The Legacy and Lunacy of Ishtar

Elaine May's notorious Hollywood flop—undone by production stumbles, studio sabotage, and toxic reviews—carries an odious reputation it doesn't deserve

The Legacy and Lunacy of Ishtar
Warren Beatty (L) and Dustin Hoffman in Elaine May’s Ishtar Photo: Columbia Pictures

“As somebody once said, there’s a difference between a failure and a fiasco. A failure is simply the non-present of success. Any fool can accomplish failure. But a fiasco, a fiasco is a disaster of mythic proportions. A fiasco is a folktale told to others, that makes other people feel more… alive. Because it didn’t happen to them.”

That’s from the opening voiceover to Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown. You might’ve forgotten about Elizabethtown. Elizabethtown was merely a failure. It lost money for the studio and tarnished Crowe’s reputation as a narrative miracle worker, but it did not end his career. It was no fiasco. It was no Ishtar.

Ishtar, which debuted 35 years ago this month, is Hollywood’s picture definition of “fiasco.” Ishtar is what happens when a studio writes the industry’s most mercurial movie star a blank check to make a film with a notoriously meticulous writer-director and stays the hell out of the editing room. Ishtar is a best-intentions-paved express lane to the ninth circle of hell. It effectively ended two careers and played a pivotal role in precipitating one of the most disastrous studio sales in film history. Its stink has wafted through the ages. When Kevin Costner’s Waterworld was plagued by rumors of budget overruns, production snafus and diva behavior, the press dubbed it “Fishtar.” The Far Side’s Gary Larson once drew a cartoon titled “Hell’s Video Store” wherein the establishment was stocked only with copies of Ishtar. In 1999, Time compiled a list of “The 100 Worst Ideas of the 20th Century”. Ishtar was on it.

Ishtar is a flush left cross from Mike Tyson. It is the iceberg that perforated the hull of the Titanic. Filmmakers do everything in their power to avoid making an Ishtar. And this is a shame, because Ishtar is a great movie.

How did an ultra-innocuous riff on the Hope-Crosby “Road to” movies starring Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman as an exquisitely terrible songwriting team who become ensnared in a CIA plot to overthrow the Emir of Ishtar explode into a $51 million debacle that resulted in the firing of beloved Columbia executive Guy McElwaine and the death of Elaine May’s otherwise celebrated directing career? And why did so many critics go overboard in their condemnation of a comedy that absolutely slays over its first 30 minutes before closing with an uproarious performance from Charles Grodin that veers from deadpan to sheer panic? Let me tell you the tale of a fiasco…

Prodigious talent, two A-list partnerships

Elaine May made films by feel. She had every right to believe this was permissible. After all, her improvisational comedy partner Mike Nichols was given no shortage of slack to find his voice as a director on Who’s Afraid Of Virgina Woolf? and The Graduate, the latter of which earned him a Best Director Oscar. That was the post-Easy Rider New Hollywood. The artist was king, especially if they were unburdened by the conventions and stodgy style of the old school. May was an excitingly unknown filmmaking quantity, which compelled Paramount Pictures head Robert Evans to greenlight her adaptation of Jack Ritchie’s darkly funny short story, “The Green Heart.” Retitled A New Leaf, May was obliged to cast Walter Matthau, a comedic dynamo who was as hilarious onscreen as he was rancorous off. When May rejected the studio’s suggestion of the too-too Carol Channing as the female lead (who needed to be overwhelmed by Matthau’s degenerate playboy), she stepped into the role. May was also egregiously underpaid because she insisted on directing.

Left to her own devices during principal photography, May shot loads of film. When she turned in a nearly three-hour cut, Evans kicked her out of the edit and slashed the movie down to 102 minutes. May retaliated by suing Paramount to get her name removed from the movie. She lost. Except she didn’t. The film was well received, and her sophomore feature, The Heartbreak Kid (which launched Grodin’s career), was a critical and commercial success. Alas, her third movie, the idiosyncratic crime drama Mikey and Nicky, was so abhorred by Paramount that they hacked the theatrical cut to pieces and intentionally sabotaged its release.

May’s directing career was almost certainly over. But game recognizes game, and Warren Beatty, who’d been strictly platonic friends with May since 1964 (a rarity for the houndish star), sought her writing expertise for his 1978 remake of Heaven Can Wait. Their collaboration paid off handsomely at the box office, and earned Elaine May her first Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. Two years later, when Beatty hit a wall during the scripting of his October Revolution epic, Reds, he leaned on May for uncredited rewrites. She delivered and Beatty won the Academy Award for Best Director. He owed her.

The promise of a blank check

When Guy McElwaine was hired as Columbia Pictures’ head of production in 1983, Beatty basically had a standing greenlight at the studio. McElwaine was his former publicist and close friend. They’d made each other’s careers. Beatty, however, hadn’t made a movie since Reds, so his star had slightly dimmed. Nevertheless, once he decided to jump back into filmmaking, he went straight to Elaine May and made this promise: Pitch me a movie that I can star in and produce, and I will protect you from all studio interference. You will get to make your movie.

