Everyone Used to Hate ‘Ishtar.’ Now Everyone Loves It

In recent years, Elaine May’s notorious 1987 flop has enjoyed a warm reappraisal. Here’s how the world learned to love this Dustin Hoffman/Warren Beatty comedy
Everyone Used to Hate ‘Ishtar.’ Now Everyone Loves It

Ordinarily, a biography of a filmmaker who only directed four movies would hardly qualify as a big deal. But Elaine May, now 92, isn’t any regular filmmaker, which is why there’s much anticipation for Miss May Does Not Exist: The Life and Work of Elaine May, Hollywood’s Hidden Genius, Carrie Courogen’s portrait of the revered comedian. The book, out today, makes the case for May as one of the 20th century’s singular artists, whether as a sketch performer alongside Mike Nichols or, later, as a writer and director. Her name may not be familiar to some moviegoers, but there’s a good chance you’ve heard of her most famous film, which was a legendary flop. It’s been 37 years since she released her final picture: Ishtar. Afterward, Hollywood never let her make another.

Miss May Does Not Exist spends time chronicling that commercial and critical disaster, setting the record straight on some of the crazier, untrue stories about the movie’s making. (For years, people believed May, who wrote and directed the comedy, demanded her crew destroy some sand dunes around Morocco where they were filming.) But Courogen is also out to restore Ishtar’s reputation, a cultural development that’s been in the works for much of this century. 

Over the last several decades, many assumed cinematic debacles have been reappraised, such as Heaven’s Gate or Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Films that received mixed reviews when they premiered, such as Eyes Wide Shut, are now considered masterpieces. But perhaps no film in recent times has enjoyed as massive a reversal of fortune as Ishtar. Everybody used to hate it, the movie’s title becoming a snide shorthand for overpriced, star-driven duds. Nowadays, it’s hard to find anyone who will say a disparaging word about the film. All of a sudden, it’s cool to like Ishtar.

Before May was a filmmaker, she’d already had a few careers. A stage actor, an improv comic, a playwright, she’d enjoyed her greatest success as part of Nichols and May, the legendary duo who were the toast of New York in the late 1950s and early 1960s, eventually making their way to Broadway. Known for their witty, rapid back-and-forth, the twosome split in 1961 on good terms, with Nichols going on to great success directing theater and film, including 1967’s The Graduate, which won him the Best Director Oscar. 

Meanwhile, May wrote for the theater and acted, eventually directing her first film, 1971’s A New Leaf, which she scripted and starred in. The dark comedy featured Walter Matthau as a once-wealthy man looking for a rich, not-too-bright woman he can marry and then kill in order to steal her dough — enter May’s kooky heiress. The well-reviewed film earned two Golden Globe nominations — including Best Actress, Musical or Comedy, for May — but it also began her pattern of clashing with studios. “I’ve had trouble with every movie I’ve done,” she lamented in 2006. “I had trouble with A New Leaf. They took a murder out of it. I wanted to do the first comedy in which somebody got away with murder.” 

The production went way over budget, and Matthau didn’t always have the nicest things to say about his co-star and director, referring to May as “a full-fledged nut” and “an impossible broad.” (His finest zinger might have been “Elaine May makes Hitler look like a little librarian.”) 

Nevertheless, A New Leaf got great reviews — it made Gene Siskel’s Top 10 of that year — and a year later she directed Neil Simon’s adaptation of a Bruce Jay Friedman story, which became the hit rom-com The Heartbreak Kid. Later in the 1970s, she wrote and directed the bittersweet small-time-crooks drama Mikey and Nicky and co-wrote Warren Beatty’s Oscar-winning Heaven Can Wait, earning her first Academy Award nomination in the process. May might have annoyed studio heads for insisting on doing things her way — “I may just be a pain in the ass,” she admitted in that 2006 interview — but her fellow filmmakers loved her. She went on to do uncredited rewrites on Beatty’s 1981 passion project Reds, and then helped out on Dustin Hoffman’s classic comedy Tootsie, where she once again didn’t receive final credit for her script contributions. “She saved our ass in Tootsie,” Hoffman said, later adding, “Six weeks before we started shooting, Elaine May was brought in. And when she came into the project, there was no Bill Murray character in the script, there was no Teri Garr character. She created them. … She brought a whole dimension to that material that we did not have. She created the Dabney Coleman character, she created the Jessica Lange character. … She’s a genius.”

