Up until May 22, 1987 (the day it opened in theaters, 25 years ago), advance buzz on "Ishtar" was contentious; it was either a brilliant comic masterpiece or a textbook case of overreach on the part of two giant Hollywood egos to whom no one could say, "No." After the film's release... same thing. To this day, the movie is roundly mocked for its alleged awfulness (often by people who've never seen it), while a passionate cult of fans insists it's a lost work of misunderstood genius that never got its proper due from critics or moviegoers.
The truth lies somewhere in the middle. The movie is far from being unwatchable, as its detractors complain; nor is it as unrelentingly funny as its supporters claim. Seen today, "Ishtar" contains some inspired gags, from the hilariously bad songs performed by Beatty and Hoffman's inept lounge duo to the prescient satire of America's ham-fisted foreign policy blunders throughout the Middle East. But it also doesn't really hang together as a film; rather, it lurches along in fits and starts like the movie's fabled blind camel.
One thing is certain, however: May was punished for its failure, in a way that Beatty and Hoffman were not -- both of their careers continued to flourish, while she's never directed another film. "You'd have to be offered a movie that's worth your time and your struggle, and I haven't been," she said at a rare screening last year of her director's cut of "Ishtar." As one searches for the truth behind the myths surrounding "Ishtar"'s production -- many of which have to do with how in-over-her-head May was -- it's clear that she made an all-too-convenient scapegoat for the excesses of an entire industry, not just her own.
Myth No. 1: May was incapable of working within the studio system. Before "Ishtar," May had directed three movies in the 1970s: the brilliant and underrated "A New Leaf" (1971), a romantic farce in which she also served as writer and star; the classic "The Heartbreak Kid" (1972), a hit Neil Simon comedy that effectively launched Charles Grodin's career; and "Mikey and Nicky" (1976), a largely improvised crime drama starring John Cassavetes and Peter Falk that mimicked the similarly improvisational, acquired-taste movies that Cassavetes had been making with Falk for years. The last of these had cemented May's reputation as a perfectionist, one who ordered take after take and shot hundreds of hours of film, only to spend months or years in the editing room in order to come up with a two-hour movie.
But May had also received little support from the studios she worked for. "Every movie I made except for 'The Heartbreak Kid,' the studio changed regimes in the middle of the movie," she said in a 2006 conversation with Mike Nichols (her former sketch comedy partner, who went on to a much more successful directing career). It's not uncommon that, after such a regime change, the new studio chief will disown the movies in production that his or her predecessor greenlit, so as not to be held responsible if they fail. In the cases of "New Leaf" and "Mikey and Nicky," the studios ultimately wrested the films away from May, recut them, and released them without her approval.
Myth No. 2: Beatty stabbed May in the back. Given Beatty's involvement 15 years later with "Town & Country" -- another costly comedy flop that he starred in, and whose endless pre-release tinkering seemed to have Beatty's fingerprints all over it -- it's easy to wonder if Beatty's micromanagement of his director wasn't also a source of woe for "Ishtar." For one thing, Beatty (who also produced the film) was the highest paid person on the set (he and Hoffman both earned about $5.5 million for their acting, plus another half mil to Beatty for producing, while May's salary was $1 million), and the salaries of the three principals comprised nearly half of the film's initial $27.5 million budget. (Actually, Beatty and Hoffman had offered to defer their salaries, but Columbia declined.) Plus, Beatty's heavy-handedness seemed evident in his refusal to allow journalists on the set and his reluctance to do interviews to promote its release. Finally, he'd cast his then-girlfriend, Isabelle Adjani, as the movie's female lead. All of this led the press to be skeptical that Beatty was the one really holding the reins and driving up the budget.
Beatty and May did clash on the set, often leading to paralysis during the expensive shoot in Morocco. According to Peter Biskind's biography "Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America," the actor/producer and the director differed on staging and setups, particularly when it came to the climactic battle sequence, a bigger spectacle than anything May had ever shot before. But Biskind writes that Beatty didn't want to undermine her authority by contradicting her, lest he tarnish his liberal-feminist credentials. Beatty also refused to let the studio fire her, threatening to walk if they did.
Where Beatty and May differed most strongly was in the endless editing process. Their contracts guaranteed a measure of final cut authority to May, Beatty, and Hoffman -- which meant, really, that none of them had final cut. Each of them was working on his or her own cut of the movie at the same time. In the end, Hollywood superlawyer Bert Fields, who represented all three of them, wound up overseeing the editing.
Myth No. 3: May didn't know where to place the camera. May has acknowledged, more than once, that, on her first film, she knew so little about directing that she hardly knew what to do with the camera or even to shoot coverage (that is, the same scene from multiple camera positions) so that she'd have alternate footage to build a sequence within the editing room. But it seems unlikely that, four movies and hundreds of hours of footage later, she'd still be as naive. Nonetheless, she clashed frequently over camera placement with the master cinematographer Beatty had hired, Vittorio Storaro. Storaro told Biskind that May would do the opposite of whatever he recommended, to the extent that he learned to use reverse psychology and recommend the opposite of what he wanted. But May's friend, editor Philip Schopper, suggested that May knew exactly what she was doing. Storaro's painterly eye had framed such dramatic masterpieces as "Reds" and "Last Tango in Paris," but he'd never shot a comedy before, and May was aiming for funny, not pretty.
