Ishtar is iconic for all the wrong reasons. It stands as one of the big box office bombs with which to compare all big box office bombs. Even if later Warren Beatty disasters have vied for attention (Love Affair, the insane overspend on Town and Country) they don’t have the instant recognisability of Ishtar. Beyond the marked absence of audiences queueing round the block on its release, Ishtar has a reputation as an absolute stinker. Does it deserve such unhallowed status? Maybe not quite. It’s undoubtedly misconceived, mishandled and misbegotten, but there’s also a fair amount to enjoy. I mean to say; it features Dustin Hoffman sporting an array of horrific sweatbands and comfortably garish woollen jumpers!
And Hoffman comes out of it quite well, certainly untarnished by the experience. It’s Beatty who’s all at sea. We’re used to him playing slightly less smart than he is in real life. It’s been an affectation the actor appears partial to, ever since he hit it big with Bonnie & Clyde. So here he’s well meaning but consummately baffled. And, in a knowing commentary on his lothario reputation, he’s completely at a loss with the ladies (Dustin’s the irresistible one). It’s a meta-joke that sounds better on paper than in realisation, no doubt as much of this movie did.
Indeed, the concept of a latter day Hope and Crosby Road… movie was taken for a spin a couple of years earlier by John Landis (Spies Like Us) with significantly greater success, both in box office and casting terms (Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd at least have you on side for comedic antics from the off). This one is The Less Funny Road to Morocco. There’s a blind camel, since Hope and Crosby’s talking ones would clearly be a step too far. More’s the pity.
The plot is both intricate and unmemorable. Hoffman is Chuck Clarke and Beatty is Lyle Rogers. They’re utterly useless lounge singers, still hoping to make it big despite all indications to the contrary. The premise is so random, that these 50-year-old mega stars could pass themselves off as only-in-the-movies no hopers, you’re almost won over by the conceit alone. They get a gig in Morocco and, no sooner have they arrived than they are inveigled in a plot to overthrow the Emir of Ishtar (Aharon Ipalé), ruler of a neighbouring country. One the side of the left wing guerrillas against the Emir is Shirra (Isabelle Adjani). She secures Lyle’s help (Beatty, being seduced by a lefty cause: how unlikely is that?) This involves a highly important and ancient map, but the relevance is so unnecessarily convoluted it’s probably best to leave it at “MacGuffin” and move on. Meanwhile CIA man Jim Harrison (the terrific Charles Grodin) presses Chuck into service.
So Ishtar lifts some easy to recognise features from its Road... inspiration. The markers are there. A couple of losers trying to make a buck, a lovely lady they both have designs on, and each allies himself with an opposing factions. But there isn’t nearly enough free-rein anarchy in the mix. Hudson Hawk, made a few years later, is often cited as another overblown disaster. But, love it or hate it, Hawk knows exactly what it's aiming for (including the whacky musical numbers), whereas Ishtar flounders half-heartedly. Much of that's to do with a failure to embrace the self-reflexivity, spontaneity and just plain saying yes to out-there ideas that are key to this kind of movie.
Ishtar ends up looking deeply conservative and thoroughly middle-aged, unable or unwilling to test the limits of situations and set pieces. THis may be a result of the desire to keep a grip on character development (Oscar-winning stars, don’t you know) and some measure of reality. But the characters in this kind of movie should fluctuate; they need to be able to meet the humour of the moment, and most of all need to embrace dislikeable traits. Hope’s always a cowardly lech, Crosby is essentially the straight man but he’s still a master of duplicity and connivance. Hoffman and Beatty just want to be loveable losers, and it kills any mischief or sparkle they might have shown in the roles.
Hoffman’s view is that Chuck and Lyle should never have left New York, and I’ve read comments suggesting the first 30 minutes, before they get there, are dynamite. I’d hasten to disagree. While the Road aspect of the picture isn’t nearly inventive enough, it does have the superior gags. There’s only so much of the failed second-rate musicians act anyone has goodwill enough to consume. Apart from anything else, it’s a much-loved subject for successful showbiz types to indulge. If you tear away the Road idea, what are you left with? Why are you even making the movie? On the other hand, he’s right about the notion of Beatty not getting the girls. It elicits one good line, and it strands Beatty in dullness.
Writer-director Elaine May was much loved by Beatty. She’d script-doctored several of his pictures, received a credited for Heaven Can Wait and made invaluable contributions to Reds. Beatty saw the project as a way of expressing his gratitude. Hoffman meanwhile had a whole bunch of goodwill for her Tootsie rewrites. But May hadn’t directed in a decade, and she’d never tackled a comedy on this kind of scale.
Peter Biskind provides a comprehensive account of the disastrous production history of Ishtar in Star, his biography of Beatty. As one of his unnamed sources attests, the picture saw “a trio of Hollywood’s most uncompromising talents working on the same project somewhere in the Sahara Desert”. Beatty and Hoffman commanded $5.5m each, May also took a hefty pay cheque, and that was before production even began. Coca Cola, which owned Columbia Pictures at the time, held frozen assets in Morocco that needed to be spent there. So it seemed like a good idea to suggest to head there for the shoot even though the country lacked movie-making infrastructure.
