Damien on… “Ishtar”
You could be forgiven for believing Elaine May’s “Ishtar” was one of the five biggest financial disasters in Hollywood – the others being Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate”, “Waterworld” with Kevin Costner, “Gigli” with Ben Affleck and “The Bonfire Of The Vanities” with Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis and others.
But you would be WRONG. These five films are merely the most FAMOUS fiscal flops (alliteration!)
There are DOZENS that equal and even surpass them. Ever heard of “Mars Needs Moms”? Precisely.
Released (or more properly – escaped) just three years ago, THAT box-office bomb barely clawed back twenty of the one hundred and fifty big ones it cost to make.
And back in the days of the Studio System, the number of films that are considered to be classics today – is equalled by those that just DISAPPEARED.
The studios figured that releasing them would cost more in DAMAGE to their studio and stars than the bombs would net – so cut as much usable material (like battle scenes which could be used as stock footage) from them as possible and BURNED the rest.
However now that the Studio System is long gone, EVERYTHING gets SOME sort of release.
Thus “Ishtar”, which cost $55M to make (a big budget in 1987) was eventually released, netting just $7M at the US box office.
But this does not tell the whole story. The worldwide figures are unavailable – then you have to factor in video, TV and latterly, DVD rights. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to assume that overall, the movie is still a long way short of covering its production costs.
These were worsened by the studio’s insistence on giving the film high production values. The reason being that having heavyweights like Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty (who had championed Elaine May in the first place) on board, they were not about to scrimp it.
Which is the film’s first problem. Elaine had envisioned it as a “Road To…” movie (although it comes across more like those Sixties Bond spoofs – like “Danger Route” and “Our Man In Marrakesh”) with a modest budget, shot locally – not an epic, part-made in Morocco.
Furthermore, the studio insisted on paying both its lead actors a fortune – while both would have been happy with far less.
To make things worse, the political situation in North Africa at the time was TENSE.
Then to cap it all, just as the film was nearing completion, David Puttnam (now LORD Puttnam) was brought in as the studio’s new head of production. He hated Beatty, Hoffman and production cost waste in equal measure – and publicly condemned the movie on the basis of all three.
And all along the way, there had been a plethora of problems and fallouts too numerous to mention here – all of which conspired to CAPSIZE the film before it had a chance.
So what is “Ishtar” actually LIKE? Well, most of those who decried it never even SAW it. It is actually not that bad.
Beatty and Hoffman’s chemistry is pretty good, Charles Grodin is as funny as ever – and the “blind” camel steals every scene he is in (the camel originally “signed” for the part got eaten instead).
Plus Paul Williams’ songs are realistically awful (Beatty and Hoffman play bad singer-songwriters) Dave Grusin’s score is fine, May’s script and direction is okay (although after “Ishtar”, she never got to direct another movie) and altogether the film lopes along agreeably, never becoming boring (which is more than can be said for the other four films listed above).
So if you find this piece in your DVD hire shop or it turns up on your TV schedules – give it a try.
It may not be in my All Time Top Ten Movie list – or even my top hundred – but it is NOT as bad as many would have you believe.
On its original release, it was well received at its three premieres, hit Number One at the box office during its opening week – and almost all of IMDb’s 121 reviews (written by actual PEOPLE) are POSITIVE.
And it is now available on Blu-Ray.
I finally saw it a few days ago on DiggerMovie HD and LOLed many times (particularly during the scenes involving that camel). And as Elaine herself once said, “If all of the people who hate “Ishtar” had SEEN it – I would be a rich woman today.”