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But We Can Sing Our Hearts Out

Ishtar (1987)

Elaine May's ISHTAR (1987) | original poster by Tony Stella
poster by Tony Stella

Every decade has its defining cinematic bombs, movies so famously unsuccessful that their very names—Cleopatra, Heaven’s Gate, Hudson Hawk, Waterworld, Battlefield Earth—eventually become synonymous with failure. And, at least in many cases, the notion that these films are “failures” becomes cemented in the public’s mind long before the films themselves are ever actually released—beset by ballooning budgets, production snafus, delayed releases, and frustrated leaks from the set, which eventually generate enough bad press to cast a pall over the entire project. Unless these films somehow manage to be enormously successful, either commercially or critically, they’re bound to go down in the annals of cinematic history as spectacular disasters. 

And, as might be expected, very few prematurely maligned films ever manage to avoid such a fate, the only real notable exception in the past few decades perhaps being James Cameron’s Titanic, which was well on its way, pre-release, to being seen as a colossal disaster—only to wind up becoming the highest grossing film of the 20th century, forcing critics across the country to abandon the various shipwreck-related puns they’d been honing in anticipation of its failure.

Of course, very little if any of this ends up having anything to do with the quality of the films themselves, but that’s often a truth arrived at in retrospect, once the bad press and resulting first waves of criticism have long since receded. Sometimes a movie is simply ahead of (or out of touch with) its time, and sometimes troubled, delayed productions result in truly interesting, or even fantastic, films1. But, to quote the immortal line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” 

And from the moment Ishtar was first announced in 1985—a big budget comedy combining the talents of three famously brilliant, opinionated, and perfectionistic artists—its legend has loomed large. 

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Open mic night in ISHTAR | Columbia Pictures
Columbia Pictures

Telling the truth can be dangerous business,
Honest and popular don’t go hand in hand.

Elaine May hadn’t directed a film in over a decade. Despite being one of the sharpest, funniest, and most intriguing artists of her era—as well as the only female director in the Director’s Guild of America—May hadn’t been allowed back in the director’s chair since Mikey and Nicky, a movie she shot 1.4 million feet of film for in 1973, but three years later, still hadn’t finished editing. The studio finally sued May, took the film away from her, and eventually dumped an unfinished version into a handful of theaters in late 1976 with virtually no promotion, generating plenty of ill will on both sides.  

May had managed to stay plenty busy in the years since, though, co-writing the screenplay for Heaven Can Wait (which earned her an Oscar nomination) and working as an uncredited screenwriter/script doctor extraordinaire on several other successful films (Reds, Tootsie, Labyrinth). Still, the disastrous process she’d gone through making Mikey and Nicky—and the reputation it earned her as a difficult, eccentric, headstrong director—essentially kept every major Hollywood studio from taking another chance on her.

But Warren Beatty, like many men before and after him, thought that Elaine May was a genius. She’d shaped or saved both of the films he’d made as a director up to that point—Heaven Can Wait, which he convinced her to write the initial draft for, and Reds, a much more ambitious passion project which he called her in to rewrite after he and previous writers had been unable to produce a suitable script. May ended up staying through post-production on Reds, lending advice on all kinds of things, and helping Beatty shape the film that ultimately went on to win him an Academy Award for Best Director. Which is why, even though she has no official credits on the film, Elaine May was the very first person Beatty mentioned, after his co-stars Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson, in his acceptance speech.

Armed with a full faith in her genius, Beatty was determined to return the favor by helping May make another film of her own. And this time, he’d ensure she could do it entirely on her own terms—a luxury she’d never once been afforded as a director—by using his considerable star power as a shield against any studio concerns regarding her ability as a director. At dinner one night with their mutual agent, May pitched the idea for Ishtar: an updated take on the old Hope/Crosby Road to… movies that would double as a satirical look at America’s bumbling geopolitical Cold War adventures in the Middle East. 

