Some artists have one or two enduring works, but John Cleese’s corpus of work is extensive. From Monty Python’s Fawlty Towers to A Fish Called Wanda and beyond, he is responsible for some of comedy’s most recognizable characters. The routines on Monty Python’s Flying Circus allowed the entire cast to exercise their acting talents and experiment with a variety of characters, lessons that served them well in their subsequent film work.
1. The Elephant Man
Taking the Monty Python crew back to the basics, this sketch-based movie follows the meaning of life from birth to death with lots of fun, surreal stops along the way. Cleese plays a gangster, a lawyer, an innocent fish and even the Grim Reaper in this comedy that was nominated for an Academy Award.
Director David Lynch demonstrates his ability to balance straight-laced drama and gonzo comedy in this movie about John Merrick (John Hurt). Lynch does some interesting things with the cinematography such as prolonging John’s appearance for long periods of time and positioning the camera from his perspective. This makes the audience see how he felt as they viewed him through his eyes. It also illustrates the exploitation that he suffered at the hands of society. It’s a gut wrenching scene that makes you appreciate the movie as a whole.
2. The Human Face
After a stint on David Frost’s TV shows (That Was the Week That Was, The Frost Report), Cleese started his film career with this comedy. He has a knack for looking absolutely normal while doing and saying the most absurd things.
He also plays a character who is trying to sell the British invention the “Pizza Oven.” Cleese’s acting and writing in this movie is impeccable.
After Desmond Llewelyn retired from the role of Q in the James Bond movies, John Cleese was cast as his replacement. In this four-part series, Cleese investigated identity, perception, creativity and sexuality through a mix of art, technology and deeply moving human interest stories. The resulting show is brilliant and hilarious. It’s almost like a back-to-basics return to Monty Python with a new sense of purpose. This is a must-see for any fan of British humor.
3. The Life of Brian II
It’s hard to boil down the career of an artist like John Cleese to just one or two projects. The UK comedian has been behind some of the most iconic comedies of all time, including Fawlty Towers and Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life.
Life of Brian tells the story of a man named Brian Cohen who, by a series of absurd events, is mistaken for Jesus Christ. The flixtor film lampoons everything from religious fanaticism to haggling and even stoning.
The movie has a number of iconic moments, but the most famous comes during the stoning sequence. In the scene, Brian tries to distract his captors by reciting Jesus’ parables in a mockingly monotone voice. This only confuses the Roman guards more, leading them to yell at him even more. He then responds with his most famous line, “Always look on the bright side of life.” The line is now synonymous with the film.
4. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
When West England villager Arthur Dent wakes up on a normal day, he doesn’t expect bulldozers to be parked outside his house in order to demolish it for an inter-galactic freeway. He also doesn’t anticipate being thrown into space in the company of a friendly alien and a sardonic omniscient computer.
Cleese, who wrote the screenplay for this wacky sci-fi misadventure, makes a likable Dent. He is matched by Bill Nighy as the kindly, though absent-minded Slartibartfast, and Alan Rickman’s nasal drones as Marvin the Paranoid Android.
Fans of Monty Python will be happy to see the troupe’s famous sketches adapted to film in this hilarious movie. Especially fun are the bits with the Magrathean “factory floor” and the queue of bureaucratically trammelled Vogons. This is one of the most entertaining movies based on a book.
5. The Elephant Man
One of the few non-Python movies Cleese wrote, this movie combines elements of black comedy, cartoons and slapstick to create an oddly funny and touching story. It’s a film that doesn’t try to be clever for its own sake but instead uses humour as an exploration of human nature and the darker side of humanity.
The movie follows John Merrick aka ‘The Elephant Man’, a disfigured Victorian person. The film depicts his journey from enslavement in a sideshow circus to becoming a fashionable figure of London society.
The cinematography is a stand out feature. The camera often appears to be from John’s perspective, which accentuates his appearance. At other times it appears as though the camera is being held by his nurse. These elements are used to portray the idea that internal ugliness is much more frightening than physical appearance.