So it’s little surprise that when May hatched the idea for Ishtar, she tapped two actors whose projects she’d been instrumental in bringing to life. Coming out in May of 1987, Ishtar cast Hoffman and Beatty to play the stunningly untalented New York songwriting duo Chuck Clarke and Lyle Rogers. The actors subverted their on-screen personae, with Hoffman’s Clarke the cocky guy, and Beatty’s Rogers the deeply insecure soul. Penniless best buddies who are both grappling with romantic woes, Clarke and Rogers accept a suspicious-sounding offer to perform in Marrakesh. Sure, that area of the globe may be going through some political turmoil, but the money’s not too bad — and, hey, everybody’s got to start somewhere. But complications quickly ensue.

When conceiving Ishtar, May was thinking of the popular Bing Crosby/Bob Hope comedies of the 1940s and 1950s — films like Road to Singapore and Road, in which they played regular guys getting into wacky adventures overseas. But there was also a political dimension to Ishtar. “Ronald Reagan was president and there was Iran-Contra, we were supporting Iran and Iraq,” she recalled. “We put in Saddam. We had taken out the Shah. Khomeini was there. I remember looking at Ronald Reagan and thinking — I’m qualifying this, this was just an idea, I didn’t really believe it — I thought, ‘He’s from Hollywood, he’s a really nice man. It’s possible the only movie he’s ever seen about the Middle East are the Road movies with Hope and Crosby,’ and I thought I would make that movie.”

Backed by two huge stars, Ishtar would seem to have been something any studio would have wanted. But because Hoffman and Beatty were well-known for being opinionated perfectionists — the former bitterly clashed with director Sydney Pollack throughout the making of Tootsie, while the latter bickered with director Robert Altman on McCabe & Mrs. Miller — and May had pissed off enough executives in the 1970s, there was concern over at Columbia Pictures, which would be releasing Ishtar. In Peter Biskind’s Beatty biography Star, an unnamed source explained, “Columbia’s nightmare was having a trio of Hollywood’s most uncompromising talents working on the same project somewhere in the Sahara Desert.” That said, the source added, “Columbia’s other nightmare was passing on a project that included Warren, Dustin and Elaine, then having it go to Fox or Universal, and watching it be a huge hit.” 

But even though Columbia signed up for Ishtar, it was never a harmonious relationship. After the film got underway, the studio’s leadership changed hands, with producer David Puttnam becoming the new top dog. Puttnam and Beatty didn’t get along: Puttnam had produced Chariots of Fire, which took on Beatty’s Reds for Best Picture, with Puttnam making personal attacks on Beatty during Oscar season. (Beatty ultimately won Best Director, but Chariots of Fire took home Best Picture.) Puttnam distanced himself from Ishtar during production and claimed to have never seen the film. “(Puttnam) hated Warren,” said Hoffman, who also disliked Puttnam because of a bad experience on a film Puttnam had produced, Agatha. As the actor recalled to Biskind, “When (Puttnam) went to Columbia, I looked at the front page of the Calendar section of the Los Angeles Times, and he was quoted as saying, ‘Dustin Hoffman is the most malevolent person I’ve ever worked with.’ Being the intellectual that I am, I had to look the word up.”

Not long after, negative stories started getting published about Ishtar. The movie was costing a fortune. Production was running way behind the schedule. (The film was supposed to come out Christmastime of 1986 but was delayed until the following May.) Hollywood types and moviegoers in general are suckers for a juicy “The whole ship is going down!” saga, which is why difficult productions like Apocalypse NowWaterworld and Titanic had to combat endless bad press before anyone saw a frame of the finished product. In some cases, the eventual film proved to be worth the wait (and the cost overruns and headaches), but at least initially, Ishtar did not. 