Beatty agreed to both produce and star in the film, pitching the project to Columbia Pictures as “a Beatty-May collaboration,” and adding that Dustin Hoffman might join them2. The studio, assuaged by Beatty’s box office clout and May’s recent track record as a writer/collaborator, agreed to make the film despite some reservations. May wrote the script, Beatty convinced Hoffman to sign on, and several months later, off to the desert they went.

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Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty in ISHTAR | Columbia Pictures

Saturday morning
The sound of a lawnmower
touches my heart.

Lyle Rogers (Beatty) and Chuck “The Hawk”3 Clarke (Hoffman) have passion, drive and, decidedly, very little actual talent. Aging singer/songwriters who fancy themselves the next Simon & Garfunkel, they naively but whole-heartedly give themselves over to their art, losing money, pride, and romantic relationships in the process.

But no matter, not to these artists; for them it’s all about the next step, the next song, the next show. “‘Dangerous Business’ is as good a song as ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ any day of the week!” Chuck declares, as the two stare enviously at record release photos on a store wall. And the thing is, he absolutely believes it: All they need is an agent and a record, and the world is theirs. So when Marty Freed (Jack Weston), a local talent agent, agrees to check out their performance at an open mic night, they’re convinced they might finally be on the cusp of their big break. 

The performance is a disaster, and, in one of the film’s funniest scenes, Marty tells the two to ditch their original songs and instead perform music that people know—which leads to Chuck and Lyle performing an energetic but entirely ridiculous rendition of “Little Darlin’.” Leaving the show, Freed tells them the only thing he has to offer is a 10-week gig as lounge singers at a hotel where Americans stay in Morocco. Chuck and Lyle are briefly dispirited and take some time apart to consider their options (though they end up at the same bar, since it’s the only one open). And then they decide, as they always do, to go for it. Anything to keep the dream alive.

Having passion, faith, and drive without any real talent is possibly one of the cruelest fates imaginable for any artist. Given the reverse, there’s still an outside chance things will break in your direction at some point, as talent merely needs the opportunity to shine. Take talent out of the mix, though, and you’re largely left chasing dreams that will never materialize, no matter how strong or sincere the drive to succeed—and it’s especially unlikely if you’re in your 40s, with precious little self-awareness about the situation you’re in. 

There are brief moments of clarity for both Chuck and Lyle, to be sure, moments when each realizes how high the deck is stacked against them4, but these moments never overlap. One can imagine, if left to their own devices, that both might eventually figure out the reality of their respective situations—before pairing up, Lyle was an ice cream truck driver writing songs like “Hot Fudge Love” during his shifts, while Chuck was a struggling restaurant singer. But once they join together, they become inseparable, mutually reinforcing each other’s delusions. They allow each other to dream big, and in turn, to believe in the dream. 

All of which is fertile territory for parody or condescension. The most remarkable thing about Ishtar, though, is how Elaine May frames and approaches these men, doofish as they are. The affection she has for them is palpable; rather than passing judgement on them, she creates space for us to see ourselves in their follies.

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Isabelle Adjani in ISHTAR | Columbia Pictures

“I think they’re wonderful.”

The last words spoken aloud in Ishtar provide a skeleton key of sorts to unlocking how May seems to want us to approach her film, while also rather aptly summing up a key tenant undergirding her entire filmography. Each of her four films is filled with difficult and complicated characters (usually men) whom she nonetheless feels a fondness or empathy for. While she’s long been an absurdist at heart, she’s a humanist as well, and the interplay of these two philosophies often results in a fascinating, utterly unique kind of cinema. 

The aforementioned line is spoken by Shirra Assel (Isabelle Adjani), hands on her chin and happy tears in her eyes, as she watches Rogers & Clarke perform their CIA-sponsored set of godawful songs to a roomful of baffled military soldiers and onlookers being encouraged to applaud. The duo gives it their all—despite everything that’s happened to them, they truly know no other way—throwing themselves into original numbers (“Hello Ishtar,” “I Look to Mecca,” “That a Lawnmower Can Do All That,” “How Big Am I?”) that they still believe to be sure-fire, solid gold hits. 