Myth No. 4: May wasted untold amounts of money casting the right camel. The oft-told camel anecdote is justly famous. May's animal trainers searched for a camel with blue eyes (a rarity) to suggest its blindness. They found one priced at $700 but thought they could do better. After days of searching, they couldn't find another camel that fit the bill, so they returned to the dealer who owned the first camel, only to be told, "Sorry, we ate it."
Less famous is the denouement: They found a camel, they shot the scenes, and they generated some of the movie's biggest laughs. Recalled May last year, "It was a great actor! We tried camels out; a lot of camels came. But this camel had it, and we cast him."
Myth No. 5: May wasted untold amounts of money and time bulldozing dunes. Production designer Paul Sylbert told Biskind that he had spent a lot of time scouting several countries for the perfect dunes that May had requested, only to have her change her mind and decide she wanted the desert to be flat. So he took a union crew and 11 bulldozers and spent 10 days flattening a square mile of desert.
A variant of Sylbert's dune-flattening story appears in a New York magazine article published shortly before the film's release. But his story is disputed by "Ishtar" editors Schopper and Billy Scharf, who said there was no bulldozing. "Elaine was too smart to do stupid things like that," Scharf told Biskind, attributing Sylbert's account to his enmity of May.
Other crew members echoed Sylbert in suggesting that May frequently changed her mind or seemed unwilling to make decisions. One worker told Biskind, "Directors control in different ways, and she controlled by creating mass confusion." May herself downplayed the obstacles of the desert shoot, saying, "It was a very hard shoot, but I really liked it. I actually have an affinity for the desert."
Myth No. 6: The movie had bad buzz well before anyone had seen it. Actually, the three preview screenings went very well. One of them went so well that May took off for Bali, unaware of what was about to happen back home.
What happened was a poisoning of the well with bad press about the movie's cost overruns, which ultimately ballooned its budget to $51 million. That, and a delayed release date, due to the lengthy editing process, from December 1986 to May 1987. The press saw both as signs of trouble. Certainly, "Ishtar" was one of the most expensive comedies ever made, and the secrecy surrounding the shoot made reporters wonder what was being hidden from them.
But who leaked the budget of the movie? The filmmakers, to this day, blame David Puttnam, who took over Columbia from McElwaine ("Ishtar"'s first casualty) after the shoot finally wrapped. Puttnam had had a longstanding grudge against May, Beatty, and Hoffman for their reputed budget-busting ways; he'd been a producer on "Agatha" and had blamed Hoffman for inflating his own role in the movie to a lead; and he'd been producer of the modestly-budgeted "Chariots of Fire" when it was up against Beatty and May's expensive "Reds" in the 1981 Oscar race. At the time, he'd written an essay criticizing Hollywood for its expensive ways, and now he would be able to put his philosophy into practice. Once in office, he had effectively given "Ishtar" a vote of no-confidence by publicly distancing himself from the supposed boondoggle approved by his predecessor. When articles about "Ishtar"'s expenses began to appear, the three principals felt they were being undermined by their own studio.
As a result, Beatty belived, even critics who might have been predisposed to like the movie felt compelled to mention how expensive it was. "There was almost no review that didn't in the first paragraph deal with the cost of the movie," Beatty told Entertainment Weekly in 1991. "That was an eye-opener - about the business, and the relationship of the entertainment press to business. 'Ishtar' is a very good, not very big, comedy, made by a brilliant woman. And I think it's funny."
Myth No. 7: "Ishtar" was an instant flop. Actually, it opened at No.1 on the box office chart and stayed there for three weeks. But its opening weekend take was just $4.3 million, only $100,000 ahead of the $4.2 million earned by no-budget, star-free horror flick "The Gate." Ultimately, it earned only about $14 million in theaters, well short of its cost. It was a big enough flop to shake Columbia to its core. Within months, Puttnam followed McElwaine out the door. Within two years, parent company Coca-Cola got out of the movie business and sold the studio to Sony.
Nonetheless, Hoffman and Beatty prospered. Hoffman's next role was his Oscar-winning turn in "Rain Man." Since then, the still-busy actor has made about 30 more movies, or about twice as many as he did in the quarter-century beofre "Ishtar." Meanwhile, Beatty turned around and produced, directed, and starred in 1990's lavish comic-strip fantasy "Dick Tracy" (co-starring Hoffman). That turned out to be a huge hit, but it's remarkable that, so soon after "Ishtar," he was able to get another studio (Disney) to spend $46 million on his vision. Beatty went on to make four more movies over the next decade, and not until 2001's "Town & Country," a star-heavy comedy that cost $90 million but earned back just $10 million worldwide, did his career hit a brick wall the way May's did.
Since "Ishtar," May has acted in two movies -- the 1990 indie "In the Spirit" (co-written by her daughter, Jeannie Berlin) and Woody Allen's 2000 comedy "Small Time Crooks." She's written two screenplays (1996's "The Birdcage" and 1998's "Primary Colors"), both sparkling and witty, both commissioned by her old pal Nichols. She's also written for Broadway; last year, she and Allen and Ethan Coen collaborated on an evening of three one-act plays called "Relatively Speaking." But she hasn't directed another movie and, having turned 80 last month, probably never will again.