Star goes into great detail about the on-set fights, May’s near-firing and the general chaos that occurred during shooting, but even at the time, audiences were primed for a fiasco. In March of 1987, New York’s David Blum published a piece documenting the film’s many problems, subtitled “How Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman and Elaine May Made a Farce in the Desert for Just $40 Million.” It was here that readers learned about the ridiculous extent the production went to find the perfect camel who could appear to be blind, which was a running bit in the movie. Blum reported the story about May asking for dunes to be destroyed because she wanted a “flat” desert. We heard about how May just kept shooting and shooting. (“Elaine May is a woman of many words,” an anonymous colleague told Blum. “However, the word ‘cut’ does not happen to be among them.”) No matter how much Hoffman and Beatty went to bat for Ishtar, the knives were out. We do love watching a bloated production crash and burn.

Ishtar started off at No. 1 its opening weekend, but it quickly capsized, bringing in only about $14 million. The reviews were toxic, critics labeling it an unwieldy catastrophe. It was the sort of very public debacle that quickly becomes a punchline on late-night talk shows. Soon after the film’s release, Hoffman spoke to the L.A. Times, saying he’d been “in pain, walking the streets” trying to figure out why everyone had turned on Ishtar. “I like the movie,” he declared. “I predict the movie will be around longer than the bad press.”

Hoffman and Beatty bounced back quickly from the humiliation. Hoffman won his second Best Actor Oscar for Rain Man, and Beatty delivered the hit Dick Tracy. As for May, she went back to playwriting, but no follow-up film materialized. Film historian Dean Brandum points out the irony that 1987’s other infamous star-driven fiasco, the Bill Cosby comedy Leonard Part 6, was directed by Paul Weiland, who did eventually get another studio movie, 1994’s City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold. No second chance was waiting for May. No doubt it was partly due to the same industry sexism that labeled her “difficult,” whereas hard-headed male directors are praised for their uncompromising brilliance.

Not that she didn’t stay busy. In the late 1990s, May teamed up with Nichols for the first time in decades, writing the scripts for his well-reviewed films The Birdcage and Primary Colors, the latter providing May with her second Oscar nomination. In 2000, she co-starred in Woody Allen’s caper Small Time Crooks — her first significant film acting role in 10 years — winning Best Supporting Actress from the National Society of Film Critics. Avoiding the limelight, she stuck to her work and gave few interviews, the myth of Ishtar’s epic terribleness only growing over time.

But recently, that impression has shifted significantly. The first indications happened as early as the early 1990s — that’s when Gary Larson, the mastermind behind The Far Side, published an anthology of his strips, including one from 1987 in which we see “Hell’s Video Store,” which only includes copies of Ishtar. But in the anthology, Larson attached a mea culpa: At the time of drawing the cartoon, he actually hadn’t seen the movie. “Years later, I saw it on an airplane,” he wrote, “and was stunned at what was happening to me: I was actually being entertained. … There are so many cartoons for which I should probably write an apology, but this is the only one which compels me to do so.” 

Not long after, a new generation of filmmakers and moviegoers pushed back on the scorn that Ishtar had endured. In 2007, Edgar Wright screened Ishtar at the New Beverly, one of L.A.’s hippest revival theaters, which is run by Quentin Tarantino. And six years later, the film finally got a Blu-ray release, which was significant because it had never been issued as a DVD. At last, Ishtar was able to be properly judged — or, at the very least, reevaluated away from the noise of its initial release. And what emerged was that many critics and fans were eager to go to bat for it. Anniversary pieces were filled with rapturous praise for what their authors considered to be an unfairly maligned, slyly subversive political comedy. 

