There are cinematic failures and underperformers, and then there’s Ishtar. Next to Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate and the Liz Taylor- and Richard Burton-starring Cleopatra, no film has been as synonymous with Hollywood egos run amok. The ’80s delivered plenty of divisive, often terrible box office tragedies, but none were greeted with as many knives out as Elaine May’s updating of the Hope-and-Crosby-style road picture for a new generation. Its perceived failure, to put it in Hellraiser terms, was legendary, even in hell. Time went as far as to add the film to its list of the “100 Worst Ideas of the Century.” That’s how dire the reception was.
There have been hundreds of think pieces and historical examinings of Ishtar, and at this point, it’s generally accepted that Ishtar received a raw deal. With stories of how out-of-control the Warren Beatty- and Dustin Hoffman-starring picture was getting coming out at an alarming rate from “anonymous” sources, a yearlong post-production process and hatred from Columbia Pictures executives almost from the outset, Ishtar wasn’t actively trying to fail, but the forces surrounding it were positioning it to.
The sad truth is that the stories of artistic and corporate malfeasance surrounding Ishtar’s production will always overshadow the film. Elaine May, at a Q&A following a screening of the film several years ago, rightfully said that the number of people who claim to hate Ishtar outnumber the people who actually saw it. In reality, and viewed through a fairer lens, with the benefit of hindsight, Ishtar is a pretty entertaining film. It isn’t a classic and there are certainly problems, but the film was more influential than many would like to admit.
It’s hard to blame the Hollywood rumour mill for seizing upon the film as voraciously as it did — some of the production woe stories are more interesting than the final product. Then again, often the stories behind the making of most films are more interesting than the results on screen.
The narrative is a simple one. Beatty and Hoffman play Lyle Rogers and Chuck Clarke, respectively, a pair of big city singer-songwriters abysmal at their jobs. Out of options and ideas, they take a gig as lounge singers in Marrakesh, Morocco. Complications arise and eventually the duo is unwittingly drawn into a C.I.A. plot to overthrow a local Emir.
It isn’t a terribly deep story; it’s about as convoluted as the lightweight films of yesteryear it was trying to emulate. It shouldn’t have been a terribly difficult effort to make, however. Even if things went smoothly, it likely never would have been a commercial success, thanks to being ahead of its time. A great director could have turned Ishtar into a popcorn movie crowd-pleaser that would be remembered and beloved today. Elaine May wasn’t exactly the best person for the job, however. She was a terrific, highly in-demand writer who worked sparingly, but brilliantly. She earned raves for her work on A New Leaf in 1971 (starring May, alongside Walter Matthau) and The Heartbreak Kid (with future Ishtar supporting actor Charles Grodin), and her collaboration with the late Mike Nichols cemented the pair as of one the best comedic duos ever. She was also one of the most sought-after rewrite artists of all-time, one who had a history with Beatty and Hoffman. She was the main screenwriter credited on Beatty’s Oscar-nominated Heaven Can Wait and performed major uncredited rewrites on Beatty’s equally acclaimed Reds. When Hoffman was looking for rewrites for Tootsie, May was called in.
There was a famous anecdote about how producers were looking for an all-important camel that would shepherd the stars through the desert and how, after taking months looking at camels, they decided the first one they saw was the best.
The three had never worked together collectively, but clearly they should have had some sort of rapport. They were big admirers of each other’s work; they were all branded as being notoriously difficult to deal with perfectionists; and they even shared the same lawyer, Bernie Fields. Ishtar was a result of Beatty and May wanting to work together again, with Beatty getting his former press agent, and then-head of Columbia Pictures, Guy McElwaine, to finance the modest comedy, initially known as Blind Camel.
Beatty, in turn, would act as producer. It would have been a hard offer to pass up, considering that up to that point, Beatty’s track record as a producer was impeccable, with all four of his previous productions garnering considerable acclaim from audiences, critics and awards bodies. It didn’t matter that May hadn’t directed a film since 1976, Beatty hadn’t starred in a film since 1981 and, with the exception of a TV production of Death of a Salesman, Hoffman hadn’t top lined a film since 1982. Their reputations were enough to make people excited, to some extent.