There are numerous tales of how difficult the shoot was, although the most told is that of the blue-eyed camel (chosen because it would look blind on film). One was found by enterprising production crew, who decided they didn’t want to pay the full price. Thinking they could shop around, they came up empty. When they returned to their original camel, they were told it had been eaten.
But most of the horror stories revolve around May’s endless takes and absence of focus, with no apparent vision in mind. She drove cinematographer Vittoria Storaro to distraction with her indifference to mismatched shots. Her and Beatty’s relationship grew frosty as the set became one of paralysed indecision (“Who can control Elaine? She’s such a genius” was Beatty’s sly dig). Everyone knew the script wasn’t working, but May refused to change it. Beatty and Adjani’s love-life (of course he was seeing his leading lady) was also strained. Then there was the difference in acting styles; Beatty’s penchant for many takes and Hoffman’s for a few.
The most damning incident occurred when it came time to film the climactic battle sequence. With no experience of shooting action, May was too proud to ask for help. So she screwed the pooch. She decided to cut the scene. Which is why the ending is such a damp squib. It’s like something out of a cheap TV movie. A couple of helicopters and a jeep. It’s said that the term “movie jail” originated with Ishtar; May hasn’t directed a film since.
Away from the torturous shoot, which at least took on a vague sense of purpose once the crew left Morocco and May, back in familiar territory, began the New York leg, changes were afoot at Columbia. David Puttnam was appointed head of the studio, an ill-fated stint by any standards, and unceremoniously jettisoned the studio’s support for many of the pictures in production. He wasn’t either of the stars’ favourite person anyway. He’d publically criticised the overspend on Reds, and Hoffman couldn’t forget the harsh things Puttnam had said about him in wake of Agatha (something about a monster). Post-production just went on and on, so the picture, which began filming in October 1985 and didn’t complete until March 1986, was shunted back from a Winter 1986 to summer 1987 release date. During which there was more than enough time for the toxic word to leak, and to snowball in the column inches of the movie press.
Perhaps surprisingly, the movie did hit No.1 in its first week. But that was pretty much it. At a cost of $55m, Ishtar grossed a mere $14.3m. Compared to many of its modern counterparts (even in inflation adjusted terms), the price tag is relatively small potatoes. Much of the time with a huge bomb, there’s at least a sense of where all the money went. They’re usually big movies that spiralled even further into the stratosphere. Ishtar only ever looks like small scale.
Predictably, Beatty placed the blame elsewhere (it was mis-sold, under-supported, etc.). The three successful preview screenings are oft-cited as a defence. And it’s relatively easy to overturn the argument that it’s completely unwatchable. There is a point where the repeated meme that Ishtar is a terrible film becomes an unquestioned reality. You don’t have to even watch it to have an opinion (hence the quote that, if all the people who said they hated it had paid to see it, it would have made a tidy profit). Worst films ever, particularly the costly bombs, are often not quite as bad as their reputations suggest. And a precious few are neglected gems. But more often they just sit there apologetically, unloved runts desperate to have a few fans (more often than not, Quentin Tarantino will vouch for them). Ishtar isn’t bad, it’s just unable to lift off as a comedy. So, while it inoffensively passes the time, it crucially fails at what it’s trying for.
Jim Harrison: We have reason to believe that Lyle Rogers is a left-wing agent.
Hoffman, who can be quite a canny fellow and is a more than adept comic performer (even if his endeavours drove director Sydney Pollack to distraction on Tootsie), was quite right to draw attention to the issues with Beatty’s character. Which is not to say he made the best of fists of his own. Pauline Kael had a point when she noted that Chuck becomes less edgy as the movie progresses. Maybe she’s right, and Hoffman felt his character had to be as nice at heart as Beatty’s. Unlike Beatty, though, Hoffman finds it difficult to do nothing in a movie, and his energy ensures that Ishtar doesn’t collapse on the back of his co-star’s somnambulant performance. Seriously, if there’s a movie that makes you doubt Beatty’s star wattage this is it. He’s a dim, dim bulb.
In theory Beatty’s is the Hope role, but he brandishes none of the personality. The only appropriate comparison between the two would be that they share a bit of a ski jump nose. And it’s surely a sign of Beatty's unwillingness to take control of Ishtar (despite a producer credit) that the political side is so anaemic. The Connery misfire (albeit a noble one) Wrong is Right involved itself with Middle Eastern politics in a much more anarchic and relevant fashion. Even the nefarious dabbling of the CIA, deliberately attempting to ensure a despot remains in power, is restrained. It’s almost as if Ishtar is going out of its way to be inoffensive. The duo may get a chance to overthrow a tyrant, but it happens off screen.
Lyle: Brownnosing the commies wont get you the girl!
Accordingly, Hoffman makes more of his role. He also embraces the more obvious fashion disasters. For both, their comfortable attire successfully paints them as a pair of depressingly middle-aged sad sacks. But, this being the taste-free ‘80s, you’re unsure how conscious that decision was. Without knowing the less than harmonious production history, one would be left with a lingering impression that this was all a rather expensive holiday jaunt for the pair. A year later Hoffman would pull off one of his most-feted roles in Rain Man; he's too galvanised here to be accused of slumming it, but he doesn’t have much to get his teeth into.
