In 1975, Sharon Smith stated, “In Hollywood...directing is still a man’s game, a circumstance clearly underscored by the fact that [1975s] leading woman director achieved her singular status on the strength of only two pictures.” That woman was Elaine May. The films Smith spoke of were 1971’s A New Leaf - directed and written by May, who also starred in the film alongside Walter Matthau - and 1972’s The Heartbreak Kid. The year following Smith’s article, May’s third directorial venture, Mikey and Nicky - starring Peter Falk, Ned Beatty, and fellow film director John Cassavetees - was released. Like her previous two films, the film was turned in late and over budget. For Mikey and Nicky, Chuck Stephens reports, she “shot about twice as much film as [Gone With the Wind] needed.”
When she believed her creative vision was threatened by the studio, she is rumored to have literally hidden film in a friend’s garage. With Mikey and Nicky, disagreements concerning May’s unconventional final edit - the film consists largely of long improvised scenes of dark comedy - along with frustration concerning May’s abilities as a director led Paramount Pictures to drastically re-edit the film prior to its release. But, unlike her previous two films, Mikey and Nicky was a total commercial flop. It was her first failure as a film director. By the mid-1970s, May had risen - often professionally disappearing and reappearing for extended periods of time - to near-singular female membership in the Hollywood “boys’ club” of film directors. Though her membership in this club was always seemingly threatened by Hollywood gender politics, the commercial success of her pre-Mikey and Nicky films seemed to warrant extended probationary membership. The failure of Mikey and Nicky may have placed an Industry target on her back. Elaine May did not direct a film for the next eleven years. In 1987, Elaine May directed her follow up to Mikey and Nicky. Ishtar would be, it seems, May’s final film as a director.
This article will present a reading of Ishtar as a commentary on the success of the lesser talented willing to “play by the rules.” In this understanding, the characters portrayed by Dustin Hoffman and Warrant Beatty act as representatives for the lesser talented men who achieved success beyond Elaine May throughout her career. Beginning as an equal partner in a comedy duo with Mike Nichols, she was viewed - or viewed herself as being viewed - as a supporting role for the Nichols. This feeling of unequal treatment, whether actual or perceived, stayed with May as she transitioned to film production and, following her experiences with her first three films, May produced in Ishtar a satirical path to stardom having nothing to do with talent, hard work, experience, or worth. And whether intentional or not, real or fabricated, Columbia Pictures’ actions regarding the film’s release seem to play directly into the plot.
The Failure of Ishtar
The Washington Post’s Hal Hinston teased in 1987 that even before its release Ishtar was being called a “mammoth dud, a catastrophe, a huge floundering stinker of biblical proportions.” Hinston deduces that “it’s not nearly so grand an achievement. Ishtar doesn’t attempt enough to be considered a magnificent failure. It’s something far less substantial; it’s piddling - a hangdog little comedy with not enough laughs.” Roger Ebert called Ishtar “a truly dreadful film, a lifeless, massive, lumbering exercise in failed comedy.” James Robert Parish reminds us that Time called Ishtar one of the “100 worst ideas of the century” alongside asbestos.
Ishtar is perpetually doomed to being remembered as a notoriously expensive film and a creative and commercial failure so beguiled that the mere mention of it in some circles brings about guffaws and derisive jokes of its inferiority as a film, as an entity, and as a commercial venture. It is, in every sense of the phrase, a “film flop.” It sits alongside other Hollywood failures of the era. Like Heaven’s Gate (1980) and Leonard Part 6 (1987), to name but two other flops, Ishtar was a big budget, major studio release with big names attached, but was met with poor critical and commercial reception. It was a big film in scope, in location, in budget, in story, and in its failure.
On the surface, the film may seem a fine example of a mainstream commercial entity’s inability to connect with the ticket buying audience. And this point may be so. For all its components, there is no skimping on expense and talent. Elaine May wrote and directed the film. Warren Beatty, in addition to starring in the film, acted as the film’s producer alongside his cousin, David MacLeod. Vittorio Storaro, who had won an Oscar for photographing Apocalypse Now in 1979, acted as the film’s cinematographer. It was Dustin Hoffman’s return to cinema following a five-year absence from Hollywood in the wake of the successes of Tootsie and Kramer vs. Kramer. An established, Academy Award winning actor who had just prior taken on the role of Willie Lomax in the Broadway revival of Death of Salesman, Hoffman was considered an enormous talent. Warren Beatty, also returning from a five-year absence following the success of Reds in 1981, had potential to warrant a box office hit based on star power alone. According to Box Office Mojo, the film had a respectable enough opening weekend to come in first place in the United States. Opening in over a thousand theaters and pulling in four million dollars, as the negative reviews began to accumulate, this would prove to be nearly one-third of its total US domestic total gross. It declined steadily in its initial month and, by its fourth weekend in the theaters, Ishtar failed to bring in a million dollars in ticket sales. With an astronomical budget of $55 million, Ishtar’s lack of ticket sales produced a loss of over $40 million. Critics seemed to hate it, and audiences were not buying the tickets.
