Blind Camels, Idiot Execs, and 5 Other Ishtar Revelations From Director Elaine May
"Either you like the movie or I'm very sick." And thus the actor, writer, director and comedy legend Elaine May greeted her warmly welcoming audience Tuesday night at New York's 92nd Street Y. The occasion: An ultra-rare screening of her infamous 1987 comedy Ishtar -- made all the rarer by exhibiting, for the first time ever, May's own director's cut of the film.
Featuring Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman as a hapless songwriting team embroiled in CIA/terrorist/Cold War intrigue after innocently attempting to find steady work in North Africa, Ishtar has become synonymous with Hollywood bloat, ego and cutthroat studio maneuvering since its tortured production (and even more tortured release) a quarter-century ago. It's also found a groundswell of critical and cultural support for its revival, with devotees arguing the film was never given a chance upon completion and that its satire is as funny -- and relevant -- as ever in this era of upheaval, espionage and various American political actions in the Middle East.
By most accounts of the Ishtar fans on hand, there wasn't much separating the studio-sanctioned version from May's own cut, which she viewed with her audience. "I thought it was funny -- which is a terrible thing to admit about your own movie," she told moderator David Schwartz. "But whenever I see it, I think of those people who try out for American Idol, and how certain they are of their talent, and how touching they are."
Among the evening's other revelations from Ishtar's troubled production, its fraught legacy, its imminent Blu-ray release and May's 25 years of post-Ishtar silence:
1. Ishtar: The first film jointly influenced by Bing Crosby, Bob Hope... and Ronald Reagan
"I had seen the Road movies," said May, referring to the Crosby/Hope comedy franchise of the '40s and early '50s, "and Warren and I wanted to do something together. And he's very good musically. And at the time, I think I saw Road to Morocco. We, America, were backing Iran and Iraq -- one against the other. We were in Lebanon. We were of course in Afghanistan, as we always are. We were all over the Middle East, and everyone I knew was in the CIA. The CIA was everywhere. And I thought, 'If you did a Road movie today, if you really sent somebody...'"
Which would have been enough inspiration even without the guy in the White House at the time. "At that time, Reagan was president, and I met him," May said. "And he's an amazingly naïve, innocent, charming guy who really, really cared about show business! In the nicest way, really. He knew Mike's and my albums. He could quote them -- he memorized them! He did our 'Telephone' routine. So he was the president. And nobody really knew what was going on, actually. I thought, 'Really, there's something very endearing, if terrifying, about this kind of innocence, this kind of naïvete."
2. Filming in the Sahara is just as tough as it looks...
Most of the film's final third takes place with Hoffman and Beatty -- and their blind camel -- lost in the desert. Challenging much? "It wasn't really a blind camel," May explained. "I don't exactly remember how we did it, but it acted like it. It was a great actor! We tried camels out; a lot of camels came. But this camel had it, and we cast him."
Also among May's gifted discoveries on location: A flock of hungry vultures and an ensemble from the indigenous Berber population."They were great sports because Dustin had to lay in the sand, and the vultures wouldn't come to him unless they put raw meat on him. And he said, 'Are these vultures going to know where the raw meat ends and I start?' And he did it! It was a hard shoot. [...] The guys who were in the auction scene were real Berbers. They knew no English. They just got them from the hills -- all of the extras, all of the people were from around there. And they were fantastic, these Berbers. I have no idea how they understood sort of exactly what to do. They just sort of followed Warren. It was a very hard shoot, but I really liked it. I actually have an affinity for the desert.
3. ...But it's nowhere near as difficult as dealing with then-Columbia Pictures chief David Puttnam
If Ishtar is famous for anything, it's the legend of going millions of dollars overbudget before Columbia put the brakes on May and Beatty. "This is like a curse," May said. "In the middle of this movie, Ishtar, they changed the head of the studio -- Columbia's head of the studio. David Puttnam came in. David Puttnam was a guy who was up against Warren Beatty for the Academy Award for Reds [in 1981] with... Oh..."
A few audience members jogged May's memory: "Chariots of Fire!"
"Chariots of Fire," May repeated. "About a -- and I don't want to sound bitter about it -- but about a Christian and a Jew who ran. But [Puttnam] had written a piece before the Academy Awards saying Warren was self-indulgent and should be spanked. But nobody mentioned that he was the competitor! They just wrote it as though it was a op-ed piece, because he's English, and we respect that in Hollywood. He then had a falling out with Dustin, and he said that Dustin was a brat and was troublesome and also some childlike person. And this is a guy who then became head of our studio!
"When the movie came out, we had three previews, and they went really well. And [former Columbia owner] Herb Allen said, 'This is fantastic! Thumbs up!' So I went to Bali, because I thought everything was fine. I hit Bali, and Warren calls and tells me that the day the press came, an article came out in the Los Angeles Times in which the head of Columbia wiped us out -- David Puttnam. It was the same thing he said before: That we should be spanked, that there was too much money, that he was going to reform Hollywood! Because the British film industry made so much money? I had no idea. I was pleased to hear he's now in Parliament. He's running England, which is doing so well.
"But it was really sort of unforgivable what he did. He attacked his own movie; he was the head of the studio. And Mike Nichols, my partner, said it was like an example of an entire studio committing suicide. They all just went with him.
"So when the press junket came, the next screening of this movie, which had sort of gotten really good word-of-mouth, there were no laughs, and people kept saying how much money it cost. Because he -- David Puttnam -- had done something that no studio had never done: He actually released the budget, or his version of it. So Charles Grodin, who plays the CIA agent, was at a screening. I was told about this: The entire audience was saying, 'It cost so much money! It cost so much money!' And he finally said, 'What do you care? It's not your money! It's not like if it didn't cost that much money they'd give it to you. It's [corporate parent] Coca-Cola's money! Coca-Cola would keep it! What do you care? Your tickets don't cost any more. Your tax dollars didn't go to it. Why are you -- you people in cloth coats -- complaining about how much money in costs?' And it occurred to me that that's sort of true, when people complain like that."
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