It wasn’t exactly a shoot where everything that could go gone wrong did. Shooting predominantly in Morocco (which inflated the budget considerably when May demanded the shoot be “a reasonable distance” from sand dunes) and a little bit in NYC, the set was closed to all media, mostly due to May’s work ethic and Beatty’s shyness around the press. Studio suits were greeted frostily and given little information. There was a famous anecdote about how producers were looking for an all-important camel that would shepherd the stars through the desert and how, after taking months looking at camels, they decided the first one they saw was the best. When the production went back to talk to the owner of the camel, it turned out they waited too long to make a decision and the owner had long since eaten the camel.
Still, of all the stories to emerge from the set, most spoke of a fairly good experience, despite the very credible threat of nearby terrorist activity that left many (particularly Hoffman) frightened that the film could be shut down or attacked at any moment. The usually reticent Hoffman and Beatty actually spent quite a bit of time chatting, and hanging out, with the crew to keep spirits up. The actual shoot went three months over schedule, but it didn’t compare in any way to what happened after the production wrapped.
The problems as the film reached post-production were two-fold: from without and within. It was the lengthy afterlife of the shoot that would ultimately cause the budget of Ishtar to balloon from an initial budget of $27.5 million (half of which was the combined salary for Beatty, Hoffman, and May) to a high-end estimate of $51 million — an unheard of amount by ’80s standards.
During the production of Ishtar, Columbia Pictures was going through a change in ownership and was in the process of being purchased by then-parent company Coca-Cola. McElwaine (Beatty’s biggest supporter) was out and in his place was David Puttnam, a British producer with a hearty track record for making prestige pictures. He was largely behind the success of Chariots of Fire and The Killing Fields. He was a bizarre choice to head a major studio—a decision that lasted only a year—as he was as anti-establishment as it gets.
Puttnam made no bones about how much he loathed Hollywood egos, sequels and large budgets. More detrimental to the process was how much Puttnam—sometimes openly, sometimes secretly—despised all three major parties involved with the making of Ishtar, particularly its leading men. It was a film that represented everything Puttnam deeply, and very personally, loathed about the film industry.
Ishtar was one of the first times the mainstream media seized upon tales of a film that had gone off the rails. Coverage seemed ubiquitous, with stories of strife and often-false rumours from the set emerging on an almost daily basis.
With Puttnam grousing and handwringing over Ishtar’s costs and extravagances, May was having her own troubles assembling the film, which wasn’t a new problem for her. The last film she directed (Mikey and Nicky, a gangster drama with Peter Falk and John Cassavetes) took her three years to edit, and even then she said the film was compromised because the studio took it away from her. She would eventually screen what she deemed a finished version— in the late ’80s.
Ishtar was planned for release in November of 1986. Production wrapped on March 24, 1986. May had amassed 104 hours of footage. Beatty attempted to help, but the two clashed frequently, if amicably, in the editing room, with much of the negotiating of the edit handled by their shared lawyer. Columbia cancelled the original release date shortly after filming was completed, then sat around for a few months saying very little about why, what was going on or when audiences could expect the finished product. In the summer of that year, Columbia took out an ad in the trades, staking a firm release date of May 22, 1987. By as late as March of 1987, May reported the film still wasn’t complete. However, the film made the release date, opening at a single theatre in NYC on May 17, before expanding to 1,142 screens across North America the following week.
Ishtar, now that we have contextualized the history, was one of the first times the mainstream media seized upon tales of a film that had gone off the rails. Coverage seemed ubiquitous, with stories of strife and often-false rumours from the set emerging on an almost daily basis. In a culture that continuously loves to watch established figures be brought down several pegs, Ishtar was a gold mine. It has often been theorized that Puttnam was the person leaking all of the information of the not-all-that-troubled production to the media, in an effort to sink the film and help him get his own way. It also didn’t help that Columbia slashed the film’s marketing budget considerably, and that press duties fell mainly on Hoffman’s shoulders. May didn’t seem keen on reliving an open wound so soon after having salt dumped in it and Beatty (who we now know for certain is one of the three men being referenced in Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain”) actually had the balls to ask TV media outlets if he could direct, shoot and edit his own interviews. Naturally, almost everyone declined that offer.
But enough about the overwhelming gossip. What about the movie? Well, audiences actually received it quite favourably. There were three preview screenings, one of which was in Toronto — a screening Hoffman and Beatty both have fond memories of. The limited release in NYC might not have gone over well with critics, but it performed solidly. The following week, when it went wide, the film still managed to land in the top spot at the box office, albeit just a few hundred thousand dollars ahead of low-budget Canadian horror film The Gate.