But it’s not just the movie that’s been greeted with fresh enthusiasm: May herself has been hailed of late as a pioneering comic force. Whether being featured on cool T-shirts or receiving career-achievement prizes, including an Honorary Oscar, May feels as relevant as she ever has. No doubt that has been helped in part by her return to Broadway at the end of the 2010s, winning a Tony for her role in the revival of Kenneth Lonergan’s acclaimed The Waverly Gallery. Especially at a moment when female critics and film scholars are working to correct the gender imbalance in the cinematic canon, May’s four films have been embraced with a newfound passion, her comedies held in the same esteem as her male peers. New Yorker film critic Richard Brody, a longtime champion, put it bluntly in 2016, declaring May “one of the major filmmakers of her time — hell, one of the best filmmakers ever to work in Hollywood.”

If you’ve never seen Ishtar — or hated it back in the day — will you be blown away by how great it actually is? With love and respect to the many who adore the film, I don’t think so. The casting of Hoffman and Beatty is inspired, with Hoffman playing the stud and Beatty as the nerdy loser. And the songs that Oscar-winning composer Paul Williams wrote for the talentless duo are just terrific. “Anybody can sit down and write bad songs,” Williams once said, later adding, “The real task was to write songs that were believably bad. It was one of the best jobs I’ve ever had in my life. I’ve never had more fun on a picture, but I’ve never worked harder.” 

Indeed, it takes real genius to come up with something this stupid:

Telling the truth can be dangerous business 
Honest and popular don’t go hand in hand
If you admit that you can play the accordion
No one’ll hire you in a rock ‘n’ roll band

May contributed to some of the songs as well, and she clearly had affection for these hopeless fools, who think they’re just one good record deal away from being the next Simon & Garfunkel. It’s very hard for smart actors to play dumb — too often, they wink at the audience, so that we know they’re not really dumb — but Hoffman and Beatty are hilarious as deluded dreamers fully committed to their atrocious songs. Ishtar’s first 20 minutes or so, when they’re stumbling through their lives in New York, convinced that greatness awaits them, is comic gold, a precursor to all the outsized fools that performers like Will Ferrell would soon popularize.

But then the plot kicks in. When the duo get to North Africa, they quickly get involved in international intrigue as beautiful revolutionary Shirra (Isabelle Adjani) and nefarious CIA operative Jim (The Heartbreak Kid’s Charles Grodin) battle for their loyalties. Lacking the sharp plotting and smart gags that defined her previous films, Ishtar lumbers along, a bloated action-comedy complete with shootouts and chase scenes. While May’s commentary still has teeth — U.S. foreign policy remains as opportunistic and callous as it’s portrayed by Grodin — the movie runs out of gas quickly, the comedic set pieces never that graceful or brilliant. By comparison, even her change-of-pace drama Mikey and Nicky feels more confident.

Even if Ishtar is ultimately a misfire, though, its reputational recalibration is still a good thing. The amount of bad press it received at the time was shocking in its gleeful nastiness. As L.A Times critic Charles Champlin put it around Ishtar’s release, “Memory does not immediately yield a film for which so many critics, reporters and industry members were lying in wait.” That kind of incessant piling-on will almost assuredly provoke a backlash at some point, and despite its considerable flaws — including the movie’s offensively one-dimensional portrayals of the locals Clarke and Rogers encounter — Ishtar deserves to shed its toxic aura. Just ask its stars. Hoffman would later say, “I don’t think it’s a great movie. I think it’s a good comedy. I think Heaven Can Wait’s a better comedy.” And in 2016, Beatty insisted, “It’s a good movie.” 

The ever-clever May had a line she always liked to cart out about her notorious flop: “If all of the people who hate Ishtar had seen it, I would be a rich woman today.” Like so many films you’ve been told are terrible, Ishtar is actually more interesting and complicated than the received critical wisdom attached to it. I don’t think the movie succeeds, but it’s better to give it a chance rather than smugly parrot negative opinions and reductive mindsets. (As Brody put it so well in his 2016 piece, “There’s a special place in Hell reserved for critics who worried about the budget of this film.”) 

It’s easy to kick a movie when it’s down — to point and laugh at filmmakers that take big swings and fall on their face. It’s far more rewarding, though, to just hit play. Maybe, like me, you won’t ultimately love Ishtar. But unlike in 1987, at least you’ll give it a fair shake.

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