Ishtar (1987): Elaine May’s Comedy Misfire, Starring Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman

Some critics (not me) consider Elaine May’s “Ishtar” to be Warren Beatty’s and Dustin Hoffman’s most disastrous film.

The comedy-espionage-thriller became a victim of its own publicity and big-budget backlash.  In the end, “Ishtar” was a huge flop, grossing less than $10 million, against a  $50 million budget due to the escalating salaries of the two stars: Beatty and Hoffman got $5.5 million paycheck.

Critical Response was mostly negative.  Some critics thought it was dull and dim—Beatty and Hoffman play two untalented songwriter-singers in Manhattan.  Their harried agent (Jack Weston) gets them booked in a nightclub in Morocco, and soon they find themselves in the mythical Kingdom of Ishtar.  Beatty inexplicably yields his passport to Isabelle Adjani after she appeals for help.  Adjani plays a leftist intriguer, who is out there to overthrow the U.S.-backed Emir of Ishtar.

Charles Grodin, as a C.I.A. agent, recruits Hoffman as an aide, and Adjani get to romance Beatty.  When the hapless song-men become targets of various groups, they move around the Sahara on the back of a blind camel.  The pair winds up back performing, bellowing songs like “I Look to Mecca.”

The film contains quite a few lame jokes, and the whole premise is based on an inside joke, sort of casting-against-type. Beatty portrays a bumbling, unattractive guy who can’t make it with the women, while the shorter, homelier Hoffman is a truly ladies man.

The release of the film was postponed several times, finally opening in May 198, due to tinkering by May but also in order to avoid the effects of the inevitably damaging critical pan.

But long before “Ishtar” bowed, there were stories about the horrendous production, the huge budget, the fights between the stars, director, and crew, the attempts to improve the landscape by way of bulldozing parts of the Sahara Desert to enhance the photogenic qualities, endless hunting for animals, especially a camel that figured heavily in the plot. The blind camel is exploited in more sense than one, and in one scene, Hoffman is encircled by rapacious desert vultures awaiting his demise.

Beatty sings some intentionally bad ones, written by Paul Williams, and silly costumes and desert sand romps, with the hapless camel drafted for inappropriate occasions.   Hoffman shows more comic flair, but Elaine May denies him the sharp dialogue necessary to pull this romp off.  Charles Grodin has some good sessions, but he isn’t around long enough.

The beautiful French actress Isabelle Adjani comes off worst, swathed in veils so thick her features are mostly hidden.  She is just a handmaid for male egos Beatty and Hoffman, a sidekick for support.

The film features no less than 26 original or standard tunes, most of which sung by the Beatty-Hoffman team.  Maurice Williams’ recording of “Little Darlin” plays during the closing credits.

Though most reviews were negative, the picture was not universally panned. In fact, the N.Y. Times wrote: “The worst of it is painless, the best is funny, sly, cheerful, even genuinely inspired.”

“Ishtar” certainly was not the “biggest artistic bomb” to come out of the 1980s, as journalists maintained; it was just a hip but silly, star-driven if dim-witted picture with some good moments.

Variety wondered if Beatty and Hoffman were taking the by-then-bullying and atavistic star system: “It is inconceivable, really, that this picture would have been made without the packaging of writer-director Elaine May, producer-lead Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman.  In what amounts to a massive leveraging of their clout, the trio managed to convince Columbia to ante up lots of coin to capture this farce on film. Were they really just putting everyone on to see how far they could stretch the studio system and hold one group of execs hostage to he threats of taking the project elsewhere?”

But perhaps the Christian Science Monitor critic put it best when he wrote: “It’s hard not to measure the accomplishments of ‘Ishtar’ against the resources that were lavished on it.  There simply isn’t $40 million of excitement (or adventure, or humor, or anything) to be found among its exotic landscapes, satirical music numbers, and wobbly chase scenes.

The dialogue doesn’t sparkle; the acting doesn’t snap–except Charles Grodin at his best moments; and the story doesn’t follow up its cleverest notions. You’ll end up wondering how so much talent and treasure could produce such an ordinary pile of sand.”



Warren Beatty (Lyle Rogers)

Dustin Hoffman (Chuck Clarke)

Isabelle Adjani (Shirra Assel)

Charles Grodin (Jim Harrison)

Jack Weston (Marty Freed)

Tess Harper (Willa)

Carol Kane (Carol)

David Margulies (Mr. Clarke)

Aharon Ipale (Emir Yousef)

Rose Arrick (Mrs. Clarke)

Fuad Hageb (Abdul)

Julie Garfield (Dorothy)



A Columbia-Delphi V Production.

Producer: Warren Beatty.

Director: Elaine May.

Writer: Elaine May.

Photographer: Vittorio Storaro.

Associate Producers: David L. MacLeod, Nigel Wooll.

Editors: Stephen A. Rotter, William Reynolds, Richard Cirincione.

Production Designer: Paul Sylbert.

Art Directors: Bill Groom, Vicki Paul.

Set Decorators: Steve Jordan, Alan Hicks.

Costumes: Anthony Powell.

Sound Coordinator: John Strauss.

Music Coordinator: John Strauss.

Sound Mixer: Ivan Sharrock.

Assistant Director: Don French.

Casting: Howard Feuer.

Color by Technicolor.


Opened at the Ziegfeld, May 14, 1987.

Running time: 105 Minutes