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When is a big-budget cinematic comedy also a punchline itself? When that comedy is Ishtar, the notorious box-office bomb that became the literal poster child for expensive Hollywood flops. Released in theaters 35 years ago on May 15, 1987, the movie brought together some of the biggest names in the industry, including comedy legend and pioneering writer-director Elaine May and A-list stars Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty.
But Ishtar's then-astronomical budget of $51 million and high-profile production difficulties put a target on the movie's back early on. And critics were all too willing to fire at the movie when it screened for the first time. Roger Ebert's half-star review set the tone for the knives-out barrage of bad press to come. "Ishtar is a truly dreadful film," he wrote. "A lifeless, massive, lumbering exercise in failed comedy." The movie came and went from theaters with only $14 million in the bank, effectively ending May's feature filmmaking career and leaving Hoffman and Beatty with commercial black eyes.
That's certainly not the destination May had in mind when she first pitched Beatty the idea of making a modern-day version of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby's classic Road comedies. The duo had previously collaborated on his 1978 hit, Heaven Can Wait, and Beatty used his star wattage to push her pitch into development at Columbia Pictures. According to Peter Biskind's 2010 biography, Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America, the actor-director presented May's script as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. "Anything she wants. Period. That’s my negotiating position," was Beatty's mantra according to an unnamed source cited in Biskind's book, which was excerpted in Vanity Fair.
In contrast to the musical comedy dynamos that were Hope and Crosby, May's comic conceit with Ishtar was to build the story around two disaster artists — Simon and Garfunkel wannabes Chuck Clarke and Lyle Rogers — who suffer from delusions of superstardom. Desperate to kickstart their singing careers, they agree to be the lounge act at a Morocco hotel but get into a crazy adventure along the way that includes CIA agents (headed up by Charles Grodin), a mysterious ingénue (Isabelle Adjani, who was Beatty's real-life girlfriend during production) and an ancient map of the titular fictional nation that could spark a major regional conflict.
May started writing the script with Beatty already in place, but no firm commitment from Hoffman. In a twist on their public personas, Beatty — who was still Hollywood's most famous ladies' man — decided to play the game-challenged Lyle, while Mrs. Robinson's awkward ex-sidepiece would get to have fun with Chuck's Casanova-like suavity. But Hoffman turned the role down when he read May's completed screenplay, feeling that the duo's attempts to be New York's next Simon and Garfunkel (whose songs famously scored The Graduate) were funnier than anything that happened in the deserts of Ishtar. The actor eventually allowed his concerns to be assuaged by Beatty and May's full-court press to get him onboard.
"My resistance was so fundamental, in terms of keeping it in New York, that once they disagreed with that it was: Let them have their vision and let’s hope for the best," Hoffman told Biskind. "I’m just going where they want to take this." Beatty also promised his co-star that any script issues could be resolved on set. "He was saying, 'Don’t worry about the script. Go with [Elaine's] talent. Go with us.'"
Beatty also worked overtime to keep Columbia onboard when the studio saw the scale of the production that he and May had planned — including shooting on location in Morocco. The budget was originally set at just under $30 million, with the stars both picking up an almost $6 million payday. Even as they were concerned by the size of those numbers, studio executives also couldn't bring themselves to find an off-ramp thanks to that distinctly Hollywood combination of hubris and fear.
"Columbia's nightmare was having a trio of Hollywood's most uncompromising talents working on the same project somewhere in the Sahara Desert," a source told Biskind. "Columbia's other nightmare was passing on a project that included Warren, Dustin and Elaine, then having it go to Fox or Universal, and watching it be a huge hit."
Cameras started rolling on Ishtar in October 1985, and news stories from the time noted that no journalists were allowed on set and crew members were restricted from discussing the film. In hindsight, that secrecy can be chalked up to the fact that May and Beatty's rock-solid relationship started to fracture early on. Biskind's book reports that May's directing style clashed with the approach of certain crew members — including cinematographer Vittorio Storaro — and the actor seemed to ally himself with them. The resulting tension spilled over into the rest of the production and gave the set a rudderless feeling.
"I would have to ask, 'Elaine, what do you want me to say?'" Hoffman recalled. "I’d go to Warren, 'What do you want me to say?' Warren and Elaine — you couldn't get closer than those two — suddenly it was like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? But no shouting. It was worse than shouting. They stopped talking to each other."
The Rubicon was finally crossed when it came time to shoot the film's super-sized action climax, by which time the budget had already ballooned to $50 million thanks to the challenges of shooting in the desert. As production designer Paul Sylbert recounted the scene to Biskind, May and Beatty were frostily debating the logistics of the sequence when she essentially abdicated the director's chair to him. "She said, 'You want it done? You shoot it!'" Sylbert said, adding that Beatty ultimately declined to pull rank as the film's producer and fire her.
