Given the general…well, at least marginal view that Elaine May‘s Ishtar (1987) is better than its rep and is actually hilarious in portions, it seems odd that today, 22 years after its catastrophic release, there’s no domestic DVD available. (A tape was released in 1994, but no DVD was ever pressed.)
Think about that for five or ten seconds. A major event movie that cost $55 million in 1985, ’86 and ’87 dollars (which would be what by today’s dollar? $120 million or so?) with Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman and miles of sand and a rich supply of dry underplayed humor (including some of the stupidest song lyrics ever written), and you can’t buy or rent it. And yet it’s available on home video in Europe.
Obviously Columbia TriStar Home Video execs still regard this legendary flop (which made only $14 million and change) as some kind of mongoloid child that needs to be kept chained in the basement, even though they had nothing to do with its production. This is residual corporate cowardice in action. Over 15 years since it came out on VHS and not one home video executive has had the courage to say, “Hey, let’s put out an Ishtar DVD! Infamy makes for a kind of fame, and maybe it’ll sell if we put some effort into the marketing. Times have changed, tastes have evolved.”
Ishtar was one of the first “no-laugh funny” films ever released. That was a completely new concept back then, and people didn’t know what to make of it. Beatty and Hoffman played a pair of profoundly untalented New York-based songwriters — I remember that much clearly. I also recall that the first half hour or so played pretty well, and that the film’s troubles didn’t start until they travelled to Morocco…Ishtar, I mean. I remember that the best no-laugh humor happened when Beatty and Hoffman were compulsively composing awful songs.
Ishtar costarred Isabelle Adjani, Charles Grodin, Jack Weston, Tess Harper and Carol Kane. It was shot by the great Vittorio Storaro. The intentionally awful songs were written by Paul Williams.
“Come look, there’s a wardrobe of love in my eyes / Look around and see if there’s somethin’ in your size.”
Ishtar is a Sony asset, a decent (some would say inspired) piece of entertainment, a legendary Hollywood debacle that, like Heaven’s Gate, gradually found a measure of respect. Okay, among people with a slightly corroded and perverse sense of humor but still, no one today thinks of Ishtar as a film to be shunned. I haven’t conducted a poll, but I’ll bet very few critics would put it down, and that most would probably say “not half bad.”
So why not put out a no-frills DVD? In fact, why not a DVD/Bluray with a documentary about how one of the biggest bombs in history came to be made (I’ve been reading the tragicomic story in Peter Biskind‘s Warren Beatty biography), and how, after time, it came to be seen as a half-decent, curiously off-funny thing, and in some circles as a kind of misunderstood gem. Certainly nothing to be ashamed of.
“Life is the way / we audition for God / let us pray that / we all get the job.”