To view the film free of culture’s near-ubiquitous maligning, if in fact this is possible, is to view a biting satire on the entertainment industry as well as Hollywood gender politics. In fact, to view the film at all following its limited theatrical release in 1987 has been a relatively difficult task. As displayed in Hinston’s review, the film was panned upon its release and never truly recovered commercially. The film was unsuccessful in the theaters and almost universally reviewed negatively by critics. It was released on VHS and laserdisc, and it received a fair amount of cable broadcasting, but the film was not released as a Region 1 (playable in North America) DVD and BluRay until 2013, although a Region 2 DVD (playable throughout Europe and the Middle East) was released, as Ishtar Uncut, in 2004.
Elaine May’s “Orwellian Vision”
Elaine May has been involved in the entertainment industry since her childhood in Yiddish theater. She first came to notoriety as a comedienne and writer in the 1950s, as half of the comedy team of “Mike Nichols and Elaine May.” Following the duo’s professional break-up, Nichols went on to achieve enormous success as a writer and director, with such films as The Graduate (1967) and Carnal Knowledge (1971). In 1967, Stephens states, Life magazine put forth the query: “It’s been six years since...Mike Nichols and Elaine May broke up. Everybody knows what became of Mike Nichols...But...” The final ellipsis, original to the quotation, seems to imply that “nothing” had happened to May. She was not professionally and publically at the level of her former partner; she had disappeared, but this was nothing new to May. Even when the team of Nichols and May was at a commercial high point, May seemed keenly aware that public perception of the partnership was far from equal. At least in public opinion, the team was clearly spelled-out in order of importance: Mike Nichols and a supportive Elaine May.
May subversively commented upon her lesser status, in a droll manner, on the back cover of the 1959 album improvisations to music, Nichols humorously mocks, while simultaneously gloating, in his “third-person autobiography” by masking all of his accomplishments under a purposely-thin guise: "mike nichols is not a member of the actors studio, which has produced such stars as marlon brando, julie harris, ben gazzara, eva marie saint, carroll baker, and others too numerous to mention, he has never toured with mr. roberts and has never appeared on such television programs as the goodyear playhouse and the kraft theatre." Of course, Nichols had accomplished all of this and more. May’s entry simply states, “miss may does not exist.” Without the enormous accomplishments of Nichols, the duo of Mike Nichols and Elaine May might not have existed either.
Without knowledge of Elaine May, the joke is a simple and unimportant quip. Perhaps it is a public display of an inside joke between her and Nichols. But, as Stephens points out, to view Elaine May’s creative output without “at least some fore-knowledge” of her life is to generally miss the deeply metaphoric, yet strangely open commentary of her situations. Stephens posits that without knowledge of the tumultuous professional and personal relationship between Nichols and May, “how would a reading of The Heartbreak Kid as a nyah-nyah revisiting of the moment May first met Nichols begin to make sense?” Likewise, he continues, Mickey and Nicky can be seen as evidence that “the scars that May and Nichols inflicted upon one another during their years coupled together” never truly healed. Similarly with this understanding of May’s professional output, I assert that in regards to Ishtar, knowledge of May’s interaction with the industry, the inner-workings of Hollywood as notoriously difficult for women to be accepted, and multiple viewings long beyond commercial availability are important yet elusive prerequisites to “getting it.”
May did achieve above-average levels of success for a woman in Hollywood. She is an oft-forgotten trailblazer for female film directors. But, despite her relative success, she never achieved success on the level of her former partner. This fact could prompt one to read Smith’s tone (in the opening quotation) as a criticism of May’s undeserved acclaim with the words: “on the strength of only two pictures.” Smith continues, “Nichols went on to become a top theater and movie director [following the break-up, while] May turned to writing plays.” As if to imply that the theater was a bastion of failure from Hollywood for May, the words begin to paint a picture of the far more successful Nichols as more deserving of the success he achieved. Likewise, Smith’s words imply that May’s “failure” to achieve the professional status of Nichols is based more on talent and quality than gender, hegemony, and (maybe even) personal choice.
