“The way I see it, people would rather suffer with what they have than try the unknown.”
“Oh, is that true.”
Today marks the twentieth anniversary of the release of Elaine May’s ISHTAR and I couldn’t let the occasion go by without comment. A hugely overbudget production, its history has been a vast array of contradictions. It’s considered a box-office disaster (which it sort of was) but it was the number-one movie of its opening weekend. It’s considered a critical disaster but some of the reviews included the Los Angeles Times which called it “an entirely intelligent, drolly funny comedy with something on its mind” and a year-end piece in the New York Times by Vincent Canby where he called the film “crazily underrated”. It’s presumed by people everywhere to be unfunny…and it never fails to make me laugh. I’ve met other diehard fans of the film over the years and people have searched high and low for the soundtrack album promised in the end credits. Unfortunately, the joke’s on them since the album’s release was canceled when the movie bombed.
The legend of ISHTAR began even before it opened as articles, including a particularly damning one in New York magazine, began to appear focusing on the out-of-control nature of the shoot and its prolonged post-production which saw it delayed from a Christmas 1986 release to May. By the time it opened the word was out that the film was a mess. As for me, I thought it was funny on opening day and I still think it’s funny now.
ISHTAR tells the story of the terrible songwriting team of Lyle Rogers (Beatty) and Chuck Clarke (Hoffman). In flashbacks we learn how they met and what leads them to take a gig in Honduras when everything that has happened in their lives should be telling them they should just quit. Once overseas, the pair get caught up in intrigue involving a CIA agent (Charles Grodin), a beautiful suspected terrorist (Isabelle Adjani) and a blind camel.
“Look at the birds. Are those vultures?”
“Yeah. You fainted. They thought you were dead.”
“You mean they’re here on spec?”
Much of ISHTAR is funny to me, but what I’ve always preferred is the first half hour, a series of events detailing Rogers and Clarke’s partnership and their lives as songwriters. We see Warren Beatty work as a Good Humor man. We see Dustin Hoffman, the ladies’ man of the duo, try to teach Beatty the correct way to say the word “schmuck”. We see them work on songs. And more songs. And a few more. Most of them are credited to Paul Williams and they are all delightfully terrible. There’s something about the way the two of them work together that details the creative process in a way that to me is painfully true. That they’re terrible, and the two are so oblivious to this, makes it maybe even more true. But the movie loves them. Few other films have so glorified the art of being a loser as ISHTAR has.
When Chuck, in despair over being left by his girlfriend, steps out onto the ledge of his apartment threatening to jump, it’s Lyle who’s there for him. Chuck, despondent, tells him everything that has gone wrong with his life. “I’m not the kind of guy that you thought I was…I lived with my parents ‘til I was 32. I’ve just dribbled my life away” Lyle, whose own wife has recently left him, summons up everything he has, revealing what this movie is really about, maybe even what the handful of movies that Elaine May managed to ever direct are really about. “Hey,” he tells him, “It takes a lot of nerve to have nothing at your age, don’t you understand that? Most guys’d be ashamed, but you’ve got the guts to just say ‘to hell with it.’ You say that you’d rather have nothing than settle for less, understand?” “I never thought of it that way,” Chuck tells him and they go inside.
“Besides, I don’t think she’s that kind of girl.”
“She’s a suspected terrorist.”
“Granted, but that doesn’t mean she sleeps around.”
When the film heads to the middle east, getting involved with a sort of latter-day twist on Hope and Crosby, it becomes somehow less special (I’d like to see the alternate-universe version where the whole thing is set in New York) but I still enjoy it, particularly every scene with Charles Grodin (“We did NOT shoot at two Americans in the desert. We did NOT. Who told you that? The Secretary of State? Well, how would he know?”) and, of course, the performance of the blind camel.
Five days after ISHTAR opened BEVERLY HILLS COP II burst onto the scene and that was that. As I said, the soundtrack album was never released. I can recite most of the songs by heart anyway. There’s no DVD either. But ISHTAR deserves to be remembered as, at its very best, one of the most delightfully skewered looks at the creative process ever made.
“That’s because most men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
“Oh, is that right.”