It’s a big, broad, ongoing joke that runs throughout Ishtar—and one that benefits enormously from the gloriously banal pop songs Paul Williams wrote for the film5—but again, somehow, it never feels mean-spirited. Instead, May (as both writer and director) chooses to love Chuck and Lyle for their delusional passion and drive, their total commitment to chasing The Dream, mediocrity be damned; to admire, rather than belittle, the mix of naivety and blind confidence that ultimately fuels the pair’s adventure to the Middle East, or at the very least, to be charmed and amused by it. In other words: to think they’re wonderful

Rogers & Clarke might be the butt of the joke to the world around them, but in May’s universe, they very rarely are. “The thing I love about [Ishtar],” Hoffman later remarked, “is that it has a statement to make. And that is: It is far, far better to spend a life being second rate in something that you’re passionate about, than to spend a life being first-rate at that which you are not passionate about. I thought that was worth making a movie about.”

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Hello Ishtar, you’re more than a country,
You’re a state of mind!

Shortly after our heroes arrive in Northern Africa, things begin to go awry. They land in Ishtar, a (fictional) country on the brink of civil war, and before they even manage to leave the airport they’ve set the wheels in motion that will eventually embroil them in a battle between a leftist rebel group and the country’s Emir. Or rather, Chuck does—being seduced by Shirra Assel (Adjani), a freedom fighter on the run, into giving her his passport and his jacket. Which leads, unsurprisingly, to him being unable to leave Ishtar.

The CIA, in the form of Jim Harrison (a delightfully droll Charles Grodin), soon gets involved. Harrison dupes Chuck into spying for them—playing to his ego, just as Shirra Assel had done—and then helps get him out of Ishtar so he can join Lyle in Morocco for their first gig.

Eventually, Shirra Assel gets mixed up with Lyle as well, telling him that Chuck is working for the CIA and that she needs Lyle’s help. He refuses to believe her, but is eventually convinced—she is wearing Chuck’s jacket after all—and agrees to help her out by meeting a contact of hers the following day. 

And that’s how we get to the blind camel. 

The film’s mascot of sorts, featured prominently in its ads and trailers, the infamous camel eventually came to resemble an almost too on-the-nose metaphor for Ishtar’s entire production. Lyle, confused by Shirra Assel’s request, buys the camel at a local market. And then, for nearly the entire rest of the film, he and Chuck are stuck dragging this large, obstinate, unseeing animal around the desert, helpless as it crashes into everything, or suddenly decides not to move at all.

Beatty, Hoffman, and a camel in Elaine May's ISHTAR | Columbia PIctures

It’s a litmus test for audiences as well—those that hate the film really hate the camel, but for those of us who love it, the camel is a joke that just keeps on giving. And it’s perfectly Elaine May: an absurd situation that, in almost any other comedy director’s hands, would have tilted too far into stupidity and quickly grown stale, but in hers somehow manages to be increasingly funny, in an almost Kristen-Schaal-is-a-horse kind of way.

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She said come look there’s a wardrobe of love in my eyes.
Take your time, look around, and see if there’s something your size.

Ishtar gives me the giggles. Not the most professional stance, I suppose, but there it is. Like so much of Elaine May’s work, there’s a gentle absurdity to it, a situational chaos held together at the seams by distinct, off-beat comedic rhythms that gradually crescendo into hilarity. It’s a comedy of accumulation, of unexpected choices and narrative beats that eventually turn a standard set up into a surreal playground where anything goes. It might sound odd or grandiose to compare Ishtar to the works of someone like Brecht or Beckett, but it’s also not entirely off-base (Nichols and May, the groundbreaking improvisionational comedy act with which she got her start, were heavily influenced by and enamored of both). Part of the fun in watching anything Elaine May has a hand in, even an award show presentation, is simply in seeing where it will go next. Or more precisely, in seeing where she’ll take it.

