Brow Beat

Ishtar Didn’t Die a Natural Death

It was one of the most notorious disasters in movie history. But it didn’t just fail. It was sabotaged.

Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty kneeling on sand in the desert.
Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty in Ishtar. Allstar Picture Library/Alamy Stock Photo

Elaine May’s film Ishtar came to theaters dead on arrival in the summer of 1987. Advance publicity had killed any potential for it to succeed. Before audiences ever got a chance to see it, they had read newspaper and magazine articles filled with anonymously sourced anecdotes about May’s eccentricities on set and the film’s cost overrun. So it was little wonder that the movie bombed and almost immediately became a sitcom punchline.

In recent years critics have been recognizing Ishtar’s terrible reputation as unearned and Elaine May’s subsequent relegation to Hollywood jail as unjust. The film’s prescient satire of America’s policy in the Middle East has made it a favorite of directors like Martin Scorsese and Richard Linklater. Ishtar is genuinely funny, from its intentionally awful songs to its stunt casting: It is Dustin Hoffman who’s cast as the lady’s man, and Warren Beatty as the schlub with no game.

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In the latest episode of Studio 360, producer Evan Chung explores some of the possible factors contributing to Ishtar’s demise, ranging from critical revenge to endemic sexism in the industry.

But there’s a juicier theory that’s been put forth by Elaine May and the movie’s stars, Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman. Could Ishtar have been the victim of sabotage?

Guy McElwaine, the head of Columbia Pictures who had greenlit Ishtar, was fired in the middle of production. His replacement was a British producer named David Puttnam—a choice that immediately raised alarms for the Ishtar team for three reasons:

David Puttnam was a vocal critic of movies with inflated budgets—like Ishtar. Puttnam arrived at Columbia with a clear goal of eliminating what he saw as rampant overspending in Hollywood. Ishtar—whose budget had ballooned into the estimated $40 million range—appeared to be under threat.

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David Puttnam had a feud with Warren Beatty. Before Warren Beatty’s film Reds was released in 1981, Puttnam told the columnist Marilyn Beck that “Warren Beatty should be spanked in public” for spending so much on on the film, calling it “a disgrace and an insult to every professional in the film industry.” At the time, both films were seen as Best Picture rivals (Chariots of Fire would eventually win the Oscar).

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David Puttnam also had a feud with Dustin Hoffman. As a producer, Puttnam had initiated the 1979 film Agatha, which starred Dustin Hoffman. Later, Puttnam told an interviewer, “My experience with [Hoffman] was an unhappy one. There seemed to be a malevolence in him, a determination to make other human beings unhappy.”

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So David Puttnam, who had a public beef with the two stars of Ishtar and a philosophical objection to expensive movies like Ishtar, was now the man overseeing the film in the middle of production. And when negative stories started appearing before the movie’s release—including a particularly damning cover article in New York magazine—the Ishtar filmmakers smelled a rat.

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“The feeling was that a lot of these stories were instigated and put out there, if not thought up by Mr. Puttnam, at least with his blessings,” Ishtar’s artistic consultant Phillip Schopper tells Studio 360. “Because he wanted to be the new regime. Not the old regime that you know would finance a movie like Ishtar. It’s almost as though he encouraged this movie to fail to prove that his way of doing things is better than what these other people were doing before he came on board.”

It’s a tantalizing theory, but the allegations of studio self-sabotage remain unsubstantiated. David Puttnam declined to comment.

For the full audio version of this story, listen to this episode of Studio 360 below, where host Kurt Andersen introduces the story at the top of the show. You can also subscribe and listen to the show on Apple podcasts.

Studio 360 is a Peabody Award–winning show from Public Radio International.

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