In fact, the star continued to back May even as production wound down and Columbia grew increasingly concerned that the movie was beyond saving. A New York magazine piece published two months prior to the movie's May 1987 premiere noted that the film was originally supposed to hit theaters the previous fall, but the post-production process kept pushing back the release date. May was reportedly still making changes up until the very last minute. "She'd be happier if she could keep Ishtar in the editing room forever and never release it," a source told the magazine.
Based on the reaction to come, that might have been the preferred option. Primed for a disaster on the level of Heaven's Gate — Michael Cimino's lavish 1980 Western that bankrupted one of Hollywood's oldest studios, United Artists — critics mercilessly tore into Ishtar, almost as if they were competing to see who could come up with the most savage takedown. The Washington Post's Hal Hinson called the film a "mammoth dud," adding: "It's scaled large, with teeming extras, helicopters and the vast desert landscape stretching out to the horizon, but it stands there on our doorstep, this white elephant of a movie." Meanwhile, an un-bylined review in People magazine described it as a "muddle" and said that Hoffman and Beatty "show the strain of carrying the picture."
Some of the most vicious commentary came from Ebert and his regular foil, Gene Siskel, who gleefully dissected the film on Siskel & Ebert — both equally in agreement that it was an across-the-board failure. "Ishtar is a crushing bore," Siskel opined, as his co-host expanded on the barbs featured in his print review. "The characters are not funny, their songs are pathetic ... and the movie just totally evaporates into total desperation."
The duo later put the film at the top of their list for the worst film of 1987, above such other candidates as Bill Cosby's legendary disaster Leonard Part VI and Sylvester Stallone's arm-wrestling epic Over the Top. "This was a [big budget] comedy that hardly made enough money to pay for its advertising," said Ebert, taking one last shot at the price tag. "But I wouldn't have even objected to the budget so much if this had contained at least a few forlorn funny moments."
Critics weren't the only ones who had a field day ridiculing May, Beatty and Hoffman. Cartoonist Gary Larson drew a Far Side comic where Hell's lone video store only has VHS copies of Ishtar in stock. David Letterman devoted an entire Late Night segment to poking fun at the pre-release silence surrounding the movie, imagining what a theoretical interview with Hoffman and Beatty — who he claimed declined to appear on the show — might look like. The film also became a go-to gag on everything from The Golden Girls to The Simpsons, effectively enshrining it in the pop-culture consciousness as a synonym for "disaster."
Thirty-five years later, though, many are singing a different tune about Ishtar. The movie's reputation has undergone an extensive rehabilitation as films like Waterworld, The Lone Ranger and, most recently, Cats have supplanted its place as high-profile examples of expensive Hollywood boondoggles. Longtime fans — including prominent critics like Richard Brody and such directors as Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino and Edgar Wright — have been more vocal in their praise, and as new viewers sit down and watch the film behind the punchline, they've come away charmed. That was certainly the case with Larson, who later apologized for making Ishtar the butt of a Far Side joke.
"When I drew [the cartoon], I had not actually seen Ishtar," he explained in the 2003 introduction to The Complete Far Side. "Years later, I saw it on an airplane and was stunned at what was happening to me: I was actually being entertained. Sure, maybe it’s not the greatest film ever made, but my cartoon was way off the mark."
In recent years, Ishtar has regularly played the repertory circuit alongside May's earlier comedies, including A New Leaf and The Heartbreak Kid, a potent reminder that the notoriety surrounding the movie robbed her of the opportunity to direct another film. While she doesn't often discuss Ishtar in interviews, May has suggested that Columbia executives hurt her filmmaking career by not taking a firmer hand in countering the bad press around its budget. And as others have noted, female filmmakers often pay a higher cost for pricey disappointments than their male counterparts — just ask Karyn Kusama or Mimi Leder.
Fortunately, May has found continued success as a writer and performer, penning the screenplays for The Birdcage and Primary Colors — both of which were directed by her former comedy partner, Mike Nichols — and winning her first Tony Award in 2019 for her star turn in Kenneth Lonergan's The Waverly Gallery. And even though Hoffman spilled his dirty laundry on the film to Biskind, he still admits that he'd make Ishtar all over again for the chance to collaborate with her. "There's a spine to it: isn't it better to spend a lifetime being second-rate at what you're passionate about, what you love, than be first-rate without a soul?" he said. "That's magnificent, and that's what Elaine was after. I'd do it again. I just wish it had been worked out better."
Ishtar is currently available for rent or purchase on most VOD services, including Amazon.