Dustin Hoffman (left) and Warren Beatty in Ishtar
I want you to take what I’m about to say very seriously.
Remember when you were a kid and you were out to dinner with your parents or grandparents at some semi-high end restaurant and because you were too young to read they ordered for you and when the food came you didn’t want it because it looked unusual and they said, “Try it, you might like it” or “You never know until you try”? And then you tried it and, amazingly, you actually liked it? Remember that?
Like I said, I don’t want to joke about this. Elaine May’s comic picaresque about two struggling New York singer-songwriters (Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty) landing the gig they desperately need — but in Morocco, in the middle of the Cold War — has been the subject of many earned and unearned punch lines for a very long time.
But of the laughing, how many have actually seen Ishtar? And among those who have seen it, who can actually claim to remember it? Surely not many; those who saw Ishtar when it was originally released in 1987 are likely to recall its highly-publicized box office problems (which I don’t want to get into) better than the picture itself. And because Ishtar was long unavailable on Region 1 DVD, it was difficult for the ambivalent or even antagonistic to revisit their decades-old opinions, or for the new generation — the one without the Ishtar baggage — to give the movie a fresh look.
All of that changed last year when slashcontrol.com made the film available for free online viewing, allowing us to look again or, more likely, for the first time. As I wrote at the time:
Ishtar is not a film that needs to be ‘rediscovered,’ it’s a film that needs to be given a chance. But let’s be clear: I can’t advocate for the entire picture. Ishtar is no lost gem like Elaine May’s A New Leaf (1971) or Mikey and Nicky (1976), which truly are lost gems. It’s simply one half of a very funny movie.
In that half, two struggling songwriters (Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty) stretch themselves to the very limits of their creative and emotional capacity. Hoffman and Beatty are so good — on their own and together — that no matter how ridiculous their characters appear, the strength of their dream, which they handle with total, committed seriousness, keeps them credible.
But now comes word of a heretofore unseen Director’s Cut, to screen tomorrow (Tues May 17) at 92Y, with a rare on-stage appearance by Elaine May herself. Might there be a second half-a-very-funny-movie, lost somewhere between the desert and the editing room, that needs be rediscovered after all?
Hoffman and Beatty have chemistry, real chemistry. Watching Ishtar, especially its opening moments, you can see Elaine May was thinking in terms of the Lemmon and Matthau tradition, and in that sense, the pairing of Hoffman and Beatty is fascinating. What other comic duo in the history of the movies has their dramatic pedigree? Even before they appear, you can hear — in voice-over over the opening credits — the care and attention to detail Hoffman and Beatty have put into building their relationship. It comes across as a shared facility, a mutual resourcefulness — the kind that stems from years and years of collaboration. It’s a marriage.
So love it, hate it, like it. But try it. Twenty years later, when it comes to a picture like Ishtar, its better to have an opinion than a joke.
Sam Wasson is the New York Times Best Selling author of Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman; A Splurch in the Kisser: The Movies of Blake Edwards; as well as the forthcoming Paul on Mazursky. Currently, Wasson is working on a full-scale biography of Bob Fosse.
The director’s cut of Ishtar is playing at 92Y Tuesday May 17th.