Features and Columns · Movies

‘Ishtar’ Deserved Better

Telling the truth can be dangerous business.
By  · Published on March 1st, 2023

Welcome to The Queue — your daily distraction of curated video content sourced from across the web. Today, we’re watching a video essay that explores why Elaine May’s Ishtar is so (unfairly) unloved.

It’s often erroneously argued that Elaine May made three masterpieces … and then she made Ishtar.

Even if you haven’t seen the 1987 film, there’s a good chance that you’ve heard that it was one of cinema’s largest, most notorious failures. This is nominally true. That is, if you consider May blasting through $51 million dollars in studio money to make a buddy comedy to be “a bad thing.”

As the video essay below tersely notes, the succinct explanation for Ishtar‘s status as a”failure” is that it was a victim of its time. In the bawdy landscape of the 1980s, May’s earnest sensitivity for flawed heroes came off as outdated, even if it was intentional.

What do you mean the kids aren’t familiar with the 1942 Bob Hope/Bing Crosby joint Road to Morocco? What do you mean audiences weren’t in on the joke of Warren Beatty playing against type?

While Ishtar has yet to enjoy the “stealth remake” reappraisal of something like Showgirls, as critic Charles Bramesco notes, its undeserved status as cinema’s greatest mistake is beginning to crack. And rightfully so: Ishtar is due a fresh set of eyes.

If you haven’t seen Ishtar because “you’ve heard it’s bad,” do yourself a favor and see for yourself.

Watch “The Unloved – Ishtar”

Who made this?

This video essay on why Ishtar has such a notorious reputation (and why it rules) is by Scout Tafoya, a self-described filmmaker, video essayist, musician, author, and critic. Tafoya’s series “The Unloved” is produced in concert with Roger Ebert’s eponymous website. It picks up its namesake’s tradition of paying attention to films that went under-appreciated by contemporary audiences and critics. You can follow Tafoya on Vimeo here. And you can follow them on Twitter here.

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Meg Shields is the humble farm boy of your dreams and a senior contributor at Film School Rejects. She currently runs three columns at FSR: The Queue, How'd They Do That?, and Horrorscope. She is also a curator for One Perfect Shot and a freelance writer for hire. Meg can be found screaming about John Boorman's 'Excalibur' on Twitter here: @TheWorstNun. (She/Her).