Hollywood Century, 1987: In which one of the most legendary flops of all time ruins a career for no good reason
The gap between American cinema in the 1970s and in the 1980s, as much as anything, is the gap between little and big movies. The '80s did not invent "big" cinema, of course, but the post-Star Wars ecosystem loved high concepts and sprawling productions a whole hell of a lot, and this love began infecting everything, even things it clearly shouldn't have.
And here we are, at one of the biggest "shouldn't haves" in the history of Hollywood filmmaking: Ishtar, a 1987 comedy that for a quarter of a century was known almost entirely for being an enormous, out-of-control bomb, with only rabid Elaine May fans coming to its defense until as recently as 2013, when it was released on Blu-Ray to reviews that gingerly probed the idea that maybe it was actually okay; maybe parts of it were even great.
Parts of it certainly are, and the film's venomous initial reception is clearly the result of too much backstage drama finding its way into the entertainment media, and reviewers preemptively deciding that the film was an undisciplined wreck. It's not one of those lost masterpieces that had to be reclaimed, or anything like that: it's easily the least effective of May's four films as a director, in large part because it cost far more than its concept justified, and that concept was already far broader and more expansive than May's established strengths made room for. Her first three films - all of them essential works of '70s cinema - are essentially chamber dramas (or chamber comedies, anyway). Certainly, they're character-driven and highly urbane; specifically highly New York-centric, and if that phrase has been commonly used as a euphemism for "super Jewish", that's true as well. None of them serve as appropriate training to make a hybrid of the Bob Hope & Bing Crosby Road to... movies of the 1940s with a Romancing the Stone-style action/adventure comedy. And the whole thing is pitched as an abrasive satire of American foreign policy in the '80s with jokes that enthusiastically hearken to the corny, wheezy gags of Borscht Belt comedians of the '50s.
The center does not always hold, though May cheats a little bit by making the central figure in the action/satire thread of the movie a smug CIA agent played by Charles Grodin, the greatest of all her muses in depicting the brittleness of American masculinity, and his presence grounds that line of the film in a way that her directing and writing can't quite manage on their own. Otherwise, the best parts are all those which center on her pair of doofus protagonists, New York wannabe songwriters Lyle Rogers (Warren Beatty) and Chuck Clarke (Dustin Hoffman). They're quintessential May heroes: it's a well-worn point that her filmography divides crisply into two pairs: first, films in which a man decides that he wants the hell out of his marriage and will pursue it in the ugliest way possible (A New Leaf and The Heartbreak Kid), then two films about two friends finding their relationship at a crisis point (Mikey and Nicky and this). What unites all of them is their depiction of male behavior in free fall, using heavily sarcastic black comedy in three of them (Mikey and Nicky is a laugh-free crime drama) to put herself and the audience in a position of judgmental authority over the characters; though having thus claimed that authority, she allows herself to feel sorry for the characters and look kindly on their disastrously poor decisions.
Accordingly, Ishtar is at its very best when it's focused entirely on Lyle and Chuck's bumbling, particularly in the opening 25 minutes or so, when it's still in New York, watching their pathetic attempts to write and pitch a hilariously dumb song called "Dangerous Business" (the film's original songs - there are many - were written by May and Paul Williams). The opening five minutes of the film, in particular, represent some of the most pitch-perfect comedy writing, directing, and acting of the 1980s, with heavily naturalistic dialogue running around in circles as the actors play fearlessly schlubby travesties of their personae - Beatty in particular has a field day throughout the film playing Lyle as awkward and self-conscious and convinced that he's too gangly and unconfident to possibly appeal to any woman. There's an easy rhythm that the film finds within its first seconds as we quickly get a sense of the songwriters in all their sad middle-aged glory, and it continues on through an extended flashback and through scene after scene where the actors talk over each other, responding to lines a few seconds late, and generally are magnificent at playing May's wonderful, effortless cringe-inducing comedy of humiliation. The first act of Ishtar isn't just better than the film's low reputation, it's an outright masterpiece - the best sustained piece of American film comedy in the entire decade outside of the opening of the Coen brothers' Raising Arizona, which was also in theaters in 1987.
