Cinema is a subjective medium. One man’s whiskey is another Michael Mann’s beer.
In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Jimmy Stewart’s character Ransom Stoddard has made a career off taking credit for the killing of Liberty Valance, and despite setting the record straight with a reporter about just who killed Lee Marvin’s venomous Valance and why, the reporter refuses to use the story, flatly stating – “This is the west, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Elaine May’s 1987 critical punching bag Ishtar, suffered a similar “print the legend” fate, with the well having already been poisoned by critics who pushed a dead-on arrival narrative – citing diva like behavior from the film’s superstars (Beatty and Hoffman) that caused the film to go drastically over budget. A good “legend” but far from the truth.
Most critics featured the budget as the centerpiece of their criticism – with May, Beatty and Hoffman believing that new Columbia studio head David Puttnam was the source of the negative leaks to the press. Puttnam had inherited Ishtar from the previous regime and had made a personal crusade of sorts to bring down big film budgets and star salaries. During Elaine May in Conversation with Mike Nichols (2006) – Nichols stated that “Ishtar is maybe the prime example that I know of in Hollywood of studio suicide – in that it had a great preview.” Ishtar in fact, had three great previews. In Peter Biskind’s book How Warren Beatty Seduced America, Beatty is quoted in regards to the Toronto preview of Ishtar – “I have never had a more successful preview” and Dustin Hoffman said the Toronto screening produced a standing ovation.
Critics waited to pounce on the film, sounding their typewriters like a bullroarer to warn every potential ticket buyer to stay as far away from the film as possible, and when Siskel and Ebert came into people’s living rooms and told viewers this was a not just a bad film, but a “truly dreadful film” the death knell was given. Not every critic went after the Hope and Crosby inspired road comedy (New York Times reviewer Vincent Canby listed Ishtar as a runner-up for his top films of 1987 and Shelia Benson of the Los Angeles Times called it: “A smart, generous, genuinely funny affair”) but the damage was done and what’s worse, the film was unjustly saddled with the moniker of “worst film ever made” and that cloud followed Ishtar around like a young girl from a Japanese horror film. One of the film’s 1987 trailers asked a prophetic question about the Warren Beatty & Dustin Hoffman pairing: “How did they wind up on everyone’s hit list?” How, indeed?
The simple answer is “to each his own,” or “there’s no accounting for taste,” but it’s more complicated than that, because it’s both of those old proverbs. In 1987, the comedies that brought in the big Ronald Reagan era dollars were films such as Three Men and a Baby, Good Morning Vietnam, The Secret of My Success, Stakeout, Dragnet, and Eddie Murphy: Raw. You can even throw in Beverly Hills Cop II, although that’s really an action movie and is categorized as such. These films are energetic, in your face comedies, with lead characters that are associated with that style and tone, lacking the comedic nuance you would find in say, the original In-Laws. What Ishtar has become, despite all of its baggage, is a sort of cinematic comedy Rorschach test. Are you in the Gene Siskel “shockingly dull” camp? Or are you aligned with Martin Scorsese, who calls Ishtar one of his “favorite movies of all time.”
Elaine May wrote a script that relies heavily on deadpan delivery that stacks ounces of comedic subtlety into pounds, but the film’s trailers and film clips on the late-night talk show circuit struggled to capture that, instead relying on the comically bad musical numbers from Beatty & Hoffman as their inept attempt at a Simon & Garfunkel incarnation. Given the audiences sensibilities of that era, pairing superstars Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman in a comedy would mean anything short of Tootsie Can Wait was going to be perceived as a disappointment to the average movie goer. May enlisted 70’s icon and singer-songwriter Paul Williams (Phantom of the Paradise), and together the two of them composed some brilliant music and lyrics for Ishtar that was simply lost on American audiences who were buying Three Men and a Baby and some Dick Jokes at the box office. A nuanced underdog comedy was not on the 1987 movie going menu, with Charles Grodin (a staunch defender of the film) calling Ishtar’s ill-fated box office showing “too hip for the room.” Probably the most succinct description of the movie’s theatrical legacy.
America has had a long love affair with comic duos that successfully made their way from nightclubs to the small or silver screen: Laurel & Hardy, Hope & Crosby, Martin & Lewis, the Smothers Brothers, and Cheech & Chong (to name a few), with the formula usually being that one guy is smarter than the other to varying degrees. For Ishtar writer and director Elaine May, this was fertile territory that was ripe to parody, having been no stranger to live comedy herself as half of the Grammy Award winning sketch comedy team Nichols and May. Despite the slings and arrows the film has suffered, it remains such a unique viewing experience, you can’t help but marvel at the commitment of the cast. Everything is played straight and as the plot starts to come into focus, May even lampoons America’s duplicitous nature when dealing with foreign policy. Look no further than Charles Grodin putting on a master class of comedic precision as CIA agent Jim Harrison – double crossing alliances with whatever direction the political prevailing winds blow.