Mike Nichols, in conversation with Elaine May in 2006, only half-jokingly credits director Elaine May’s “‘Orwellian vision,’ for inventing the perfect metaphor for the behavior of the [first] Bush administration in Iraq.” May retorts, “[W]hen I made this movie Ronald Reagan was president and there was Iran-Contra, we were supporting Iran and Iraq...It’s possible the only movies he [Reagan] had ever seen about the Middle East are the road movies with Hope and Crosby, and I thought I would make that movie.”
According to Nichols, Ishtar had “three great previews,” but, the failure of Ishtar could be called, as he refers to it, a “studio suicide.” This claim states there was a purposeful campaign against the film in order to force it into a negative shadow. In regards to Ishtar, this theory would posit that following a lack of financial, creative, and media-related support from the studio for the film’s release and publicity, critical and media reception and ticket sales would follow suit and a generally negative trend could be created. May clarifies, “I thought - only for five minutes - it’s the CIA. I didn’t dream that it would be the studio. For one moment it was sort of glorious to think that I was going to be taken down by the CIA, and then it turned out to be David [Puttnam]. I think this man was unique in that way, in that he was going to redo Hollywood and make it a better place. He was going to work from the inside.”
Puttnam had taken over as CEO of Columbia Pictures in the middle of the production of Ishtar. May speculates that bad blood regarding past industry dealings (specifically with Warren Beatty’s 1981 film Reds) and a want to “redo Hollywood” created in Ishtar an easy target. The fact that May’s past was already marred and that she still, twelve years after Smith’s identification of May as a near-singular woman among the directors of Hollywood, was virtually alone in her gender among directors, may have made May an even easier target. She, like her characters, Lyle and Chuck, was an easy mark.
The plot against Ishtar is not so much a conspiracy theory as it is a believable apparition of the hegemony of Hollywood, the entertainment industry, and Western culture. After struggling for years to be accepted in the industry, her brashness, disregard of budgetary restrictions, and gender may have aided in the plot against her and her film.
May explained her situation to Nichols in more detail: "I’m no one to be feared. I’m not one of those women who are not nice women. And in the end, when it comes down to it, you’re just as rotten as any guy. You’ll fight just as hard to get your way. So I think the real trick for women is they should start out tough. They don’t start out tough. They start by saying, 'Don’t be afraid of me. I’m only a woman.' And they’re not only women, they’re just as tough as guys. In that way I think I did have trouble. But only because I seemed so pleasant."
Though May seems convinced that the alleged sabotage was directed at her, Warren Beatty’s arrogant reputation may have had a hand in the downfall of Ishtar as well. In reaction to an uncredited interviewer’s quote that “Ishtar is synonymous not just with commercial failure, but with something that is so bad you aren't supposed to want to see it,” Jonathan Rosenbaum, who includes a discussion of Ishtar in his Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons, stated: "I think one thing that is important for people to understand is why it became targeted and scapegoated by the media as being supposedly such a terrible movie. Warren Beatty had had in the past a very high-handed way with members of the press. The way they were handling the press on Ishtar was a lot of people saying, 'You can’t have an interview unless you put Warren on the cover.' He was playing very hard to get, and this wasn't the first time he was acting this way. So I think this was a chance for a lot of people in the press to kind of get even with Warren Beatty. It wasn’t about Elaine May, it was about him...if you start multiplying [Beatty’s] treatment [of] a lot of other people in the press, Ishtar was their one chance finally to get even.Why single out this one, of all the films they could get angry at? I knew one of the leading publicists at the time in Hollywood who attended an early screening of the film. And when she started laughing, people started giving her dirty looks - to give you some idea of the lynch-mob mentality."
Parish agrees that it likely had less to do with Elaine May, but believes it had more to do with both Beatty and Hoffman and the mid-production regime change at Columbia Pictures: "[I]f the regime has changed, the new regime could care less about the old picture and lets it go on its merry way, feeling that, well, it’ll be attributed to the past group, and it’ll put just one more nail in their coffin, and I can come in with a clean slate, which is what happened to a degree with 'Ishtar'... when they had the change of regime at Columbia. David Puttnam came in, and he already had antipathy toward Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman."
