It’s becoming a little disconcerting just how often fantastically panned films wind up being pretty freaking solid. Anyone who’s seen Heaven’s Gate knows what I’m referring to—Michael Cimino’s epic Western disaster, the film that ruined United Artists, is actually very compelling and well-made (if not without its issues, like most others). The same principle applies for Ishtar, Elaine May’s 1987 return to directing after an 11-year hiatus following the poorly received Mikey and Nicky (an absolutely fantastic film): plagued by well-publicized cost overruns and creative clashes, universally panned upon its release, and an unmitigated commercial disaster, Ishtar effectively ended May’s career as a director.
However, critical consensus being a shifting thing (in the best-case scenarios), the past 24 years have seen a change of heart. Seeing the director’s cut of Ishtar on Tuesday night at the 92nd Street Y—the first time this cut has ever been screened publicly—I could see why.
The film absolutely sprints, rattling off one bizarre (and bizarrely funny) joke after another, and with Dustin Hoffman (excellent) and Warren Beatty (merely good) starring as horrifically untalented musicians who become embroiled in a coup in Morocco, its absurdist humor is strengthened by the filmmaker’s understanding of just how bizarre some of the CIA’s foreign operations really are. That the film, which features Charles Grodin as a CIA operative, was made in the 80s, with our government clandestinely supporting dictators galore, is totally logical; and yet the film’s aggressive cutting and whip-fast pacing are clearly ahead of its time. Ishtar now seems like an only slightly less ridiculous progenitor of the merciless lickety-split style exemplified by In The Loop. In a climate where “mega-budget comedy” meant Beverly Hills Cop II, it’s easy to see why the film wasn’t received well by audiences—or studio execs—who expected a mainstream blockbuster.
May—who was on hand for a rare public appearance—spoke after the screening about just what may have done the film in. “[Then-Columbia Pictures head] David Puttnam was English, and you know, we respect that in Hollywood,” May quipped. “He had had a falling out with Dustin. When the movie came out—we had three previews, and they went really well. And then I heard from Warren that there was an article in the Los Angeles Times, and that Puttnam had wiped us out. He said the same thing he said about Dustin before—we should be spanked, we spent too much money, he was going to reform Hollywood—because the British film industry makes so much money. It was really sort of unforgivable what he did. He attacked his own movie. Mike Nichols, my partner, said it was like an entire studio committing suicide—they all just went with him. Puttnam did something that no studio head had ever done before—he actually released the budget to the press. The head of our own studio.” May went on to share her own thoughts about the film-as-flop’s reception: “If half the people who made cracks about Ishtar had actually seen it, I would be a rich woman.”
May also related the story of how she wound up directing to begin with: she had written A New Leaf (pictured, with May and costar Walter Matthau), which was set to be put into production. “I told the studio I wanted director approval,” she explained. “They told me that I couldn’t have director approval, but I could direct.” She laughed, along with everyone else in the auditorium. “So I directed. I didn’t know the first thing about it. I thought that one of the big lights on the first day of shooting was the camera. One of the guys whispered to me that the camera wasn’t there yet. I also didn’t know that you were supposed to cover a movie—to shoot more than one angle so you could make cuts. So the first week of shooting, I was four weeks ahead of schedule. I went into the editing room and said, this scene is too long, take that out, and the editor said, I can’t, you have no coverage. The next week I was four weeks behind schedule.”
As her subsequent work evidences, she learned. Moderator David Schwartz (a curator at the Museum of the Moving Image) pointed out that Ishtar was the last film that May had directed. “This is such a beautifully made film, it should’ve led to more directing,” he said. “Well, it should have,” May replied. Pregnant pause, and then: “But it didn’t.” It’s the film world’s loss.
Apparently, after some delays, Ishtar will be coming to Blu-Ray soon. One can only hope.