He is able to carry a tune amusingly (the tune itself being intentionally atrocious) and his best scene involves an arms sale where he slightly dubiously talks gibberish in order to sell the deal (because, you know, Middle Eastern dialects sound so silly; even the natives won’t catch on that Chuck is pratting about). Chuck’s ladies’ man status rather fizzles in practice too. If Hope was depraved of intent and Crosby a smooth talking mo-fo, Hoffman and Beatty are peculiarly chaste (the occasional fight over Adjani aside); neither seems to care much that they don’t get the girl.
And, unlike Dorothy Lamour, Adjani has no discernable talent for comedy. She also hides her beauty beneath flowing robes and a headscarf for much of the proceedings. There’s running gag about her being mistaken for a boy (“Are these breasts?”), which includes Lyle punching her when she kisses him on the mouth (mild homophobia rearing its head?) but she doesn’t elicit even a chuckle.
Yet Carole Kane, an enormously funny comedienne (check her out in the following year’s Scrooged, where she steals scenes from Bill Murray; no small feat), is consigned to a measly two scenes. Go figure.
Jim Harrison: Gadhafi’s a person. He rules Libya.
So it’s left to Charles Grodin to make off with all the biggest laughs and the best lines as an only-slightly-dodgy CIA type (despite being cast as villains, this is very nearly an advert for the agency). He’s the only character with any brains, and his dialogue and delivery reek of effortless wit (informing Chuck of his pay as an informant, he comments “$150 a week , but you can’t really put a price on democracy”).
CIA Agent: The ones dressed as Texans are Arab agents.
You may have to persevere, but there are some decent gags, both visual and verbal, in Ishtar. The smuck/schmuck exchange, in which Lyle proves unable to pronounce the word correctly, Chuck’s complete ignorance of Middle Eastern matters (he thinks Gadhafi is a country), Lyle’s attempt to buy a camel from “Mohammed” at the market place (of course, he is inundated with responses, including “Would you like a dead camel?”).
In fact, anything involving animals is a high point. Beatty’s at his best (faint praise) expressing Lyle’s care and concern for his blind camel, and the latter is a comedy superstar. The camel may be blind, “but he’s in perfect condition”. Although, we later learn he has a bad tooth. There’s also a motley assortment of vultures gabbling about the desert waiting for Lyle and Chuck to die (they’re there “on spec”).
In a a brief scene suggesting the sort of comic timing and interaction that really should have been more prevalent, Chuck sets off down a street tailing Lyle. Neither realises that every person and vehicle present is also following them, resulting in abrupt dispersals whenever one of the duo turns round.
But in general Ishtar is all so unassuming. Where’s the spectacle (especially with Storaro involved; there's the odd vista, but this is decidedly not Lawrence of Arabia)? Where’s the energy? May lets the movie sit there like an over-egged pudding. She has no intent or direction behind her direction. Which make explain the peculiar lapses in tone. Or it may be down to the reports that May, Beatty and Hoffman all had a say in the final cut.
Notably, a few judicious cuts earned Ishtar a PG certificate in the UK (rather than the US’s PG-13). Why the stronger elements made it into such an otherwise discreet movie in the first place is mystifying. On each occasion they seem completely gratuitous; Adjani unsexily pulls up her shirt exposing a breast (to prove she’s not a boy, in a crowded public place; really?) Omar (J.C. Cutler) is bloodily stabbed in the stomach. Then at the end Chuck and Lyle let fly a couple of “fucks”. Presumably because adult language was what the film really needed at this point (I suppose swearing beats a grand finale). May’s Director’s Cut was recently released on Blu-ray, and is reportedly shorter than the original version; perhaps she was never keen on one or more of these areas and took the scissors to them. I can't say it's the a movie where I'm desperate to see the director's original edit, as it's probably hardly different at all. And if it is, it's highly likely that it isn't superior.
As for the music (“They wrote the music and the lyrics”), Paul Williams does well with the terrible songs he was asked to write (a number of them with May). I particularly like Chuck’s highly insensitive “Love in my will”, as he informs an elderly couple that one of them is likely to die imminently. Williams says the soundtrack has never been released because Beatty nixed it after the movie went down like a lead-lined lettuce. At least it means we’re spared Dave Grusin’s atrocious score on CD. His work during the ‘80s is often close to aural torture (have you tried watching Tootsie lately?) and this follows course.
I’d like to come out vigorously defending Ishtar as an unfairly maligned classic, ahead of it’s time and unjustly ignored by the public. Sure, Tarantino and Edgar Wright are more than willing to present the case for the defence, but the truth is it’s just an averagely (amiably) forgettable comedy. That's why it hasn't developed a cult following, despite possessing many of the credentials for such a status (I mentioned Hudson Hawk; now that's a movie with a legion of right-thinking devotees). Nevertheless, I'd recommend giving it a look for sheer curiosity appeal, not least in terms of charting Beatty’s career decline. Which reminds me, I really must take in Town and Country. His swansong? It certainly appears so.