I Watched It So You Don't Have To: Ishtar
Elaine May has said: "If all of the people who hate Ishtar had seen it, I would be a rich woman today." She’s not really exaggerating–besides A Serbian Film, Elaine May’s Ishtar (1987) has got to be one of the most avoided films of all time. Its reputation has been dragged through the mud for decades, as typified in this famous Far Side comic, and the film was essentially dead on arrival due to a whisper campaign against it from the get-go. (Funny enough, it still managed to briefly be the top grossing film on its opening weekend! Something I talked about as a guest on The #1 Movie Podcast, take a listen.)
Ishtar became this weird punching bag that everybody seems to love to hate it, despite the fact that, as May said, nobody saw it. So I decided to boldly go where no man has gone before and finally sit down and watch the thing. Well, spoiler, Ishtar is fun as hell and genuinely hilarious from its opening credits onward. The longer I watched the film, it dawned on me that Ishtar is a prime example of a comedy that was clearly ahead of its time. Suddenly it’s rotten reputation began to stink of something else; a familiar stench that you might recognize as “Male Chauvinist Bullshit.”
Let’s start at the top: In the beginning, there was Chuck Clarke (Dustin Hoffman) and Lyle Rogers (Warren Beatty), just two singer-songwriters looking to hit it big. The problem is, well, they’re not very good. In fact, they’re so bad that the only gig they can book is in Morocco–where political unrest is causing all other acts to avoid the country. They decide to take the gig, but upon landing in the neighboring country of Ishtar, things start to go off the rails. Almost immediately after landing, Chuck ends up handing his passport over to a mysterious woman (Isabelle Adjani), strictly because he finds her attractive. Stranded, Lyle now has to press ahead to secure their gig in Morocco alone, while Chuck figures out how to get a new passport. Lucky for him, or unlucky as it quickly becomes apparent, the CIA has been monitoring the situation and steps in.
From then on the film becomes a game of cat, mouse and two guys who just wanna sing. Agent Jim Harrison (Charles Grodin) makes a deal with Chuck to be a CIA mole in exchange for a new passport, but he’s not allowed to let Lyle know. Meanwhile the mysterious woman is secretly coordinating with both Lyle and Chuck to help bring a map to guerrilla fighters who are working to overthrow the Emir of Ishtar. Chuck and Lyle are caught in the middle. All they really want to do is play their gig, but their egos keep dragging them further and further into the mess; they can’t bear to say no to an important government man or to a beautiful woman. Eventually they end up unwittingly in the middle of the desert, sent there to die by the CIA for knowing too much and being too useless. But they’re too dumb to even get that right and manage to survive the night. They even end up purchasing contraband military-grade weapons at an illegal arms auction. It proves to be a useful fumble, as they end up needing some rocket launchers to fight off the CIA helicopters that come to finish off the job.
Ishtar is laugh out loud funny. Its self-deprecating awareness is just a delight to watch. I also love how it heightens its already ridiculous premise by doubling down hard on the follow-through; that it ends with a bizarre big-budget shoot out is so wildly inappropriate that it comes full circle to hilarious. Ishtar would have felt completely at home had it come out in the early 2000s heyday of awkward humor. It’s more Flight of the Conchords or The Office than, say, its more contemporary Who Framed Roger Rabbit or Big-type comedies. The closest I can find in the decade might be This Is Spinal Tap, which similarly didn’t do so hot upon release (but notably, and rightfully, wasn’t a ripped-to-shreds career-ender the way Ishtar was for May).
At its heart, Ishtar is a buddy comedy about two guys who have nothing but a singular dream and each other. Abandoned by their girlfriends, dismissed by their peers, they rely heavily on their mutual encouragement and trust just to get through the day. Honestly, they have more problems when they’re trying to keep secrets from each other than when they both come together to shoot rockets at helicopters. It’s the wholesome relationship drama at its center that makes the film so funny. A tried and true comedic formula, May cites Hope and Crosby’s On The Road… movies as a direct influence, throws in a Martin and Lewis callback with Chuck and Larry singing “That's Amore,” and there’s even a sprinkle of some Matthau and Lemmon Odd Couple vibes. Ishtar is a certified bromance between two losers.
All of that said, Ishtar is indeed a flawed film. It starts so strongly in its New York setting that you’re almost sad to see it leave the country and warp into a bizarre spy thriller. It also loses the comedic thread of Chuck and Lyle’s dynamic by distracting with a government conspiracy that’s a little too complex in comparison to their extremely low stakes. Then there’s the casting; it’s not that Hoffman and Beatty do a bad job, on the contrary, they are clearly giving it their all here and do a solid job of bringing these characters to life. The problem is that you have two attractive and well-known guys that you’re trying to pass off as unknown dunces who always strike out with women—it’s just a little hard to swallow at this point in their careers. They do work well as a team, but I can't help but think this might have been more effective if they had cast straight up comedians or character actors.
