ISHTAR: A Flop Too Good for DVD

This morning, Sony announced Elaine May’s notorious 1987 flop ISHTAR for home video release at long last on January 4th, 2011.  Long-requested by home theater enthusiasts, the Warren Beatty/Dustin Hoffman-starring comedy is skipping DVD entirely and coming exclusively to Blu-ray.  Yup, DVD isn’t good enough for the film that ran Coca-Cola out of the film business and nearly ended Elaine May’s career.

That’s right, Coke tried entering the film business.  The movie was made in Morocco because they had money in Morocco that they had to spend in Morocco.  As a result, they exposed the cast and crew to the threat of terrorist kidnappings, landmines, and a much more expensive production cost than anyone bargained for.  Coke spun their film holdings off under the alias of a company called Columbia Pictures (heard of them?).  Coke sold Columbia to Sony a couple of years after the financial failure of Ishtar.

Beatty and Hoffman play out-of-work lounge singers who get caught in the middle of a Cold War standoff in the fictional middle eastern state of Ishtar (hence the title).  Legendary comedienne Elaine May directed and had a major falling-out with Beatty over the production’s various problems.  The original cinematographer was replaced by Vittorio Storaro, the same guy who shot Apocalypse Now and Dick Tracy, and won Oscars for The Last Emperor and Reds.

I saw the movie on cable once, and haven’t seen it again since, mostly owing to the fact that it’s been almost impossible to find anywhere in any way.  It is not nearly as bad as it’s reputed to be.  I honestly feel that most of the reason it’s so universally panned is that no one’s seen it in 23 years.  Believe it or not, Ishtar actually won the box office in its weekend of release (albeit not by much).  Jeffrey Wells wrote a great defense of it this past January, followed by Richard Brody’s New Yorker piece in August.

It’s entirely possibly that part of the reason it got panned in the press is that Beatty had the audacity to refuse any press presence on the film whatsoever, which infuriated the critical establishment.  Imagine that, refusing preferred access (set visits) and treatment to the press causing them to blackball a movie.  That’s something we can’t so much as imagine in these more enlightened days, right?

The story behind the making of the movie is too involved to get into this morning, but rest assured that we will by the time we get our hands on the Blu-ray.  Here’s hoping there’s some sort of intricate making-of documentary on this thing (no mention of such in the press release),  because that story is more entertaining than the movie could ever hope to be.  I think it’s particularly interesting that Sony is going Blu-ray only with this, which sends the message that they’re going to focus their efforts on the best possible presentation for the true, hardcore enthusiast crowd.  I like the sound of that.