Because to like Elaine May is to love her; there seems to be no real middle ground. Those bitten by the May bug, at any point in their life, tend to become rather obsessive. It’s hard to pinpoint why this is, exactly, if only because there’s so damn much to love about her. And while she’s been saddled with the “difficult woman” label many times throughout her 60-plus year career as a sketch comedienne/actress/director/screenwriter/playwright/script doctor—almost always by powerful men who had no idea what to make of her—I’d suggest that what she is isn’t difficult per se, but rather, fascinating. A distinctive voice in American cinema who only made four films and always preferred to let the work itself do the talking, to eschew credit or attention for things unless absolutely necessary. As a result, whatever was said about her was rarely challenged (she hasn’t given a lengthy solo interview since 1967) and gradually cemented into fact. Which is not to say that she didn’t give the studios she worked with some very real headaches, but rather to suggest that there was a good deal of method to her madness, and that the onscreen results more than speak for themselves.

May often had a distinct vision for her films but trouble communicating it to those around her, an obsession with multiple takes and tiny details but a blind eye for some of the basic practicalities of filmmaking. Still, it’s hard not to think that a good deal of why she was so often labelled as “difficult” throughout her career was simply because she was female; filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick or James Cameron or David Fincher, each notorious for working in the same obsessive and idiosyncratic ways in which May often does, are frequently admired for such behavior, and have certainly never been blacklisted for it. But May was never given that same luxury, and her approach to making Ishtar—the first big-budget film she’d ever attempted, and the one that lost the most money—only furthered the notion that she simply couldn’t be trusted as a director. Following its release, she never made another feature film.

Rogers & Clarke | Columbia Pictures

It’s heartbreaking to think that a film as smart, charming, and unique as Ishtar could effectively end the career of one of our greatest directors, especially when it was never really given a fighter’s chance to get off the ground, torpedoed by a hostile studio head intent on making a point6 and waves of bad press that poisoned the public against it long before its release. If it was possible to see the film devoid of the context from which it emerged, to focus on what actually made it to the screen instead of what went on behind it or how much it cost to make, the legend of Ishtar might be an altogether different story, or maybe, no real story at all. Instead, we’re left to lament all the films Elaine May never got to make, and how different the last 30 years of American cinema might have looked had she been given the same chances and opportunities as many of her male counterparts.

Thankfully the tide has turned a bit on Ishtar over the past three decades. Its champions now include filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, and Edgar Wright—as well as a new generation of cinephiles discovering its charms unencumbered by old baggage—and it’s not hard to imagine a future where it sits more comfortably alongside the other three films she directed, instead of being seen as the black sheep of the bunch. Still, it’s hard not to feel like she was done wrong, repeatedly, for crimes she never committed7. And it’s harder still to think what that must have been like for her. Unlike Lyle and Chuck, she had talent—buckets of it—to go along with her artistry and drive. And in the end, that didn’t seem to matter. The doors closed on her anyway.

But hopefully she knows, she’s wonderful.

  1. I would happily argue that Heaven’s Gate, Hudson Hawk, and Waterworld have their merits, and at the very least are worth watching. Battlefield Earth, however, earns every single ounce of its awful reputation. Dear God.
  2. Hoffman was also a recent beneficiary of May’s behind-the-scenes magic, crediting her with rescuing Tootsie: “Elaine is the one who made the movie work.”
  3. “Girls call me ‘The Hawk.’ It’s a long story, gang war, shit like that.”
  4. Lyle does have to literally talk Chuck down off the ledge at one point, after all.
  5. “It would be very easy to write obviously bad songs, but to write believable bad songs where they actually sound like they were trying to be good was the hard part…I wrote like 50 songs for this. Everyone had to like the songs: Dustin, Warren, Elaine, and I had to like them, and they had to be bad.”
  6. Ishtar is maybe the prime example that I know of in Hollywood of studio suicide.” – Mike Nichols
  7. Both Hoffman and Beatty were able to work immediately following Ishtar, and in Beatty’s case, he went on to make two additional films—Town & Country in 2001, and Rules Don’t Apply in 2016 which ended up losing far more money than Ishtar ever did.