Ishtar, Elaine May and the road not taken

Elaine May’s misunderstood 1980s comedy critiqued 1980s American foreign policy and parodied male narcissism, which is probably why it also destroyed its director’s career.

Brad Stevens

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Ishtar (1987)

Ishtar (1987)

It hardly seems possible that Elaine May’s Ishtar (1987) is about to celebrate its 30th anniversary. I first saw the film on its original release, and have returned to it many times over the years, always with pleasure and delight. But in my mind, it has yet to take on the status of a revered classic, instead retaining that sense of freshness one associates with recent discoveries. Paradoxically, when I first encountered this gem, it struck me as already somehow dated (in the best sense of that word). Indeed, it is precisely this datedness which separates Ishtar from other mainstream American comedies of the 1980s, most of which perfectly catch the dominant tone of what now looks like an absurdly primitive era.

The other major achievements of 80s comedy, the films of Blake Edwards, share this feeling of dislocation. Edwards had spent much of the 70s in Europe making Pink Panther sequels, and thus missed out on the opportunity of contributing to a cinematic movement – generally known as New Hollywood – whose rejection of traditional values would surely have been welcomed by him with open arms. The comedies he directed after returning to the US, beginning with 10 in 1979, tend to feel a decade out of date, as if Edwards were making up for lost time – even the comic western Sunset (1988) conveys an odd sense of isolation, though it would have felt right at home amidst the nostalgia boom of the mid-70s. But this impression of misplacement can also be attributed to Edwards’ frustration at seeing the kind of misogyny he had previously satirised being celebrated by a new generation of filmmakers.

In its problematising of male sexuality, Edwards’ 80s work is unambiguously oppositional, mainstream comedy in this decade being best represented by Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters (1984). In Reitman’s film, male opponents of nuclear energy are described as “dickless”; its sexual politics can best be summed up by the line “Let’s show this prehistoric bitch how we do things downtown”. Bill Murray’s persona is crucial to this Reaganite project, his air of cynical detachment from everything, including the rules of the cinematic world he inhabits, suggesting how closely Ghostbusters is aligned with the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby Road movies, surely among the least resonant and most conservative strands of American humour.

It is, then, ironic that Ishtar should have been explicitly positioned as a modern-day reworking of the Road films, from which it could not be further in intent, tone and achievement. This misrepresentation surely explains both the commercial failure of May’s film and the contempt directed towards it by critics who, as Jonathan Rosenbaum has pointed out, were led to expect a celebration of imperialist confidence, and instead found themselves confronted with a harsh analysis of both American intervention in the Middle East and the narcissism which made such intervention inevitable.

Ishtar (1987)

Ishtar (1987)

Ishtar stars Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty as Chuck Clarke and Lyle Rogers, a pair of struggling singer/songwriters whose agent, Marty Freed (Jack Weston), finds them a gig in Morocco. There they encounter Shirra Assel (Isabelle Adjani), member of a leftist guerilla group attempting to overthrow the tyrannical emir of Ishtar, and Jim Harrison (Charles Grodin), a CIA agent busy propping up the regime.

Much of the film’s humour is generated by that yawning gap between the assumptions Rogers and Clarke make concerning their musical skills, and the reality of their total lack of talent (as well as the corresponding gap between the language of democracy the CIA uses to conduct its business and the reality of the dictatorship they support). Ishtar belongs not with the Hope/Crosby series, but rather to a much older tradition of Hollywood comedy – best represented by Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth (1937), Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby (1938) and Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve (1941) – wherein laughter is aroused by an intelligent and independent woman’s placing of masculine presumption. May clearly identifies with her active female revolutionary, some of the funniest scenes in Ishtar (a film hardly short of laugh-out-loud moments) being those in which Assel calculatedly flatters the egos of Rogers and Clarke in order to manipulate them.

Yet while Ishtar’s two male protagonists are ruthlessly parodied, the parody never issues from a position of complacent superiority (this is not, after all, a Coen brothers film). On the contrary, if May refuses to indulge her characters, the affection she feels for them is nonetheless constantly evident. Clarke’s macho behaviour, notably the practised charm he uses to seduce women, is ultimately revealed to be an expression of the same insecurities which have caused Rogers’ nervous lack of confidence, the notion that these men are two sides of the same coin being beautifully expressed by the casting of Beatty and Hoffman, both consciously playing against type. If we laugh at them, we are also laughing at ourselves – or, more precisely, at an ideology we are all implicated in. That the film’s critique of masculinity exists alongside a viewpoint hospitable to communism (our sympathies are unambiguously with those fighting to overthrow a form of American imperialism which acts on the side of moneyed interests) suggests the radicalism of Ishtar, and neatly brackets it with Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980), another massive critical and financial flop.

Ishtar (1987)

Ishtar (1987)

Since 1987, Elaine May has been permitted to make only one film, a decent but very conventional documentary about her former collaborator Mike Nichols (whose The Day of the Dolphin I will discuss in next month’s column), though rumour has it she anonymously directed the little-seen In the Spirit (1990). Which leaves Ishtar as the very definition of the type of comedy that is no longer welcome in Hollywood. And May’s film looks particularly important in light of the direction English-language cinema has taken during the last 30 years. Many of Ishtar’s most delightful moments are observed via long, meticulously composed takes which enable the performers to interact with each other and the world around them. By comparison, contemporary American comedies tend to be shot and edited as if they were entries in the Fast and Furious franchise, with shots seldom running for more than a few seconds.

Needless to say, May’s opposition to modern trends is not merely stylistic (as if style could ever be “mere”). For if the most obviously unacceptable excesses of 80s comedies – in which women, homosexuals and members of racial minorities were routinely depicted as absurd or threatening – have largely been abandoned, the assumptions these excesses were symptomatic of remain unchallenged. In a cinema still dominated by anti-feminism and anti-humanism, now cunningly concealed beneath the figleaf of post-modernism, Ishtar looks more than ever like the road not taken.

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