I’ve been chasing a Beatty interview for well over a decade, and, perhaps embarrassingly, I mostly want to talk Ishtar. The question that is foremost on my mind is this: was he shocked that, given a blank check, May wanted to make a goofy Hope-Crosby picture where Beatty is Hope? He admired her previous movies, and I have to think A New Leaf struck a chord given Beatty’s charmed life as a bachelor (he was single until he married Annette Bening in 1992). She could’ve revisited her earlier, edgier stuff, but this goofy lark was the project! Surely, he was taken aback.

I admire both of them for pressing forward. I also can’t blame McElwaine for blanching. Bob Hope’s target audience was neither avid nor numerous in the mid-1980s. The octogenarian comic was phoning it in once or twice a year on network holiday specials, his elbow-to-rib humor having been eclipsed decades earlier during the same cultural upheaval that turned May into a comedic superstar. Fast-talking, profanity-spouting Eddie Murphy was the hottest thing going in Hollywood. Who the hell wanted to watch Beatty and Hoffman, in role reversals that amused only them (the latter is the ladies man while the former is a wallflower), mucking about in the desert with a blind camel?

After a good deal of industry gamesmanship that ultimately hinged on McElwaine not wanting to lose Beatty to another studio, Ishtar was thrust into production with a $27.5 million budget. $12.5 million of that kitty went to May, Beatty and Hoffman. For a film that was to be shot in New York City and Morocco, this was a sign of migraines to come.

The folly of a good movie about bad artists

During the scripting phase, the story goes that Hoffman and his playwriting pal Murray Schisgal believed Ishtar should’ve remained in New York City and made hay out of the inept songwriting antics of Beatty and Hoffman. Their instincts weren’t unsound. Ishtar roars out of the gate with its masterfully edited montage of two talentless dopes attempting to spin musical gold out of the world around them. May hired Paul Williams to write “believably bad” songs, and he aced the assignment. Every single composition is a head-on collision of half-baked melodies and grasping lyrics, an olio of awfulness. When an exhausted waiter gives the duo a half-hour to leave a restaurant where they’ve been fruitlessly riffing well past closing time, they launch into a song about half-hours. When they’re not penning tuneless tripe like “Wardrobe of Love,” they ponder suicide. It’s a drain-swirling vision of half-baked artistry in the Big Apple. Pursued to its logical conclusion, it might’ve been a masterful study in ineptitude.

But May wanted a smile. Again, aside from her obvious affection for the Hope-Crosby formula, it’s never been entirely clear to me why she staked her career on something so conceptually lightweight. To be fair, Ishtar isn’t entirely toothless. It is, in an offhand way, a multifaceted portrait of American unexceptionalism. These two untalented clods bungle their way into a gig as Marrakesh nightclub singers, and somehow touch off an international incident that winds up working in their favor because the CIA is equally at sea in its efforts to depose the left-wing Emir. And yet it was hardly a news flash in 1987 that the CIA was thunderously clumsy in its regime-change efforts. May understood this, and played the comedy as broadly as possible. She had no intention of making a satire. She just wanted to have fun.

She also had no idea how to run a massive studio production tethered to two meddlesome movie stars. According to Peter Biskind’s entertainingly gossipy Beatty biography, Star, May struggled mightily with the desert portion of the shoot. Depending on who’s telling the story, she might’ve brought some of this on herself. Oscar-winning production designer Paul Sylbert claimed May sent him scouring the Sahara for the perfect sand dune. When he found one, she said, “Dunes? Who said anything about Dunes? I want flat!” This either forced Sylbert to rent eleven bulldozers at great cost to level a dune or necessitated the trucking in of excess sand. The latter version is more favorable to May’s cause, but still puzzling. If she wanted flat, what in the hell were they doing in the Sahara?

In retrospect, there are loads of logistical and hiring choices that seem to have set the production up for a needlessly rough ride. After Reds, Beatty was smitten with genius cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. Who wouldn’t be? But who’d hire the DP of Apocalypse Now to shoot a hybrid Hope-Crosby comedy? When May clashed with the maestro over camera placement, Beatty sided with Storaro. This was effectively the end of May’s creative partnership with Beatty. She felt betrayed, while he felt she wasn’t up to the task of steering the ship. They stopped talking. Hoffman, whose diva behavior was the stuff of legend, found himself playing the unusual role of mediator, but nothing could be done.

A win for representation, a loss for May

This is typically the part of a troubled shoot where the director gets fired, but the liberal Beatty wanted no part of firing a woman director he’d pledged to protect against studio interference. May survived the shoot and hung on through post-production. But Columbia’s corporate overlords at Coca-Cola, distressed by Beatty’s vote of no confidence in May’s directorial talents, demanded a scalp. Guy McElwaine, Beatty’s friend and former publicist, was out. David Puttnam, the producer of Chariots of Fire, which upset Reds for Best Picture in 1981, was in.