The media had it beaten into their heads for months that Ishtar was a shit show, and the response was less than kind. It found high profile, passionate defenders, in Vincent Canby (The New York Times) and Jay Scott (The Globe and Mail), while filmmakers Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese tout it as one of their favourite films, but it was mainly trashed as an unfunny, amateurish mess. Most critics pointed to how Beatty (playing against type as an awkward nerd) and Hoffman(playing against type as a ladies’ man) were trying to be deliberately unfunny. Also taken to task was May’s almost dogged insistence to never shoot coverage, giving the light tone of the film a static, closed-off feeling. This says nothing about the purposefully off-putting songs from Clark and Rogers, written by Canadian songwriter extraordinaire Paul Williams.
The bulk of Ishtar’s failure landed largely at the feet of [Elaine] May, who was essentially blacklisted for years, while working secretly as a script doctor. She would later re-team with Mike Nichols to work on the screenplays for The Birdcage and Primary Colors, but never directed another feature film.
After the first weekend, curiosity wore off, Ishtar sank like a stone and Columbia did their best to forget the whole thing. It’s often cited as the reason why Puttnam only lasted a year, despite never actually having any investment in the film (production started way before he came into power) and his steadfast refusal to even watch it. It’s also credited with making Coca-Cola dump the company almost as soon as they got involved with it. It barely received a release on video, never made its way to DVD and was treated to an unceremonious, hard-to-find dumping on Blu-Ray in August of 2013.
The ignominy didn’t kill the careers of Hoffman and Beatty though, who were able to brush aside the criticisms rather easily. Hoffman’s next film, Rain Man, would net him an Oscar. Beatty was still able to get Walt Disney Pictures to pony up almost $50 million to make an adaptation of the Dick Tracy comic strips, which was an even worse idea than Ishtar. Puttnam also continued to flourish outside the lines of Hollywood, writing continually about the ups and downs of his life in several successful books.
The bulk of Ishtar’s failure landed largely at the feet of May, who was essentially blacklisted for years, while working secretly as a script doctor. She would later reteam with Mike Nichols to work on the screenplays for The Birdcage and Primary Colors, but never directed another feature film. That may have been for the best, since of the many criticisms levied at Ishtar, many come down to the direction. While Beatty and Hoffman are clearly doing their best, the film around them has a “point and shoot” sameness in every frame. The locations and production designs are gorgeous, but are never much to look at. It cost a ton of money to make, but with few exceptions, it looks remarkably cheap. The style of the film in no way matches the eccentricity of the performances or the material. And once the film becomes a misguided action picture in its final third, the direction is downright abysmal, demonstrating that May was in over her head, in some respects. There’s plenty of blame to go around, given the film’s history, but there can be little denying that the direction continually undermines any momentum of the material.
Looking past that, Ishtar is exceptionally well written and performed. May’s script makes up for her shortcomings as a filmmaker. One need look no further than the buffoonery generally produced by Judd Apatow, directed often by Adam McKay and usually starring Will Ferrell and/or John C. Reilly to see her influence. That same sort of oddball tone that defined the comedies of the past few decades shines through every frame of Ishtar.
It’s not anti-comedy, in the sense that what’s happening in Ishtar is actually funny on its merits, not in some sort of ironic way. It takes smart people to write something as openly and unabashedly stupid as Ishtar. The songs from Williams are genuinely hilarious (except “I Look to Mecca,” which is staggering as the film’s only borderline racist moment) because of how outlandishly banal the material is. It’s a film about untalented and uncreative people deluding themselves into believing they’re somehow special. It’s an underdog, fish-out-of-water story that’s consistently engaging and amusing, especially today. In this respect, the film has grown into itself. It’s also a kick watching Hoffman and Beatty swap roles. Hoffman gets a chance to cut loose and Beatty gets to tone it down. Beatty’s performance actually feels like 90-percent of all performances given by Will Ferrell. They were on to something.
Ishtar isn’t perfect, but it’s far better than everything you’ve heard about it. If the film was released today, the deathly buzz wouldn’t have killed it. But at the time, this was a costly, fresh, new idea that no one outside of the principals seemed to get. It was terrible for the time, but worth coming back to now.