No matter the focus of the supposed sabotage or whether the sabotage actually occurred, Elaine May’s position in Hollywood, as a woman in power, is in direct challenge of notions of a hegemonically male-dominated industry. May seems to have always been aware of the uphill battle confronting her as a trailblazer for women in Hollywood, but if she dealt with issues associated with progressive gender relations and the women’s movement in her creative and commercial output, she dealt with the issues in an unorthodox manner. Hinston suggests, “As a writer, May has an extraordinarily weird turn of mind, and on the face of it she might have been the perfect person to make an updated road picture. But the suggestion that May would be the right director for a picture on this scale has always sounded like a kind of perverse joke.”
In Ishtar, May created a subversive commentary on an industry that rewards the untalented, projecting them to a point of professional accomplishment unattainable to others. She struggled through ranks of far less talented, yet socially and hegemonically “more qualified,” men to achieve a level of success unimaginable to a woman before her (and barely attainable after her). Throughout her mediated career, Elaine May seemed both constantly threatened by and consistently provoking such industry attempts to soften or alter her. In her work, she provided commentary on the situation while working from within industry confines. By her own understanding, she is unable to work outside the system. Her knowledge of filmmaking is fully reliant upon the norms of mainstream filmmaking. So her options are to make films from within (and provide some sardonic and subversive commentary by way of the films) or not to make films at all. This requires a certain subtle finesse, which is perhaps why she has directed only four films. With this is mind, it seems a safe assumption that the film May would direct in 1987 (Ishtar), following a decade away from filmmaking, would comment in some way on the experience of her (either forceful or voluntary) removal/exile.
Rogers and Clarke
There are few images more universally pitied in Western culture than the out-of-place, unhip, untalented, and unappreciated musical performer. Once romanticized and glamourized, the musical performer in a dining establishment, now attempting to be heard over patrons, acting more as a nuisance to a nice meal than a welcomed addition, has become an image of awkwardness. From sounds of unnatural feedback as the unassuming performer approaches the microphone, to a lack of support as the protagonist fights for his/her dream, the amateur musician in film can be the nascent beginnings of a triumphant climax and conclusion, but can also produce a cringe worthy image of embarrassment. Rogers and Clarke represent the latter. We pity their lack of talent, cannot relate to their obliviously delusional perception of self worth, and may not even want them to succeed. May takes advantage of the pity and embarrassment an audience may have from the onset of the film, as two respected actors putter through awkward songs in awkward environments. May commonly depicts the performances of Rogers and Clarke by way of a partially obstructed view, thereby calling attention to the fact that they are universally unwelcomed and in the way. Food servers and other restaurant employees walk in the foreground between the camera and the performer. Employees appear disinterested, oblivious, or annoyed by the presence of the performers.
Ishtar opens cold on Lyle Rogers (Beatty) and Chuck Clarke (Hoffman) workshopping their new song, “Dangerous Business.” They ad lib possible lyrics: “Telling the truth can be bad news.” “Telling the truth can be good news.” “Telling the truth is a difficult problem.” “Telling the truth is a scary predicament.” “Telling the truth is a bitter herb.” They agree on, “Telling the truth can be dangerous business.” The song, in its near-completed state, is a meaningless and pedestrian jingle-sounding ditty. It’s okay, but not exceptional. While not horribly unlistenable, it doesn’t seem to possess any great potential for commercial appeal.
On a chilly New York City evening, Lyle and Chuck stand outside of a storefront, looking longingly at a window display featuring new album releases by Talking Heads, Bruce Springsteen, and Paul Simon. Prominently featured among the new releases is the newly remastered compact disc rerelease (it’s 1987) of Simon & Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits. Simon and Garfunkel, more the captured image of the 1960s songwriting duo than the Graceland-era solo Simon of the contemporaneous present, is everything Rogers and Clarke aspire to be.
LYLE: Look at that, Simon & Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits.
CHUCK: Lyle, “Dangerous Business” is as good as anything they ever wrote.
LYLE: You think so?
CHUCK: Sure. The only thing that Simon & Garfunkel or Bruce Springsteen or any of these guys have that we don't have is an agent.
LYLE: You think so?
CHUCK: “Dangerous Business” is as good as [Simon & Garfunkel’s] “Bridge Over Troubled Water” any day of the week.
LYLE: You think so?