Puttnam preached austerity. He abhorred wasteful studio spending, and singled Beatty out as a particularly egregious spendthrift. He might’ve inherited Ishtar, but he was not going to own it. Given his adversarial relationship with Beatty, he agreed to stay out of the editing room. He did not, however, say he wouldn’t leap at every opportunity to trash the wayward production on background with journalists. When the film moved off its December 1986 release date, a series of strangely well-sourced articles enumerating Ishtar’s myriad woes began popping up in trade publications. Hollywood folks in the know referred to the film as “Warren’s Gate” (a reference to Michael Cimino’s uber-bomb Heaven’s Gate, which kneecapped United Artists).

The accounts weren’t incorrect, but they killed the film’s commercial prospects months before release, this despite well-received preview screenings that Beatty said were among the best he’d ever experienced. It might’ve been true that superagent Bert Fields—who repped May, Beatty and Hoffman—was overseeing the final cut as a means of placating his clients, but filmmaking can be a chaotic, counterintuitive process. No one wants to strike prints for a stinker, especially when their sterling reputation is on the line. Beatty had yet to produce a flop, and May had yet to make a bad movie. Who cares how the sausage gets made as long as it’s goddamn delicious?

In the days before there were a quarter-million critics recognized by Rotten Tomatoes, the nation’s movie reviewers wielded quite a bit of individual power. Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, via their syndicated television show, were particularly influential. “Two thumbs up” was a much coveted pull-quote in print advertisements. They could blow wind into the sails of potentially overlooked independent films. Unfortunately, they relished the opportunity to take arrogant stars down a peg or two when they got out ahead of their skis. And they tore the holy hell out of Ishtar. Siskel called it a “crushing bore” that “fails at every level”. Ebert went harder, directing his scorn at May while excusing Beatty and Hoffman as “good soldiers” who “look as if they’ve had all wit and thought beat out of them.” The New York Times’ Janet Maslin and Time’s Richard Schickel emphasized the film’s charms over its weaknesses in their positive reviews, but they were lone, upbeat voices in a chorus of opprobrium. The die was cast.

Ishtar was the top-grossing movie over its May 15th opening weekend, but it barely outgrossed Tibor Takácks’ low-budget horror programmer The Gate. These films offered a devastating contrast in production styles, one that no doubt pleased Puttnam. Ishtar closed its domestic theatrical run with a paltry $14 million gross against a $51 million budget. Beatty was humbled. Hoffman was fine. May was ruined.

Reappraising the legacy of a fiasco

There’s no giving May back the career she lost due to Puttnam’s sabotage and the unduly savage reviews (and good ol’ industry sexism), but it’s at least a little heartening that she’s been able to watch Ishtar’s critical reputation improve over the years. One major reason for the upswing: people are finally watching it. As May noted during a 2006 Q&A with Mike Nichols, “If all of the people who hate Ishtar had seen it, I would be a rich woman today.” This is a great line, but it’s rooted in truth. In his collection The Complete Far Side, Vol. 3, Gary Larson confessed that he hadn’t seen Ishtar prior to his “Hell’s Video Store” cartoon. When he caught up with the movie a few years later, he was shocked to find that he quite enjoyed it. “There are so many cartoons for which I should probably write an apology,” wrote Larson. “But this is the only one which compels me to do so.”

Unfortunately, Ebert, who was open to reconsidering films he’d panned in the past, never atoned for his mean-spirited Ishtar review (even if he still didn’t like it, he definitely owed May an apology for incorrectly suggesting she’d victimized her stars). Predictably, most of the folks who piled on back in 1987 never revised or recanted their knee-jerk takes.

Thirty-five years after its release, Ishtar has acquired an enthusiastic cult following that includes Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Lena Dunham, Rian Johnson and Edgar Wright. In 2007, Wright programmed the film as the surprise third feature of his Paul Williams-themed night at The New Beverly. I was in attendance, and can confirm that a somewhat skeptical crowd was completely won over within the first ten minutes. I watched it again a few years later with an audience of mostly first-time viewers, and was delighted to discover Wright’s screening was not an anomaly. Though it does get a little draggy during Lyle and Chuck’s trudge through the desert with the blind camel, the film generally plays like gangbusters. It opens and finishes strong, which was clear to me back in 1987 and probably why the movie tested well with audiences who weren’t dialed in to Hollywood gossip. (After years of missed release dates, largely due to Beatty’s protectiveness, Ishtar finally hit Blu-ray in 2013—as a two-minutes-shorter Director’s Cut. It is currently available to rent at Apple TV, Prime Video, Vudu and other streaming outlets.)

This is the most frustrating aspect of Ishtar’s legacy. Yes, it was a fiasco behind the scenes, but its production troubles were relevant only to the very small number of people invested in its success. Some of the greatest movies of all time were fiascos in the making. The Wizard Of Oz, Gone With The Wind, and Jaws nearly fell apart at various junctures during pre-production and principal photography. Gossip is fun and flops are queasily fascinating, but every movie deserves a fair hearing. Ishtar was subjected to a kangaroo court, and condemned on the basis of its toxic press clippings. Its quality was never a consideration. Clearly. Because how can anyone not unconditionally love a movie that features a love song about a lawnmower? The world needs more fiascos like Ishtar.

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