When Beatty & Hoffman as the musical duo Rogers & Clarke, stumble and freestyle their way through the creative songwriting process in the film’s opening credits, before settling on the lyrics – “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 will hire you in a rock-‘n’-roll band.” Elaine May was giving the audience an invitation to a comedy that had the feel of something from a more creative and experimental cinematic decade – 1977 instead of 1987. Despite May’s not having made a film since 1976’s brilliant Mikey and Nicky with John Cassavetes and Peter Falk, she had always enjoyed the reputation as a filmmaker who made films that were artistically and critically respected (A New Leaf, The Heartbreak Kid) but beyond that, May was considered one of the best script collaborators/doctors in Hollywood, with her work on Beatty’s 120 million dollar hit Heaven Can Wait (1978), and her uncredited work on Tootsie (the second highest grossing film of 1982), serving as proof that she could marry comedy within an Academy Award nominated story.
Elaine May wasn’t somebody that was ego driven, as her friend and Heartbreak Kid star Charles Grodin backed up in a New York Magazine article from 1987 – “Elaine is the exact opposite of everyone else in Hollywood. She’s always fighting to get as little credit as possible,” so it’s tragically ironic that someone so talented is remembered for a film that has become synonymous with failure, and what’s worse – she was banished to a sort of Director’s “Phantom Zone” – having never directed a feature film again. Both Beatty and Hoffman on the other hand bounced back with critical and financial hits with their very next films – Dick Tracy and Rain Man, respectively – with Hoffman winning an Oscar for his efforts. For May, this was a case where the punishment didn’t fit the crime, and in a business where there are far too few female voices behind the camera, it would’ve been cosmically just to see her helm another film and experience a financial hit of her own.
It seemed inevitable that May, Beatty and Hoffman would work together, and May’s story idea of an untalented-musical-duo becoming unwitting political pawns between the rebels in the region and the CIA, was a more than worthy vehicle. When Warren Beatty went to bat for May and agreed to produce the film (Beatty’s track record in this area was peerless when pulling acting/producing double duty), Columbia had a can’t miss hit on their hands, that missed financially. This is the big sin that Ishtar committed: it cost too much money. But as a movie goer, that’s not my concern – who cares? If I’m at a restaurant and I’m served a great meal, I could give less than a shit what the chef is paid. When I’m enjoying a movie, I rarely think to myself, “I wonder what this cost?” That’s for the drive home.
Ishtar sneaks up on you like a sandstorm in Marrakesh, with Rogers & Clarke’s absurdly awful lyrics – She said, ‘come look there’s a wardrobe of love in my eyes/take your time look around and see if there’s something in your size’ – their astounding lack of self-awareness as they murder The Diamonds’ signature hit Little Darlin’, their co-dependency as their delusional run at show business causes Rogers to lose his wife (Tess Harper) and Clarke to lose his girlfriend (Carol Kane), sending Hoffman out on a ledge and Beatty having to talk him down – “Hey, it takes a lot of nerve to have nothing at your age. Don’t you understand that?” The back handed advice of agent Marty Freed (Jack Weston), the alluring Shirra (Isabelle Adjani) who takes advantage of the dim-witted Beatty, Charles Grodin recruiting an all too willing Hoffman for espionage, the blind camel, the vultures that run through the frame as the duo faces death in the desert, Hoffman holding nothing back as he bargains (for their lives) in an improvisational dialect at a gun running auction, and it’s beautifully captured by legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now), and all the while none of the actors play at being in on the joke.
Rogers & Clarke embrace the Rocky Balboa aspect of charging headlong towards their dream despite the odds or what anyone thinks of their talent. There is no “what if” with this musical duo, and they’re even willing to play a hotel lounge in Morocco to dream the impossible dream. There is something beautiful in that, noble in fact – with the passion superseding the cluelessness. When it comes to Elaine May’s last film and the critical assault it endured, I’m reminded that we live in a country where people wrote the Navy to try and get them to rescue the poor people who were stranded on Gilligan’s Island. Thirty years ago, Ishtar like so many people who pursue the show business dream, was told that it’s no good, it doesn’t belong, it’s terrible. I think the audiences at the New Beverly might have something to say about that.