CHUCK: I’m telling you, if we get an agent, we get a record album.
This notion runs throughout the film, that quality is not as important for professional success as are connections and aspects of the “business of show.” It is important to note that Lyle Rogers and Chuck Clarke do not realize they are bad; they earnestly believe their music is good. All they lack, by their understanding, is the industry “in." They convince talent agent Marty Freed (Jack Weston), who occupies the lowest rung of the professional ladder, to attend their set at a showcase performance. Following a montage of their fellow performers, Rogers and Clarke take to the stage looking far too awkward, far too old, and far too out of place. They wear unflattering headbands that seem to accentuate receding middle-aged hairlines rather than the desired new wave hipness. Hoffman as Clarke awkwardly holds an acoustic guitar, searching desperately for the next chord in preparation for the song’s downbeat. Beatty as Rogers wears an electronic keyboard with a strap (not a “keytar” designed to be worn in the manner of a guitar, but a strap uncomfortably slung around his neck and attached to the ends of an inexpensive Casio-like keyboard). Like Garfunkel to Simon, Beatty physically dwarfs Hoffman. Even the performance of “Dangerous Business,” now slowed down drastically and lyrically traded off between the two performers, is an uncomfortable experience for the film’s viewer. They are not better as a result of rehearsal, the honing of skills, or preparation. They are, in fact, worse than before. The club’s MC bids the audience goodnight as Rogers and Clarke anxiously approach Freed, “That wraps up another audition night at The Song Mart…a great bunch tonight. Good luck, kids.”
Rogers and Clarke are immediately set apart from the other “kids” at the “audition night.” They are not as young, good-looking, or good as the other amateurs presumably striving for professionalism. If this is the bottom of the professional ladder for the music industry, Rogers and Clarke are barely able to reach the bottom rung. They possess a clear lack of talent as both live performers and songwriters. Despite delusions of being as good as their heroes, Simon & Garfunkel, they are not even as good as their fellow amateurs. The duo is presented as contrasting with the youth of their actual peers (at the “audition night”) and far less talented than nearly everyone else.
“It would be very easy to write obviously bad songs,” recalls songwriter Paul Williams who wrote many of Rogers and Clarke’s songs for Ishtar, “but to write believable bad songs where they actually sound like they actually were trying to be good was the hard part and that’s what I had a great time doing” (Dayton). Rogers and Clarke are “believably bad.” They are delusional, not dumb. Let down by a post-Vietnam world that should have left them fulfilled and famous like their idols, Simon & Garfunkel, they instead are unfulfilled.
It is important that their points of comparison are Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel as opposed to their fellow open mic performers, because they do not see themselves in a similar arena to amateurs or even those who may hold a slightly higher professional status. They are clearly older and less hip, and they cannot compete with the other more youthful bands because they should not be expected to be held to the same standards. By their own insistence, they are songwriters, not performers. They are, or should be, in the ranks of other great songwriters. But they are also not good songwriters. The film’s audience is made aware of this early on in the film - from the opening scene, in fact. The characters of Rogers and Clarke are never made aware of this. They remain delusionally convinced of their talent.
“If somebody loves those songs, if they mention Ishtar,” Paul Williams speculates (quoted in Robert Dayton's piece "SWAN and Other Weird Birds,"), “it’s a guarantee that they are a songwriter or a musician because they get it, they get the [humor]." Like Rogers and Clarke, Williams has made a career primarily as a songwriter, more than as a performer. Though his status and achievements as a songwriter have allowed him access to a certain level of “in front of the camera” professionalism unavailable to him prior to his commercial success, Williams spent many years trying to “make it.” With his less-than-rock-star appearance, Williams was surely passed over in favor of more “cool” looking musicians and singers. He has long been notoriously wary of the music industry, resulting especially from his early days as a commercial songwriter with White Whale Records and A&M Records. His early attempts at performing his own songs with his quickly-formed and disbanded group, The Holy Mackerel, and his early solo attempts, failed commercially. His songwriting (including stints as a jingle writer, arguably one of the least-respected and unglamorous levels of the songwriting profession), not his performance of the songs, but their quality, was Williams’ path to professional success.
