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

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 22: The Graduate (1967)

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Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where The Graduate (1967) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 153 of the first edition hardback, Ebert gushes about the wealth of great cinema that he was lucky to cover at the beginning of his career as a critic. He writes, “The big events of that period were movies like Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. The French New Wave had reached America. TIME magazine put ‘The Film Generation’ on its cover. A few months later they did a piece about me in their Press section, headlined ‘Populist at the Movies.’ Pauline Kael had started at the New Yorker, and movie critics were hot. It was a honey of a job to have at that age.”

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): “Nichols stays on top of his material. He never pauses to make sure we’re getting the point. He never explains for the slow-witted. He never apologizes. His only flaw, I believe, is the introduction of limp, wordy Simon and Garfunkel songs and arty camera work to suggest the passage of time between major scenes. Otherwise, The Graduate is a success and Benjamin’s acute honesty and embarrassment are so accurately drawn that we hardly know whether to laugh or to look inside ourselves.” – from his 1967 review for The Chicago Sun-Times

The Graduate, released in 1967, contains no flower children, no hippies, no dope, no rock music, no political manifestos and no danger. It is a movie about a tiresome bore and his well-meaning parents. The only character in the movie who is alive–who can see through situations, understand motives, and dare to seek her own happiness–is Mrs. Robinson. Seen today, The Graduate is a movie about a young man of limited interest, who gets a chance to sleep with the ranking babe in his neighborhood, and throws it away in order to marry her dorky daughter. […] When the movie was first released, I wrote of the ‘instantly forgettable’ songs by Simon and Garfunkel. History has proven me wrong. They are not forgettable. But what are they telling us? The liberating power of rock and roll is shut out of the soundtrack (‘The Sound of Music’ plays on Muzak at one crucial point). The S&G songs are melodic, sophisticated, safe. They even accommodate the action, halting their lyrics and providing guitar chords to underline key moments. This is Benjamin’s music; Mrs. Robinson, alone with her vodka, would twist the radio dial looking for the Beatles or Chuck Berry.” – from his 1997 review at the time of the film’s 30th Anniversary

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The reputation of the New Hollywood staple The Graduate has changed drastically over the years as our culture has evolved slightly in its gender politics, while the film has obviously remained static as its own. I assumed when reading Ebert’s inclusion of the title among the most exciting films of his early career as a critic that this might be the first lesson in this series where we’d have drastically different takes on a film’s merits (as opposed to my minor quibbles with his emphatic takes on stuff like Apocalypse Now and Abbot & Costello Meet Frankenstein). Indeed, Ebert’s 1967 review of The Graduate is the exact glowing, enthusiastic celebration of the film’s minor rebellions I expected. It’s a reading that experiences the film’s central conflict through the eyes of its protagonist, Benjamin (a fresh-faced Dustin Hoffman). On my most recent rewatch of The Graduate I didn’t sympathize with Benjamin at all, but rather with his infamous seductress Mrs. Robinson (the smokily poised Anne Bancroft), a character the film often tosses aside & vilifies despite her having the moral high ground. Ebert, in his admirable life-long pursuit of humility & empathy, had of course reached this conclusion decades before I did, when he revisited this landmark work for its restoration in 1997. In his second review he kicks himself for not recognizing how much of a heartless ass Benjamin had been to the tragic Mrs. Robinson. It’s a revelation that might only come with age & maturity, both for the individual viewer and for the audience as a culture.

The Graduate opens by heavily leaning into Benjamin’s personal crisis of early 20s ennui. Freshly finished with his college degree & unsure of how best to utilize his overabundance of idle time, Benjamin is turned off by every opportunity offered by his parents & their colleagues. When viewed as a young audience, this refusal to play along can feel like an existential dedication to anti-establishment principles, a sort of small scale protest through deliberate inaction. As an adult, watching Benjamin float around a pool & pound cheap beer looks like a lazy, bratty waste of unearned privilege. In the midst of this directionless drift, Benjamin is seduced unapologetically by the much older wife of his dad’s business partner, Mrs. Robinson. Bored, ignored, and underappreciated, Mrs. Robinson is similarly idle in her untapped potential, but it’s a life imposed on her rather than a deliberate choice. She sleeps with Benjamin, whom she watched grow up, over a summer-long affair in an attempt to shake the cobwebs, enacting agency in her own search for pleasure in a way she’s often not allowed. The film’s central conflict, besides Ben’s annoyed desire to be treated like an adult instead of a sex toy, arrises when his parents & her husband pressure the directionless bum to date Mrs. Robinson’s daughter (the beautiful, big-eyed Katherine Ross). When Mrs. Robinson forbids him to sleep with her daughter, Ben is offended that she doesn’t think he’s good enough for her progeny, only serviceable as an older woman’s plaything. His brattiness spirals out from there, causing the two former lovers to inflict vicious harm upon one another as often as they can, ending with Ben stealing his mistress’s daughter away from the altar at a marriage much less . . . complicated in its central dynamics.

