Ishtar (1985), Mikey and Nicky (1976), and Elaine May’s Commercial Follies

One of the biggest head-scratchers about May’s Movie of the Month, the small stakes crime thriller Mikey and Nicky, is why it isn’t often listed among similarly energized, ramshackle crime pictures of its era like Mean Streets & The French Connection. That question extends to the entire career of its director, Elaine May, as well. May’s improvisational narrative style & slyly dark sense of humor should have landed her name among undisputed greats like Scorsese, Friedkin, De Palma, Coppola, etc. Yet, she only directed four feature films while her early creative partner Mike Nichols directed twenty. Surely, some of her struggles in the industry has to do with the Hollywood system being a stubbornly unchanging boys’ club that offers second, third, fourth, and fifth chances to male directors that it wouldn’t as readily offer to women. Elaine May’s track record doesn’t at all help shift the blame away from her own failings as a businesswoman, however. Mikey and Nicky isn’t the only financial disaster of Elaine May’s career, nor is it her worst. Of her four feature films, only one was a commercial success, The Heartbreak Kid. The other three, including both Mikey and Nicky & the Walter Matthau comedy A New Leaf, were each drastically behind schedule and wildly over budget, never really recovering their financial losses no matter how critically adored. It was May’s fourth & final feature, however, that truly sealed her fate as box office poison & a director to be readily forgotten. Even the critics had turned on May at the arrival of her final feature, seemingly eager to tear it down before it was even released. Why they were so harsh on that film in particular is a mystery.

Ishtar stars Dustin Hoffman & Warren Beatty as a pair of sub-mediocre songwriters who abandon their shared dream of making it big in New York City to make some money as a nightclub act in Morocco. Shot on location in both cities, the film boasted a lavish, out of control production budget that swelled by the day. Reports of May, an eternal perfectionist, fighting with Beatty & the film’s producers over minuscule details like the filming of vultures & camels leaked to the press during production, souring the film’s name as a disaster before it was even completed. Reviewers pounced on it, prematurely solidifying its reputation as One of the Worst Comedies of All Time. Although I do believe some of their griping was extratextually influenced by the film’s troubled production, it’s easy to see why contemporary critics may not have been able to latch onto the film’s humor even without those setbacks. In its best moments, Ishtar explores a Tim & Eric style of post-Andy Kauffman anti-humor. Beatty & Hoffman play goddawful singers & songwriters. May amplifies their awkward tension by playing Beatty against type as the neurotic nerd & Hoffman as the smooth-talking ladykiller. They’re visibly uncomfortable in the roles, which works for the film’s off-kilter humor, an aesthetic that feels like that one stretch of Boogie Nights where Dirk & his buddy are foolishly convinced they’re going to be successful rock n’ roll singers teased out to a feature length comedy. With a smaller budget and a lower profile, the movie might actually have been heralded as one of the greatest comedies of all time. Unfortunately you can feel it spinning out of May’s control onscreen as its story blows up too big to be anchored by Hoffman & Beatty’s talentless buffoons.

Part of what’s so charming about Mikey and Nicky is the intimacy of its scale. The story mostly concerns two low level gangsters as they tear through New York City streetlights in a paranoid rage, various betrayals & hurt feelings emerging in their trail of drunken destruction. Ishtar is similarly intimate in its early goings, perfectly capturing the frustration of songwriting’s improvisational stops & starts. Our two heroic buffoons write songs in real time in the movie’s opening sequences, singing the film’s opening lines “Telling the truth can be bad news. Telling the truth is a bad idea. Telling the truth is a difficult problem. Honest and popular don’t go hand in hand.” The frustrated labor of pursuing their art, which ruins them both financially & romantically, leads to drunken suicide attempts and the strange business of hitting rock bottom in North Africa (at a club cutely named Cher Casablanca). There’s a lot of genuine pathos in this desperation, just as there is in Mikey and Nicky, but the movie does eventually get too big to hold onto its more intimate virtues. Beatty & Hoffman’s buffoons are gradually inducted against their will into a conflict between the CIA, leftist guerillas, and the dictator of the fictional country of Ishtar.  The movie loses a little of its proto-Tim & Eric sheen as the whole battle comes to a head in its third act slump involving a blind camel, some unfortunate detours into brown face, and the movie literally & figuratively getting lost in the desert. Despite some of that exhausting, comedy-killing bloat in the third act, however, it’s difficult to conceive of Ishtar being held up as One of the Worst Comedies of All Time. It’s doubtful it was even the worst comedy released in May of 1985. The film is largely funny in a strikingly subversive, adventurously unconventional way. It even goes as far as to include harsh criticisms of US interference with political affairs in the Middle East instead of broadly stereotyping the people of the region the way lazier 80s comedies would (for the most part).

The sad truth, though, is that limiting the scale of Ishtar would’ve helped May keep the film in control creatively, but not necessarily financially. As small & intimate as Mikey and Nicky is in scope, the film still suffered major financial setbacks that nearly had May booted from her own project. The heightened production values and exploding costs of Ishtar certainly made May’s inability to produce a film on time & on budget more of a public spectacle due to increased media scrutiny. I wouldn’t be surprised if that scrutiny lead directly to the end of her career as a director, either. May was never as skilled a businesswoman as she was an artist, which is an essential balance to strike in cinema, which is just as much commerce as it is art. If she were making films in a 2010s climate, however, her career would likely have gone much differently. May had a tendency to shoot an absurd amount of footage for each project and then later, as they say, “find the film in the editing room.” This was an extravagance in the days of celluloid, an indulgence that skyrocketed May’s budgets well beyond reason in all three of her commercial failures. In the current post-Apatow era of comedies, that style of lengthy, improv-heavy shoots & extensive editing room post production is essentially the norm. Digital photography has greatly lowered the cost of May’s production style, supposing a world where Ishtar & Mikey and Nicky might’ve had a less cost-prohibitive chance to actually turn a profit. Regardless of May’s shortcomings on the commercial end of cinema, though, it’s at least easy to acknowledge that the idea that she made One of the Worst Comedies of All Time is a silly myth at best and a vicious lie at worst. As unwieldy as Ishtar can be in its third act (a problem for most comedies, let’s be honest), it’s still a delightfully awkward character piece that in its best moments mirrors the intimate tension of Mikey and Nicky and pioneers an awkward anti-comedy aesthetic that later became an industry standard. Elaine May may be responsible for a string of commercial follies, but I’m not convinced she ever made a bad movie, not one, much less a worst of all time contender.

For more on May’s Movie of the Month, Elaine May’s small scale mafia drama Mickey and Nicky, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this look at its closest Scorsese comparison point, Mean Streets (1973), and last week’s reflection on how its crime world paranoia stacks up to Mikey One (1965).

-Brandon Ledet

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