Stutter Group Pickets Over ‘Wanda’ Role

Times Staff Writer

Outraged by the “cruel and demeaning” treatment of a character who stutters in the Academy Award-nominated comedy “A Fish Called Wanda,” members of the Orange County chapter of the National Stuttering Project picketed Tuesday outside the offices of MGM in Culver City.

During the peaceful 2-hour demonstration, 10 members of the nonprofit self-help organization carried signs that said, “Wanda Insults People Who Stutter” and “Educate, Not Humiliate.”

In the critically acclaimed farce, Otto, a sadistic paramilitary character portrayed by Kevin Kline, constantly ridicules the stammering animal lover Ken (Michael Palin). Otto “is very cruel and demeaning, and we are concerned that that kind of behavior will be passed on to other people who stutter,” said Orange County chapter member Ira Zimmerman, 48, of San Juan Capistrano.

“Honestly, I’ve been stuttering most of my life--almost 44 years--and I have never heard more people laugh when I stutter (than) since the movie came out. If this is happening to me, it’s certainly happening to other people who stutter, and it’s certainly happening to youngsters who stutter.”


Protester Annie Bradberry, 30, of Corona said that whenever she brings up the movie, people begin to mimic the stuttering. “It makes me angry because I think of the children out there. Now that the movie is on video, it’s into the hands of children, and children are basically cruel to other children with handicaps.”

Bradberry, a stutterer, said she waited until the movie was out on videotape to see it. “I could not sit in a theater with people laughing at it,” she said.

Zimmerman said he delivered a list of three requests to the office of an MGM official. The chapter wants the company to:

--Prominently display with future showings of the movie a disclaimer, written last fall by “Wanda” producer Michael Shamberg, saying he does not want audiences to draw any negative inferences about people who stutter.

--Begin working on a movie that accurately portrays the problem of stuttering, portrays the appropriate listener response and emphasizes the achievements of people who stutter.

--Assure that the portrayal of handicapped people is accurate and preserves their self-esteem by obtaining medical and professional consultation on all future MGM movies.

The official had no comment.

Tuesday’s demonstration was a continuation of a protest launched by the 4,000-member National Stuttering Project when “A Fish Called Wanda” was first released last summer. Now that the film is up for three Academy Awards, “we felt it might be appropriate to bring the issue up again,” said Zimmerman, a member of the NSP board of directors. Also, he noted, “the videocassette has been out for about 3 weeks, and we’re beginning to feel the pressure again.”


The Orange County chapter’s action was supported by John Ahlbach of San Francisco, executive director of the NSP. “Stuttering is so misunderstood by the general public, and this movie did everything it could, it seems, to reinforce the stereotype of someone who stutters as being not very smart, clumsy, and easily intimidated,” Ahlbach said in a telephone interview.

“The worst thing about the film is the ending, where all of a sudden (Ken’s) stuttering goes away after he runs over (Otto) with a steamroller. In other words, what was behind his stuttering, one could assume from that, was a lot of repressed feelings and lack of self-confidence and so on. The point we want to make more than anything else is that people who stutter are no more repressed, nervous or shy than anyone else.”

Actually, Ahlbach says, in some ways the Ken character is “really quite a good model for people who stutter in (that) he doesn’t avoid words. He stutters quite openly and honestly in the film. It’s just that by watching the film, one can’t help but associate stuttering with the whole persona of Ken, which is clumsy and gullible and not very smart.”

Producer Shamberg, also reached on the phone, said he is sympathetic to the NSP’s concerns. He added, however, that “for me, anything is fair game for comedy. I think ‘Wanda’ was portraying one stutterer humorously, and it wasn’t about stutterers per se.”