If there’s any room for me to disagree with Ebert’s ultimate assessment of The Graduate, which has widely become the critical consensus, it’s in the intent of that final scene, the disrupted wedding. In his 1997 reassessment, Ebert was confused that he had ever celebrated the film’s conclusion, writing “As Benjamin and Elaine escaped in that bus at the end of The Graduate, I cheered, the first time I saw the movie. What was I thinking of? What did the scene celebrate? ‘Doing your own thing,’ I suppose.” My only question about that confusion is whether or not director Mike Nichols ever intended for that scene to be played as celebratory in the first place. As soon as the excitement of escaping the wedding settles & the new fugitive couple settle in the back of the bus to the oft-repeated soundtrack of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence,” The Graduate loops back to the young brat ennui that opens its narrative. The characters are stone-faced, visibly scared about what they’re going to do with themselves. This is exactly why Mrs. Robinson has a point about Ben’s unworthiness to court her daughter (despite the obvious gross-out factor of having slept with her first). It’s possible to argue that, as the adult, she was wrong for pressuring a young man into sleeping with her despite his initial unease. However, she does say to Ben, “If you won’t sleep with me this time, you could call me whenever you want.” Mrs. Robinson vulnerably offers her body to Benjamin for a shared pleasure, a proposition he eventually accepts of his own free will. After a prolonged affair, she learns how directionless & selfishly cruel the overgrown child truly is, which means she’s a pretty great judge of whether or not he’s prepared to be a good suitor for her only child (not that their own shared sex life isn’t enough to shut that down outright). The worst thing Mrs. Robinson does to prevent that doomed coupling is claiming that Benjamin had raped her, which is a lie fittingly portrayed like a cruel betrayal. I’m not convinced, however, that it’s any more cruel than Ben describing the affair with Mrs. Robinson to her face as “the sickest, most perverse thing that’s ever happened” to him. I’m also not convinced that the movie wasn’t aware of that cruelty on both sides, despite it taking most audiences a few decades to catch up to the full implications of its thematic minefield.

The Graduate is far from the masterpiece of auteurist anti-establishment storytelling it was initially misunderstood to be, but it’s still a well-made, memorable film. Its Simon & Garfunkel-soundtracked ennui commands an intentionally minor look & tone that suggests maybe a life played by the rules isn’t the most ideal path for personal fulfillment. When you’re young it’s tempting to seek that lesson in Benjamin’s directionless, impulsive narrative, but if you can learn to empathize with Mrs. Robinson’s tragically unfulfilled character instead, the film is a whole lot more satisfying. I like to think that aspect of The Graduate was its initial intent, but it’s easy to see why Ebert & so many others would disagree, especially since as a collective audience misread the film’s central romantic dynamic so boneheadedly wrong for such a long time.

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Roger’s Rating: (3/4, 75%)

three star

Brandon’s Rating (3.5/5, 70%)

threehalfstar

Next Lesson: Hellfighters (1968)

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 19: Tootsie (1982)

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Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Tootsie (1982) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 147 of the first edition hardback, Ebert recalls a time when his eccentric newspaperman colleague Paul Galloway hired professionals to dress him up like Tootsie at the height of the film’s popularity. It didn’t quite elicit the desired effect. According to Roger, Galloway wasn’t offended that no one mistook him for a woman. He was upset that no one recognized him as Tootsie.