It could be said that Williams’ performance (visually, professionally, commercially, musically) of the material did not do the songs justice. But when Jim Henson and Kermit the Frog sang one of his songs (“Rainbow Connection”), a successful marriage of the visual and aural was created. In Williams’ songs for Ishtar, one can find both catchy pop songs and a sardonic take on the industry of which he is so wary. The collaboration of Williams and May is one ripe with metaphoric potential and lasting cultural impact. Williams’s own experiences in the lowest trenches of the music industry at least informed much of the musical performances; May in the overshadowed fringes of the entertainment industry informs the presentation.
Both Hoffman and Beatty play against their professional images and stereotypes. Beatty, a sex symbol of the age, is dimwitted, unsure, unaware, and inexperienced in the world. In contrast, Chuck Clarke is a sort of cousin to Dustin Hoffman’s Ratso Rizzo (Midnight Cowboy). According to Lyle, Chuck has “that kind of face, mean looking but with character.” He is streetwise, urban, ambiguously ethnic, and confident. He explains to Lyle, “Girls call me ‘the hawk,’ it's a long story, gang war, shit like that.” Unlike Lyle’s heartbreak when left by his frustrated wife and high school sweetheart, Chuck tells his devoted and loving girlfriend that he has to make sure she is “Miss Right” even though she has offered to emotionally and financially support his songwriting aspirations. In both instances, May has her male protagonists cast aside the emotionally (and presumably financially) supportive women in their lives in favor of their career, by way of direct action or by way of incessantly striving for unattainable goals.
Though Chuck projects an air of confidence, when Kane’s character leaves him, Chuck is left, lyrically, “on the ledge, finally on the edge of my life.” Chuck calls Lyle, not from the ledge outside his apartment, but from the windowsill inside of his apartment to tell him he is on the ledge and prepared to take his own life.
CHUCK: Lyle, I can’t make anything work. Everything I told you is fake. It’s all make-believe. I’m a total failure.
LYLE: Don’t move. I’ll be right over.
CHUCK: Listen, don’t call the police. If this gets into the newspapers, the scandal will ruin me in show business.
Chuck not only exposes himself to Lyle as a man with faults, but as a coward. Although he speaks of himself as completely devoid of talent, we don’t get the impression that he actually believes such a thing, and it is said more so that he may receive some reinforcement from Lyle that he indeed is talented. He requests Lyle to “not call the police” for fear that the “scandal will ruin [him] in show business.” Chuck Clarke, even in a moment of presented confession, is still in possession of an ulterior motive. Though it is useless to speculate about the character’s intentions to jump or not, Chuck does not actually venture from the relative safety of his apartment to a more dangerous ledge until the police officers enter his apartment through the unlocked front door. They too have called his bluff. Soon after, Chuck’s parents, his childhood Rabbi, and Lyle arrive. As Lyle is bringing Chuck in from the ledge, Chuck confides in him that he lived with his parents until he was 32 and that he is not the man Lyle thought he was. Lyle reassures him that “it takes a lot of nerve to have nothing at your age. Most guys would be ashamed, [but] you say that you’d rather have nothing than settle for less.” Somewhere in that sentiment is a sincere compliment from the folksy Lyle.
Away from New York City, the United States, and Western culture, Rogers and Clarke are archetypical Americans abroad. In the Ishtar airport, Hoffman as Clarke is dressed in white jeans and a black button-down shirt with a loosened, red leather “skinny tie” around his neck. On top, he wears a white jacket with the collar “popped” and the sleeves pushed up. Around his head is a black and red-checkered headband and on the edge of his nose sits a pair of red-framed dark sunglasses. Though his attire could be easily misunderstood as indicative of the era, at nearly fifty years old, Hoffman is clearly not the “normal” wearer of the fashions of the day. Here, he is portraying the fashion sense of Chuck Clarke as an emulation of the era’s stereotypical MTV star, but as done so by a forty-something wannabe. Away from the fashion-conscious judgment of New York City, Clarke is able to present himself as the potential star he believes he is, should be, or will be. It is a presentation of the American rock star image by way of an American “nobody” gone East in search of fame. In New York, Clarke is too old, too white, and in possession of “no shtick,” but in the non-Western world, Clarke is an exotic other. Simply because he is an American, he can feign and present an inflated persona based on his projected profession: American singer-songwriter.
