Ishtar: Elaine May’s Metatextual Odyssey into Geopolitics and the Artistic Process

Movies Features Elaine May
Ishtar: Elaine May’s Metatextual Odyssey into Geopolitics and the Artistic Process

“Why didn’t you try to recruit me as a communist? Wasn’t I good enough?” mewls Chuck Clarke (Dustin Hoffman), moving in equally wild and feeble fashion, to Shirra Assel (Isabelle Adjani). It’s one of Ishtar’s funniest lines (though there are many), indicative of its defining features: Through its birds-eye focus on the inept, pitiful Chuck and Lyle (Warren Beatty)—their intermittent suspicions of each other; their enduring, delusional musical dreams—Ishtar renders the U.S.’s interventionist political machinations as madcap and pathetic. The false promise of international stardom, its presupposition as the vehicle for freedom by Chuck and Lyle, reveals international power plays as similarly frivolous.

With 1987’s Ishtar, writer/director Elaine May wielded her repertoire—a collection of incisive, sharp satires; works that display a keen observation of masculinity—to cast the middle-aged Hoffman and Beatty against type in her first big-budget studio film. Ishtar’s subsequent negative publicity, which permanently derailed May’s directing career, perhaps suggests that this audacious choice—daring to cast the widely known everyman and debonair as a slinging duo of shoddy lounge singers with astronomic ambitions—was the biggest crime of all.

But if Columbia Pictures understood May as a filmmaker, they’d know they couldn’t extricate May from her penchant for pathetic losers. Her manifold skills in tonal balance—between farce and tragedy, empathy and critique, her characters’ unpropitious dispositions and sunny desires—are all essential to her lens as a director. Ishtar balances this all while also being a searing study of conflicting ambitions, along both personal and political axes. Ironically, Ishtar’s signifiers mirror its own turbulent production.  Ishtar’s production is a case study in the antagonism between the artistic project and the larger, controlling committee of enterprise, its filming and postproduction sullied by a continued undercutting of May’s creative control, from camera placements and editing to the studio’s mum publicity. 

As May said in an interview at the time, the U.S. was “all over the Middle East,” so she figured she’d write a film about “two schmucks with ambitions who went to a country where we were.” In Ishtar, Chuck and Lyle’s failed efforts at local open mic nights mar their Simon & Garfunkel-esque dreams. This isn’t because they’re merely poor performers; they’re actually talentless. They’re downright terrible. May’s portrayal of their lofty artistic hopes is not reliant on trite ideas of relentless perfectionism or abusive mentorship (think contemporary illustrations of artistic pursuit in Black Swan and Whiplash) but encompasses something more complicated, in which Chuck and Lyle’s musical obsession is an instrument through which May ruminates on the artistic process. 

The process, it turns out, is one rife with berserk antics, tender homosocial affection and periodic flurrying distance—perhaps not entirely unlike Ishtar’s own. Think of May’s own conflicts with cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, known for his collaborations with Bernardo Bertolucci and Francis Ford Coppola on such films as The Conformist and Apocalypse Now. May and Storaro often disagreed on camera subjectivity; May sought to maximize comic effect, while Storaro prioritized traditional cinematographic composition. Beatty, also the film’s producer, often took Storaro’s side, with Hoffman later recalling that May “probably felt ganged up on.” 

The camerawork, the cut, the marketing all were precarious, and yet May’s trademark sardonic wit and silly-sweet empathy remain. Perhaps May recognized the reflective absurdity of depicting two buffoons with delusional artistic ambitions caught in the crosshairs of larger structural power plays.

Early in Ishtar, Chuck gets swindled into giving up his passport by Shirra (to be fair, who wouldn’t for Isabelle Adjani?). Stranded in the fictional country of Ishtar, Chuck is then similarly manipulated by CIA agent Jim Harrison (Charles Grodin), becoming an asset for the CIA just as Shirra breaks into Lyle’s hotel room in Morocco, turning Lyle into a quasi-leftist guerilla asset (using the power of Having Breasts). Chuck and Lyle become star-crossed, the intimate politics of their partnership becoming convoluted by labyrinthine geopolitics. 

Drawn into the orbits of Jim and Shirra, Chuck and Lyle’s relationship becomes political, one in which deceptions and omissions pile upon each other. The duo’s alternating moments of suspicion and understanding are evaded only through their oblivious self-absorption and crazed ambitions, which May captures through a temperamental, mercurial rhythm—each glance, pause and quip internally loaded as well as comically charged. This is maybe the closest to the dueling inclinations of May, Beatty, the crew and Columbia Pictures being depicted on celluloid. As Beatty famously said following Ishtar’s production, worried about its myriad conflicts and costs and in similarly self-important fashion, “I was going to give this gift to Elaine, and it turned out to be the opposite.”

But if it seems to capture its troubled production, it’s not a flaw, but an addition to Ishtar and its wayward web of longing, partnerships and geopolitics. Midway through the film, Chuck and Lyle are both given instructions (by the CIA and leftist guerrillas, respectively) to traipse across the desert, where both parties intend for them to die. Shirra tells Lyle that the desert is windless, and Jim tells Chuck a body of water awaits them after a few miles in the desert. The two dance around each other, revealing portions of their (false) intel but not their entirety, obfuscating their sources. And so the wind sends them swirling around the desert, blind camel in tow, for miles and miles, no water in sight. As Chuck and Lyle, Hoffman and Beatty sit at the intersection of interventionist politics and the promise of international stardom, both of which leave them unfulfilled, unquenched. These hijinks—both of their own making but also a result of larger machinations—are still accompanied by a gentle tenderness the two have for each other. Holding onto each other on the blind camel sold to them by the wrong Mohamed, Chuck and Lyle are, well, adorable.

And this is all thanks to May. May’s long career as a comedian (as an improvisational dual act with The Graduate filmmaker Mike Nichols) renders not only her comic timing precise but her sense of proximity—between Chuck and Lyle, but also between the duo and the intricate web of politics they traverse—layered. Mikey and Nicky stands out within her filmography as a foray into drama, but all of her works, including Ishtar, display this skillful management of rhythm, interiority and politics. It is unfortunate, then, that the narrative of Ishtar’s production, post-production, and subsequent release does not mirror the lightly syrupy quality of Ishtar’s own denouement. Heads of production were cycled through, one after another; production costs and tensions only continued to mount after production was finished, with Beatty, May and Columbia warring over the final cut. Then, Columbia undermined the publicity and distribution for the picture.

Had she been given the opportunity to make more films, May doubtless would have explored more tonal registers, creating more works that were as intelligent and psychosocial as they were dry and droll. Since Ishtar, though, May has essentially been exiled from Hollywood. She’s written a few screenplays here and there—1996’s The Birdcage being a particular stand-out—but hasn’t sat behind the camera since. 

If Ishtar’s restless production colors May’s legacy in any way, it should only do so because her final directorial effort is a sharp, metatextual work that is at once larger-than-life and self-reflexive, ribald and sweet, a trip of foolish yet markedly honest proportions. Without May, Hollywood has suffered an enormous loss. Studio comedies haven’t been the same since. 

Hafsah Abbasi is a film critic who has covered the Sundance Film Festival and the Mill Valley Film Festival in years past. She currently resides in Berkeley, California. Find her latest writing at

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