Movie director Mike Nichols described Ishtar as ‘the prime example that I know of in Hollywood of studio suicide’. The comment highlights the distinction between Ishtar and most other box-office turkeys: Ishtar went way over budget, but it wasn’t a bad film.
It failed because of bad blood between Columbia’s new CEO, David Puttnam, and its Oscar-winning stars, Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman.
Ishtar was conceived as an intelligent comedy about a pair of talentless songwriters trying to make it as a ritzy lounge act. Too dumb to work out why their songs inspire hilarity instead of romantic wonder (even with titles like ‘That a Lawnmower Can Do All That’) they get a last-ditch gig entertaining US troops in the North African Emirate of ‘Ishtar’. En route, the boys and their blind camel get involved with a mysterious houri (Isabelle Adjani) and a CIA agent trying to depose the Emir. You can see the obvious parallels with Bing, Bob and Dorothy Lamour’s ‘road’ movies and, with ‘comedy legend’ Elaine May as director, why Hollywood foresaw a guaranteed success.
Instead, the delays mounted under Elaine May’s perfectionist direction (she even had the Moroccan sand dunes bulldozed a few meters to improve a desert shot). Every delay was scornfully evaluated by the media, burying the film in negative publicity.
Rumors of revenge were rife. Did David Puttnam bear a grudge against Warren Beatty? Was the media punishing Warren for treating them like low life? It was enough to convince audiences that the film couldn’t be fun, and that its $55 million cost represented megastar arrogance towards the paying public.
Ishtar was nominated for three ‘Razzies’ (1987 Golden Raspberry Awards), but the negative reviews were all about the money. People who actually saw the film found it entertaining. In fact, during the 20-odd years Ishtar has been synonymous with ‘box-office flop’, the more of a cult it has become.
Toll: Despite the growing number of fans, the business end of Hollywood still regards Ishtar as a bitter betrayal and over 20 years later the film has never been issued on DVD in North America. Hollywood minded the financial disaster less than the fact that Ishtar made stars and suits alike aware of their changing power relationship – and wary of attracting knives in their backs.
You should know: The negative PR campaign against Ishtar brainwashed even the brightest and most perceptive audiences. Gary Larson, the cartoonist, drew a ‘Far Side’ comic strip showing ‘Hell’s Video Store’ stocked solely with piles of Ishtar tapes. Much later, after seeing it as an inflight movie, he praised it, admitting ‘there are so many cartoons for which I should probably write an apology, but this is the only one that compels me to do so’.