Once the boys take a job playing a dodgy club in Morocco, the film clunks down a notch, in part because watching them flail around aimlessly is more funny than seeing them stuffed into a plot ever good be (and when the film comes close to its highest peaks hereafter, it's always when the stakes are lowest and the narrative momentum dries up), in part because May knows New York well enough to perfectly skewer its mores and personality, while North Africa is a little outside her ken. The short version is that, on their flight in, they stop briefly in the powder keg nation of Ishtar, where Chuck does an ill-advised favor for a beautiful mystery woman, Shirra Assel (Isabelle Adjani, looking so little like a North African native, the first time I watched the film I just assumed it would be revealed that she was French), working for a left-wing radical group. This gets him in trouble with the CIA in the form of the unctuous Jim Harrison (Grodin), what with America's support of the Ishtari amir, while Shirra follows Lyle to Casablanca, where she tries to rope him into helping her. And so it appears to all outsiders that Rogers & Clarke are working both sides, when they are in fact too dumb and oblivious - the perfect Ugly Americans - to realise until deep into the movie that there are politics happening around them at all.
Marrying a satire of American imperialism to the feather-light sitcom adventures of Road to Morocco might have been beyond the skills of any filmmaker in history, and May makes a damn good attempt at keeping it all stitched together; the dubious casting of Adjani works against the film, but everything else is generally solid, even the notorious perfectionism that led May to spend so much time and money on doing things exactly right that nobody would ever notice (brushing large portions of the desert to make it look virgin, most infamously). The film needs a healthy foundation of physical realism if the hybrid is going to work - otherwise it would feel like adding cartoon satire to a cartoon farce, and that could be devastatingly bad - and between them, May, world-class cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, and production designer Paul Sylbert establish their setting with enough weight and fullness of detail that you can kind of imagine where that $50 million went, even if it must be allowed that spending $50 million on this script was a criminally bad business decision.
Hoffman and Beatty are inspired in their performances and show off wonderful chemistry, and that keeps the film afloat even when the conflict between character humor, action-adventure, and biting geopolitics cannot be resolved. To stack against its wonderful opening act and its frequent spikes of terrific comedy, Ishtar only has one completely bad scene, an auction where Hoffman jabbers in fake Arabic for minutes on end (it's a musty, obvious note of sitcom humor that's beneath the wit, psychological honesty, and intelligence of the rest of the film), and its bogged-down stretches where Adjani and her character leech some of the energy out of the movie - May was always best with men, using women mostly as extensions of the male's worldview, and this particular woman is simply too far beyond what she knew and did well.
The point being, it's hard to imagine a truly honest, unbiased assessment of Ishtar resulting in a complete write-off; no Heaven's Gate this, where its out-of-control production was all in service to frequently cryptic artistry. Like all of May's comedies as a director, it's got a unique bitterness to it that was never going to be super-popular with mass audiences, but its position on "worst-ever" lists is profoundly impossible to square with the onscreen evidence. And yet, having tanked and earned a reputation as a toxic waste of the talents of everyone involved (which, financially, it was; but it's one of Beatty's all-time finest performances, and maybe Hoffman hasn't been better in a straight comedy ever since. Hardly a "waste"), it went ahead and took May down with it. And this is a tragedy indeed, for even as Ishtar is my least favorite May film, it's still pretty delightful, and her best work should have won her a lifetime pass. But this was the new order of the commercial superproductions of the '80s: if you made money, you were a hero, and if you lost money, you were a low, vile villain. The conspiracist in me wonders if May's inability to pick up the pieces, as other directors in similar states have done, was a result of her gender; the fanboy rather proudly decides, instead, that she was too prickly and too aware of her talents to indulge in the ass-kissing and make-up work in commercial junk that might have put her in the director's chair again.
That being said, an ugly statistic: with this film, we arrive at the 75th entry in the Hollywood Century project, covering 74 years of filmmaking. And Elaine May is just the second woman director we've hit in all of that time. I could have gamed the schedule to avoid that, but without going into the avant-garde or independent spheres, it would have been awfully hard. Sometimes, it's just a bleak world.
Elsewhere in American cinema in 1987
-The buddy cop comedy reaches its perfect form in Lethal Weapon
-Wacky comic Robin Williams emcees a cleaned-up version of war in Good Morning, Vietnam
-Oliver Stone attempts to prove greed is bad in Wall Street; this is not the takeaway for most audiences
Elsewhere in world cinema in 1987
-Souleymane Cissé directs the goreous, mythic Malian fable Yeelen
-Italian horror master Dario Argento ends his career with Opera. I said, he ENDS HIS CAREER. He has not directed a film since
-Hara Kazuo completes the Japanese WWII film The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On, frequently named as one of the great documentaries ever made