If all of the people who hate Ishtar had seen it, I would be a rich woman. – Elaine May1
While it’s true that you learn more from mistakes than successes, nobody says it isn’t going to be a painful process. In particular, examining one of cinema’s most notorious flops can feel like signing up for a firing squad – or being hauled in front of one.
Ishtar (Elaine May, 1987) isn’t the worst film ever made, which damns it with faint praise: the fact remains that, against the odds, three of the most talented and accomplished people in the American film scene of the day – Elaine May, Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman – created a comedy that was dead on arrival.
The project sprung from the best intentions. Elaine May was wielding an enviable if troubled reputation at the time. A brilliant autodidact who had no patience, at 16 she wed, had a child … and then hitchhiked to Chicago to audit courses there. This led to her chance meeting with pre-med student Mike Nichols. They clicked as performers; after a two years together in the Compass Players, they were tossed from the group for being too talented. They teamed up and made a smash hit on their own, playing to sell-out crowds on Broadway, appearing on television and recording a Grammy-winning album. After four years, the duo split; Nichols went on to immediate critical and popular success as a film director, turning out Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and The Graduate (1967) in rapid succession.
The more quirky May would take longer to get started as a filmmaker. Her early, modestly scaled comedies A New Leaf (1971) and The Heartbreak Kid (1972) were well received. May wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay for Beatty’s Heaven Can Wait (co-directed with Buck Henry, 1978), and helped fix his epic Reds (1981), while her uncredited script doctoring saved the Hoffman-starring Tootsie (Sydney Pollack’s 1982).
But there were problems. May worked slowly, and would brook no interference. She took ten months to cut A New Leaf down to 180 minutes in length; Paramount head Robert Evans took it from her and wrestled it down to a more manageable 102. May then sued the studio and tried to take her name off the picture. Her third film, the quirky and dark drama Mikey and Nicky, was shot in 1973 but not released until 1976, after much struggle with the studio over the amount of film shot (a rumored 185 hours!), and, again, over the editing process. (Her director’s cut of that film has been in circulation since 1986.)
May pitched her idea for Ishtar to Beatty and Hoffman, both riding high after their respective successes earlier in the decade. Beatty felt that May had never been given enough deference and cooperation from a producer, and wanted to create the perfect filmmaking conditions for her. “I was going to give this gift to Elaine,” he would later lament, according to Hoffman, “and it turned out to be the opposite.”2
The film’s $27.5 million budget (Beatty and Hoffman got $5 million, and May $2.5 million, before the cameras even started rolling) exploded, eventually running up to $55 million. Tempers flared; takes proliferated. When it came time for location shooting in Morocco, there were problems avoiding guerilla fighting, landmines, and kidnapping attempts. At one point in post-production, there were three teams of editors at work back home in New York – one for May, one for Beatty and one for Hoffman.
The result was dumped into theatres in the spring of 1987, where it made only $14 million. It passed quickly into myth as one of cinema’s biggest bombs. May has not directed another film since, although she bounced back as a screenwriter with her La Cage aux Folles adaptation The Birdcage (1996), which teamed her up with director Mike Nichols again, 30 years down the road from their professional break-up.
Ishtar’s story was based on the template of the Bob Hope / Bing Crosby Road movies, specifically Road to Morocco (David Butler, 1942). The idea of two hapless blunderers stumbling through exotic adventures is there, but the spirit of hokey fun that infests the original – along with sight gags, pratfalls, asides to the camera and animated camel lips – is not found in its successor.
What went wrong? It’s impossible to fathom why Beatty, the world’s most legendary seducer, would try to play a gawky, asexual twerp like Lyle Rogers. Likewise, Dustin Hoffman, who defines self-consciousness on-screen (and who was recently busted for years of annoying sexual harassment3), as his putatively suave and confident buddy Chuck Clarke (“They call me ‘The Hawk’,” he repeats, futilely, throughout the film.) Casting them as awkward comic types, a proto–Dumb and Dumber team, goes against the grain of both their established screen personas and their natural capabilities. They just can’t serve the material well, and, most importantly, we don’t care about their characters.
May is a masterful playwright, though, and a lot of Ishtar feels like it would play better on stage. Chuck and Lyle, two gloriously deluded and talentless New York City singer-songwriters who quit their day jobs and fail miserably in their struggle to make it to the big time. A scruffy talent agent (the inimitable Jack Weston) tells them the truth. “You’re old, you’re white, you got no shtick,” he diagnoses accurately. He takes pity on them by offering them gigs in battle zones. They opt for a trip to the imaginary land of Ishtar, in North Africa.
It is a benighted comic-opera kind of country, composed effectively of a ruling sheikh, a cute but gritty band of revolutionaries (led by Isabelle Adjani, whom you hardly notice) and troops of poorly disguised spies from the prominent Cold War players. Soon, Chuck is in the pay of the CIA and Lyle is aiding the dissidents, as everyone attempts to get their hands on a sacred map that presages the country’s liberation, brought to light in the prophecy by two “messengers of God”.
May tries to make clever sociopolitical points in the context of farce, but all these plot points bleed into one another, sputter and peter out, collapsing into a confusing melange of motivations that’s never clarified. The spoof of non-Western culture now seems tired and crudely colonialist – Ishtar is a convenient cloud-cuckoo-land created expressly for America to save, arm, invade or exploit. In this, it resembles settings from American Cold War comedies of the previous generation, such as The Teahouse of the August Moon (Daniel Mann, 1956), John Goldfarb, Please Come Home! (J Lee Thompson, 1965) and Don’t Drink the Water (Howard Morris, 1969).
What really dooms Ishtar is, ironically, bad timing, given that May’s prominence was founded on her comedic abilities. An effective comic film, like a successful comic performer, must have a percussionist’s feel for which beats to emphasise and which to lay off on. The Lubitsch touch, for instance, is a musical one; Ishtar, on the other hand, seems rhythm-deaf, with meandering scenes that go on too long and truncated ones that end before they lead anywhere. Even the cutting within the scenes is haphazard, as though it were trying to kill the laughs. In the end, Ishtar bears the marks of many unhappy hands.
The one shining light of the film is Charles Grodin, who plays Jim Harrison, the CIA’s Man in Ishtar. All his interactions with Chuck and Lyle are just a beat longer than they should be, as though he were repeatedly telling himself not to throttle them. Sure, he’s a spy and an assassin, but does he really have to be saddled with dopes like these? In a parallel universe, there’s a very funny movie out there centred on Grodin’s character.
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Ishtar (1987 USA 107 mins)
Prod. Co: Columbia Pictures, Delphi V Pictures Prod: Warren Beatty, David Leigh MacLeod, Nigel Wooll Dir: Elaine May Scr: Elaine May Phot: Vittorio Storaro Ed: Richard P Cirincione, William Reynolds, Stephen A Rotter Mus: Dave Grusin Prod. Des: Paul Sylbert
Cast: Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman, Isabelle Adjani, Charles Grodin, Jack Weston, Tess Harper, Carol Kane
- Elaine May, quoted in “Elaine May in Conversation with Mike Nichols,” Film Comment 42.4 (July–August 2006), https://www.filmcomment.com/article/elaine-may-in-conversation-with-mike-nichols/ ↩
- Dustin Hoffman, quoted in Peter Biskind, “Madness in Morocco: The Road to Ishtar,” Vanity Fair, 7 January 2010, https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2010/02/ishtar-excerpt-201002 ↩
- See Benjamin Lee, “Dustin Hoffman Accused of ‘Abusive’ Sexual Harassment on Broadway,” The Guardian, 8 December 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/dec/08/dustin-hoffman-sexual-harassment-broadway ↩