What Ebert had to say in his review:Tootsie is the kind of Movie with a capital ‘M’ that they used to make in the 1940s, when they weren’t afraid to mix up absurdity with seriousness, social comment with farce, and a little heartfelt tenderness right in there with the laughs. This movie gets you coming and going.” – from his 1982 review for The Chicago Sun-Times

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There’s a lot of pressure for Tootsie to perform for a modern audience for two entirely different reasons: 1) it’s often lauded as one of the greatest comedies of all time & 2) gender identity politics have shifted drastically in the three decades since the film’s release. I think it helps both of the film’s expectation problems if you consider it more in the context of over-the-top farces like Some Like It Hot & (maybe to a lesser degree) Mrs. Doubtfire, where deeply flawed men learn a lesson about humility & empathy by surrendering their gender-based privilege instead of a joke-a-minute laugh riot with pointed things to say about gender politics, something the film pretends to be in brief, fleeting moments. Tootsie’s cultural significance can be a little puzzling when you consider that it was nominated for ten Academy Awards & still makes the cut on a lot of Best Films of All Time lists, since to be honest, it’s not all that funny on a minute to minute basis, something that should probably be a requirement for a great comedy. As an intricately woven farce, however, it’s a fun screenplay to watch unravel as the walls separating its protagonist’s Victor Victoria-type double life crumble and his lies amount to a total shit show of bruised egos & hurt feelings. Instead of watching Dustin Hoffman’s total jerk protagonist get his much-deserved comeuppance, we see him realize how much of an asshole he truly is once he trips up on his own tangle of deceits. It’s a surprisingly sweet trajectory for a film that can be nastily bitter in its early goings-on & the farcical fever pitch of its third act is a lot of what makes Tootsie such a pleasant memory overall.

A top-of-his-game Dustin Hoffman stars as an unemployed theater actor who is talented, but notoriously difficult to work with due to an oversized hubris. Unable to land a job due to his tarnished name, the unrepentant asshole channels his frustration into an indignant female character with a ludicrous, high-pitched voice and lands a major role on a televised soap opera as his in-drag persona, unbeknownst to the cast & crew. This dynamic allows both for some delicious mockery of soap opera melodrama (seen also in less respected comedies like Joy & Delirious) and for some occasional pointed criticism about gendered work place politics, something the actor was blind to as a man. As much as he now has a soap box for complaints about how power makes a woman be unfairly perceived as “masculine” or “ugly”, a voice that inspires other women to speak up for themselves in a hostile work environment, donning a dress doesn’t instantly make him a better person. Tootsie is smart to hold onto the idea that its protagonist is a deceitful, selfish ass, allowing very little room for him to be excused for his manipulative transgressions, especially when it comes to his two love interests: a supposedly dear friend & an unsuspecting coworker. Watching this film as a kid I had never picked up on how much of an asshole Dustin Hoffman’s character is in this film; watching it now it’s the only thing I can focus on at all. Luckily, the film feels the same way & deals with his actions accordingly.

There’s not a lot going on in Tootsie formally that would really justify its inclusion on a Best Films of All Time list outside the weird imagery in a montage that includes a surreally out-of-place Andy Warhol cameo and a shot of Tootsie saluting before a Patton-esque American flag backdrop. The film’s performances are mostly serviceable, with very few moments allowed for a standout actor-centric showcase. I was especially bummed over  Bill Murray’s performance as a wisecracking bitter artist roommate, who was even more of an ass as the film’s starring role, as his entire part boils down to vocal discomfort with the idea of crossdressing (in what I’m afraid was supposed to function partly as an audience surrogate). If there’s anything impressive about how this film was made it’s in the efficiency of its screenplay. Not only does the mass confusion & chaos of the climax amount to a complex web of hurt feelings; the lead-up to that moment is also surprisingly effective. I especially liked the way the film bravely jumps into the drag persona conceit without an initial dressup montage and the way line readings from its fictional soap opera mixes with its protagonist’s true sentiments as well as the way the protagonist’s identity becomes confused as he starts making decisions based on the desires of his female avatar. Besides, you have to somewhat respect a film that can effortlessly work in a line as convoluted as, “I was a better man with you as a woman than I ever was with a woman as a man, you know?” and make it count for something. Some of Tootsie’s gender-identity politics are as outdated in a modern context as its total garbage “Go Tootsie go! Roll Tootsie roll!” pop music theme song, but it’s still a well written film with a timeless message: don’t be an asshole.

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Roger’s Rating: (4/4, 100%)

fourstar

Brandon’s Rating (3.5/5, 70%)

threehalfstar

Next Lesson: Help! (1965)

-Brandon Ledet