Lyle represents, as from the beginning, Chuck’s polar opposite, but he is nonetheless also an archetypical image of Americanism abroad. He is dressed in a casual button-down shirt with the breast pocket overfilled with pens and assorted travel necessities, a light khaki jacket, and a bucket hat reminiscent of Henry Fonda in On Golden Pond. Beatty as Rogers is more akin to an idealized image of an American tourist such as visual artist Duane Hanson than the era’s Rolling Stone covers or MTV. He is the embodiment of how tourists are told not to dress in order to avoid pickpockets and con artists. Again, in his late forties/early fifties, he is not a picturesque candidate for youthful rock and roll rebellion. But in the non-Western environment, he is a likely performer and star because of the projected air of Americanism that surrounds him. Less “rock star” than Hoffman’s Clarke, perhaps looking more like a rock star’s accountant than an international performer, Beatty’s Rogers is also an exotic other if only because the space around him has changed. He is virtually unchanged.
In contrast to the dominant negative reviews, critic Jim Hoberman said of Ishtar: “[it] is both extremely droll and - whatever its intentions - the most adroit political satire to emerge from Hollywood during the Iran-Contra stupefaction of Ronald Reagan’s second term.” Hoberman proudly states that though the film was so “universally reviled even before its belated release [and] twice panned in his paper The Village Voice,” he was not one of those critics.
Ishtar seems to be making a general commentary on “extra” or “foreign” influence on notions of success, fame, and professionalism beyond talent and creative or cultural worth. The struggling songwriter, devoid of any real potential for professional status as a musician or songwriter, stands for anything easily malleable. More than a commentary specifically on semiprofessional and/or amateur musicians, it may be read as commentary on the disposable nature of the “little guy” for the purposes of the truly powerful. All the while, it is the lost and naïve pawn, enticed by the allure of popularity, public exposure, and fame, who ventures forward like a moth to the flame. In the end, the rise to a firmly professional status of “legitimate” songwriters/performers is one earned not by way of talent, but based in scandal, manipulation, and, in this case in particular, covert operations. Though the specifics of their particular rise from obscurity and commonality to professionalism are farcical and farfetched, the particulars of their presentation as aspiring songwriters plagued with a lack of talent and cursed with a delusional confidence is rather believable and uncontrived. Faced with no option for achieving their desired fame and professional status in a Western commercial arena by way of real or projected talent, ability, or authenticity, Rogers and Clarke achieve something approximating professionalism by way of leaving a professional Western market for a more amateur Eastern market.
May uses the characters of hapless and inauspicious amateur musician as dupes. They are ultimately gullible and unaware men - not stupid, but maybe a little dumb - and are willing to do anything to make it. By their understanding, all they require is the opportunity to make it and (again, by their understanding) their clear talent will take them to they top. And, as the film demonstrates, with a little gullibility, the truly untalented, underserved, and unorthodox can succeed if they are willing to do anyting, including unknowingly engaging in international espionage.
The public personae of Warren Beatty, the physically attractive sex symbol, and Dustin Hoffman, the less physically attractive, but possibly more respected actor, are toyed with by May in the characters of Lyle and Chuck. Both Beatty and Hoffman were, by the time of Ishtar, Academy Award winners (Beatty for Best Director for 1981’s Reds and Hoffman for Best Actor for 1979’s Kramer vs. Kramer). Both Hoffman and Beatty were (and, despite the negative press following the release of Ishtar, came to be again - Hoffman the following year with Rainman - Beatty several years later) members of the relatively small upper echelon of great American actors. And though both had played roles that were in opposition to, and potentially detrimental to this elevated status - whether it be Hoffman’s cross-dressing Michael Dorsey/Dorothy Michael in 1984’s Tootsie or Beatty’s 1967’s portrayal of bank robbing Clyde Barrow in Bonnie and Clyde - there may be something far more potentially harmful to a career based on talent and persona in the portrayal of a character that is a poor performer (such as Ishtar’s Chuck and Lyle).
In Ishtar, Elaine May creates characters who, despite a complete and total lack of commercial potential and appeal, are rewarded because they, in the intended clichéd manner, just want it bad enough - and they are men. The fact that they have achieved success does not (as their resulting path to commercial success illustrates) speak to the quality of their material. It is still bad. As if May (with Beatty standing behind her) is shouting, “just ‘cause it’s a success doesn’t mean it’s any good!” The songwriting duo of Rogers and Clarke represents the film she could have made. They succeed despite their sub par quality. If she had made concessions, played the game as the industry would have her play it (which very likely would include the Hollywood gender politics of bowing to the males in power), she may have avoided the alleged sabotage, but then again the resulting film, for better or worse, would not have been Ishtar.
From guest contributor Colin Helb, Elizabethtown College