story.  His Holy Grail, so to speak. 

Comparing the original script with what ended up on screen is an interesting exploration.  It’s evident that Terry Gilliam tightened some of the sections, and the actors (Williams in particular) changed the dialogue in fits of spontaneity.  But the film is better for it.  Interweaving a male friendship, two love stories, mental illness, Ethel Merman, a fire-breathing Red Knight and the Holy Grail into one script (and somehow making it work) is an undeniable achievement by Mr. LaGravenese. 


The Miscellaneous the red knight

The music fits the film nicely, using a combination of classics and new songs and score.  Read my full review here.  The costumes are fantastic -- Parry is an unmistakable fool, while clumsy Lydia has hints of a medieval princess.  Of course, the Red Knight is a sight to behold, at once both awe-inspiring and terrifying, while Mel Bourne and Cindy Carr’s Oscar-nominated art direction really brings the streets of New York alive. 

So is there anything I don’t find particularly appealing about the film?  To my ears, there’s an excess of four-letter words (but then, the film is set in New York, after all).  Also, the odd joke here and there falls flatter than a pancake.  But, like any work of art, there are always scuffs and scraps.  No film is a flawless diamond.  If they were, things would become boring mighty fast.  The personality of every film caters to a particular audience.  It is the unromantic, unimaginative and the unfeeling who will scoff at what The Fisher King tries so valiantly to express:  wonderful characters and comedy, wonderful images and themes, and, simply put, Wonder with a capital W. 


The Conclusion

grand central waltzAn astonishing film, filled with a whimsical synthesis of ideas.  Yet the underlying themes are deep and resonant, and The Fisher King always earns its moments of laughter and despair.  Finding beauty in the most unlikely of places, falling hopelessly in love, Jack’s character arc of guilt and redemption, and Parry’s journey through the trauma of his past…as these events unfold, the viewer is taken on a roller-coaster ride of comedy, adventure, and tragedy.  The Grand Central Waltz is one of the greatest scenes ever put to film.  Needless to say, there is much to be treasured here. 

For myself, no other film has inspired such life-affirming virtues.  Parry may play the part of the fool, but his wisdom is greater than any king.  While I may not go frolicking nude in the park, the idea never fails to put a smile on my face. 

In conclusion, I like The Fisher King.  How about you?

Lee Beavington

December 31, 2003



"How About You?"



I like Fisher King’s tune,

How about you?

I like a grail at noon

How about you?

I love a good waltz

When my love is near

How about you?

I like Chinese food


In Central Park

How about you?


I'm mad about good films

Can't get my fill,

And Amanda Plummer's looks

Give me a thrill

Writing poems

On this website

When all the lights are bright

May not be a review

But I like it,

How about you?

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