Friday, March 11, 2022

Ishtar, Vindicated?

In the waning days of the New Hollywood, when the Suits were getting their own back and breaking the artists to their Neuordnung of executive-controlled high concept guck, the press--then as now dominated by sycophants, if perhaps not quite so totally--followed a particular pattern in regard to the release of movie after movie. Simply put, a filmmaker who had rubbed the execs the wrong way would, in the midst of a major would be accused of going "out of control" in the pursuit of something not worth pursuing--going wildly overbudget in their obsession with some half-baked vision. Afterward the critics would dutifully say the movie was terrible, the film would be deemed a box office flop, and the filmmaker would never get another chance like that again.

Thus did it go with Francis Ford Coppola on Apocalypse Now, and Michael Cimino on Heaven's Gate. Of course, the reputation of those films has improved greatly since they got that treatment, to such a degree that it is they and not their duck-talking detractors who have been vindicated by history. It may have been too little, too late, to save their careers (whereas the careers of said hecklers, of course, went unscathed), but for whatever it may be worth that late vindication demonstrated the primacy of industry politics, and often politics politics, as "liberal Hollywood" cracked down on those artists who were even a little too far to the left of the liking of those in charge. (Heaven's Gate star Kris Kristofferson, certainly, has been very frank about what he believes happened with that movie, declaring that in a political atmosphere in which the Attorney General of the United States would go so far as to tell "studio heads that 'there should be no more pictures made with a negative view of American history'" the "right-wing revolutionaries" of the Reagan period "assassinated my last real movie.)

As it went with Apocalypse Now and Heaven's Gate so did it go with Ishtar, an Elaine May-helmed film costarring Warren Beatty (the folks who brought you Reds), with both a big budget and an outlook that can, from the standpoint of the Rambo-Top Gun '80s, seem audaciously leftish, with the CIA a backer of brutal despots who live in luxury while keeping their people in grinding poverty ("The dome of the emir's palace is gold, and the people of Ishtar have never seen a refrigerator"), and the Agency a picture of both murderousness and incompetence, and the good guys the rebels fighting their client, who win in the end.

I have to admit that there seems less prospect of this movie ever enjoying the "unfairly maligned masterpiece" status Apocalypse Now or Heaven's Gate has acquired over the years. May's film included some clever ideas, like the casting of Warren Beatty as the confidence-lacking, forlorn "loser" and Dustin Hoffman as the self-confident "ladies' man," but this was probably too "'60s inside joke" to go over well with the general audience in 1987 (or after), while the movie never comes close to the comic flair of Elaine's prior A New Leaf or The Heartbreak Kid. Those movies' best scenes had a tightness about the writing and direction--literally tight, in that they tended to take place among people clustered around a small table (think, for example, of Charles Grodin's Lenny Cantrow asking Eddie Albert for Cybil Shepherd's hand in marriage, or trying to break up with his wife Lila on their honeymoon, in The Heartbreak Kid), with this reflecting the source of the comedic tension, namely the collision between the aggressively one track-minded stupidity of the protagonist and the hapless individual unfortunately in his path with no way to turn. Alas, May is working on a broader canvas here--as wide as the Sahara in which the story is set--while the characters as written lack that forcefulness. (Looking at Dustin Hoffman's Chuck Clarke and Warren Beatty's Lyle Rogers I found myself remembering what Roger Ebert said of A Night at the Roxbury, calling it "the first comedy I've attended where you feel that to laugh would be cruel to the characters." Thus did it seem in regard to Clarke and Rogers--who in an early scene attempts suicide after his girlfriend breaks up with him.) The approach is different, the characters different (even the ladies-man-in-his-own-mind Clarke is no Cantrow), and I came away with the impression that May, while admirable in attempting to do something different, had in this case undertaken an experiment that did not entirely work. Still, that leaves Ishtar a good deal better than its longtime "one of the worst movies ever" status, and, even if, again, this is happening after the damage to her career (and Beatty's career), was done, it seems only fair that the movie's reputation has been improving in recent years--and a reminder of the real politics of Hollywood, and the entertainment press, in the '80s and since.

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