“Ishtar” has long held a cultural status much larger than that of just a single movie, as shorthand for the utter worst, an epochal flop with audiences and critics alike and a huge financial bomb. Its air of failure has become all-encompassing, or as one of the songs featured in the movie put it, “Hello, Ishtar … You’re a state of mind.”
The notorious reputation of “Ishtar” as too-expensive and no-good has long crushed the actual film. Last summer, the headline of a New York Times article on the box-office performance of “John Carter” declared “ ‘Ishtar’ lands on Mars,” and just recently an angry investor railed against a string of summer flops at Sony by declaring it was putting out 2013 versions of “Ishtar.”
“Ishtar,” as it happens, was finally released on Blu-ray last week, having never been on DVD, and that new disc in some way caps an alternate story line, just as recent reissues of other films have helped rescue them from sometimes undeserved infamy. Through occasional appearances on television and revival screenings, some viewers have more recently been taking a clearer look at “Ishtar,” giving the actual movie a shot on its own terms removed from the notoriety that it has been branded with all these years.
And they like it. As the film’s writer/director, Elaine May, has said in one form or another on numerous occasions, “If half the people who made cracks about ‘Ishtar’ had actually seen it, I would be a rich woman.”
Filmmakers from Lena Dunham and Joe Swanberg to Edgar Wright and Quentin Tarantino have all championed the film in the past few years, finding a sophisticated, self-aware wit and inspirational current in its story of a pair of struggling New York songwriters who are long on dreams and short on connections or talent. In a bit of purposefully counterintuitive casting, Dustin Hoffman played Chuck Clarke, a self-confident ladies man, and Warren Beatty played Lyle Rogers, a shy introvert.
What Chuck and Lyle don’t have in talent, they make up for with enthusiasm and an unwavering belief in themselves. They are equally deluded and determined. (And their songs, many co-written by May with Paul Williams, are brilliantly catchy, hilarious and awful all at once.) When they land a booking in a small Mideast country, they think they are on the road to success. But they are soon swept up in machinations between local rebels and the CIA, eventually wandering in the desert with a blind camel. It is there that Lyle says, “Look at the upside. We’re not living lives of quiet desperation.”
The film’s production received intense media coverage before its release, relentlessly proclaiming that it was too expensive, May’s methods were wasteful, and it was working too hard to be an effortless comedy. The combined appeal at the time of Beatty, Hoffman and May made it an alluring target for a takedown. (The film also generated some protest from Arab-American groups over its portrayal of the people of the Middle East.) Its failure came to seem less a self-fulfilling prophecy and more a simple fact.
After a mixed review from critic Sheila Benson in the Los Angeles Times, critic-at-large Charles Champlin defended the film by noting, “Memory does not immediately yield a film for which so many critics, reporters and industry members were lying in wait. … It’s not so much a case of let the buyers beware as let the buyers keep an open eye.”
After “Ishtar,” Elaine May never directed another film. She was given a National Medal of Arts by President Obama in a White House ceremony in July, an overdue recognition for her career on stage and screen as part of the groundbreaking comedy duo with Mike Nichols and a two-time Oscar nominee for her work on the screenplays to “Heaven Can Wait” and “Primary Colors.” But it was small consolation for anyone who feels robbed by her unduly compact filmography directing just four films.
In the nightclub performance that caps their story, Chuck and Lyle declare they have “found the spirit of Ishtar.” It has perhaps taken all these years for that spirit to reveal itself unencumbered by the baggage of the film’s initial release. Lyle’s words of offbeat encouragement to Chuck might well apply to the tarnished jewel of “Ishtar” itself, finally allowed to emerge as the work of sly exuberance it has always been from within the cynical straitjacket of its reputation: “You’d rather have nothing than settle for less.”