By Mark Olsen
11:00 AM EDT, August 11, 2013
The 1987 film "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, long on dreams, short on connections or talent. In a bit of purposefully counter-intuitive casting, Dustin Hoffman played Chuck Clarke, a self-confident ladies man, and Warren Beatty played Lyle Rogers, an awkwardly 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 Middle Eastern 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 alone 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.
"Ishtar" is not the only movie to benefit from a recent reconsideration thanks to a home-video release. Peter Bogdanovich's 1975 "At Long Last Love," released on Blu-ray earlier in the summer, having never even been on VHS, has also been getting welcome reappraisal after being called in its day "disappointing and embarrassing" by Variety and Village Voice critic Andrew Sarris declaring it "a monumental miscalculation."
The film is a purposefully fizzy throwback to the high-society Astaire-Rogers musicals, featuring songs by Cole Porter. The performers did their own singing live on the set, often in fluid, long takes that framed them from head to toe (take that, "Les Miserables"). The film has a playful, unpredictable puttin'-on-a-show charm all its own, with fleet, knowingly amateurish performances by Burt Reynolds, Cybill Shepherd, Madeline Kahn, John Hillerman and the recently departed Eileen Brennan.
And then there is "Heaven's Gate," a film perhaps equal only to "Ishtar" as universally accepted shorthand for disaster. The grand, epic-scaled 1980 western written and directed by Michael Cimino, starring Kris Kristofferson, Isabelle Huppert and Christopher Walken, has seen its resuscitation building for quite a long time, such that its reputation is now generally as a film more misunderstood than misguided.
For the recent release of a new restoration (likewise available on home video), English critic Robbie Colin stated, "Its status as a true wonder-work of American cinema is now surely beyond doubt."
In the age of online contrarianism, when every argument can be met by a "yes, but ...," does every failure require such reassessment? At times, a positive course-correction can be practically immediate, as when the 2011 Kenneth Lonergan film "Margaret" — which featured a searing supporting performance by May's daughter, Jeannie Berlin — went from a throwaway release and shrugging reviews to reverential revival within months, not years.
Perhaps inevitably, this idea of cultural turnaround can also become a rhetorical ploy, as when the team behind this summer's "The Lone Ranger" recently went on the offensive, with stars Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer and producer Jerry Bruckheimer all complaining that the coverage of the film's budget and difficult production history somehow affected critics' opinions of the final film. It was a familiar refrain, employed this time with defensive derision — Bruckheimer declared: "It's one of those movies that whatever critics missed in it this time, they'll review it in a few years and see that they made a mistake."
Time will tell, won't it?
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 straight-jacket of its reputation: "You'd rather have nothing than settle for less."
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