The real problem here is what was happening behind the scenes. May was working on a set that was openly hostile, not only towards her vision but towards her authority as the director. The film came to be because Warren Beatty had been bailed out by Elaine May twice, writing scripts for him that directly helped to further his career. At the time, she had done a major uncredited script re-write for his film Reds (1981), which went on to win Beatty three academy awards, several nominations, critical acclaim and box-office records. It was because of this, Beatty then decided to repay May by becoming her producer and allowing her the artistic freedom to make whatever film she wanted to make.
However, once they got on set, everything quickly began to crumble. Having a woman give orders seemed to rub everybody the wrong way; May was constantly at odds with everybody that Beatty had brought in to help shoot the film, including Beatty himself. May and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro were constantly butting heads on the correct way to shoot the film. Storaro, known for his work on films like Apocalypse Now and Last Tango in Paris, wanted to frame for cinematic integrity, while May, who had already had years of experience directing The Heartbreak Kid, Mikey and Nicky and A New Leaf, wanted to frame for comedic heightening. But Storaro wouldn’t listen, and to May’s great frustration, even Beatty, her own producer, would typically side with him over her. With May actively on the defensive, the crew began to split unevenly between those who were against her and those very few who were left on her side. Smelling blood in the water, she was even getting heat even from the actors–Isabelle Adjani started openly complaining to Beatty, her then boyfriend, about the size of her role in the film and May’s treatment of her.
With all of the time wasted on arguing over how the film should be made, the budget began to steeply unravel. Beatty began insisting on multiple takes for each scene, thinking it would be easier to shoot his vision alongside May’s, so that later they could cut her shots during the edit when it might be easier to control. A full scale rebellion started to break out on set between both parties; May was refusing to nicely collaborate or take any advice, while half of the crew was insisting to Beatty that she “can’t direct” and needed to be fired. Funny enough, Beatty refused to fire her on the grounds that he didn’t want to be seen as anti-progressive or anti-woman after her gave her this ‘gift’ of producing her film. By the time editing came around, the conflicts and backstabbing only worsened to the point that Elaine May sometimes even stopped showing up. Postproduction took ten months and, with all of the money lost during and after filming, the final act of sabotage came from its own studio. The costs for the film had gotten so out of hand, and fights with May, Beatty and the studio had gotten so intense, that Columbia began to poison its own well in the media against the film.
I find it extremely hard to read all of the details about how Ishtar was born to fail and not see the latent sexism inherent in the complaints against May. Seemingly everything was thrown at her, from accusations of her total incompetence to production designer Paul Sylbert’s flabbergasting and offensive allegation that the film was just an excuse for May to indulge in a “sex fantasy” with Beatty and Hoffman. While it’s perfectly plausible that Elaine May was a difficult and mercurial person to work with, that personality type is far from rare or career-ending when observed in male directors. In fact, those personality types are usually the ones heralded as “geniuses.” Look no further than Alfred Hitchcock or Stanley Kubrick, one of my favorite directors, both of whom were widely known as being abusive, domineeringly and finicky to work with.
Then you have Warren Beatty, whose motives were clearly not as altruistic as he portrayed them to be. It’s clear that Beatty thought he was doing Elaine May a real Godly favor by producing for her, despite the fact she she had a long established career and two decades of successful script writing behind her. While he made a big show of telling her she could have creative control, he seemingly couldn’t handle the actualities of letting a woman actually have total control over a project. His constant undermining of and siding against May openly on set shows to me that he did not respect her as an authority. Instead of believing in her vision and trusting her track record as a talented comedian and filmmaker, he balked the second that he saw her stray from what he believed to be the acceptable boundaries of filmmaking.
It’s mind bogglingly to think that this woman who was so hands-on with helping Beatty advance his career, was so quickly backstabbed once the shoe was on the other foot. That she couldn't get a solid producer and had to rely on ghost writing scripts after Paramount deemed her “difficult” from going over budget on Mikey and Nicky (a whole other story that from the sound of it doesn’t seem too unrelated to this story) is already a huge bummer–though not exactly a surprise in an industry that was, and still is, largely male dominated. Reading about Elaine May’s tragically short directorial career now, the double standards she faced come across as glaringly obvious. I certainly don’t blame May for being combative or even walking away at times, it’s an impossible task to lead if nobody truly respects you from the start. At the end of the day, you’re only allowed to be a creative genius who pushes boundaries if all of the other lesser men in the room sign off on it.
All of this to say, I watched Ishtar so you don’t have to. But I actively recommend you seek it out and give it a chance. Ishtar is a bizarre film but it’s nowhere near as ‘bad’ as Hollywood lore would have you believe. Check out all of Elaine May’s other films while you’re at it, she deserves it and so do you.