Reconsidering Elaine May (and Ishtar)
June 10, 2024 8:25 AM   Subscribe

Could Elaine May Finally Be Getting Her Due? [ungated] - "A new biography gives a compelling sense of a comic and cinematic genius, and also of the forces that derailed her Hollywood career."
Among the many merits of “Miss May Does Not Exist,” a deeply researched, psychologically astute new biography of May by Carrie Courogen, is that the author sees continuities and patterns in a career that is unified, above all, by the force of May’s character. Courogen also assesses May’s fortunes in the light of social history, giving a detailed account of the many obstacles that May, as a woman, faced in the American entertainment industry of the late fifties and early sixties—a time of few female standup comedians or playwrights and no female movie directors working in Hollywood...

She offers a vision of a society in which the crudely learned behavior of crudely socialized men brutalizes the women in their orbit even as it leaves the men vulnerable to calamities and catastrophes of their own making. The core of May’s work is the horror of romantic relationships as experienced by women—the physical violence and mental cruelty endured by women at the hands of men...

May is essentially a social filmmaker, one whose comedy involves more than her distinctive worlds: in their looseness, her movies defy the geometry of the frame and suggest ragged, shredded edges that reach out and tie in to the real world at large. Her next film would do so even more explicitly—and she’d pay the price for her audacity.

After the eleven years in movie exile that May endured for “Mikey and Nicky,” she made “Ishtar,” a film that’s far more famous for its negative publicity than its intrinsic qualities. Owing to reports of its out-of-control budget and May’s domineering direction, her career was instantly, definitively crushed, and May has, for all intents and purposes, been serving a life sentence. The injustice of a great film being submerged under ignorant disdain is grievous enough; the wickedly punitive aftermath is an outrage...

Alongside the film’s scathing anti-Reagan politics, it’s a tale of earnest grimness on a subject of fundamental importance to May: creative obsession... As discerningly intricate as her movies are about love and friendship, they’re never limited to the private sphere but plugged into the wider world of power. She filmed with a bitterly realistic view of what people do to one another for the sake of perceived advantage, necessity, desire, or compulsion. The theme that unites these films is betrayal. Growing up poor and female, as the child of a man who was a desperate failure and a woman who was a desperate survivor, and in a household linked with the Mob, she felt the cold pressure of institutions and families alike, and witnessed the death grip of whoever had the upper hand. She saw the cruel side of show business from childhood, and entering show business, in her early twenties, negotiated its maelstrom of personal demands and implacable financial pressures. Even with no alter ego in her movies, they’re filled with the dramatic essence of her experiences—and with their ravaging emotional effects. She revealed the unspeakably painful and the outrageously hostile, unseemly sympathies and scandals from behind antic masks and with the irresistible power of involuntary laughter. It’s among the most vital bodies of work in modern cinema. But in 1987 her accomplishments mattered little. She instantly became a pariah and a has-been.
(previously: 1,2,3,4)
posted by kliuless (26 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
 
I am a huge, huge, huge Elaine May fan and have studied her professional history and travails closely, but Ishtar is just awful. I haven't found any way of approaching it that makes it less than... awful.
posted by Silvery Fish at 8:33 AM on June 10 [5 favorites]


I was today year's old when I learned that Ishtar is not the one with Sean Connery in a bikini and leather boots.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:57 AM on June 10 [8 favorites]


The injustice of a great film being submerged under ignorant disdain is grievous enough;

I haven't seen Ishtar, so who knows? But I've honestly never heard anyone actually say anything beyond "it wasn't that bad" until now.

the wickedly punitive aftermath is an outrage...

looking at her filmography, what's odd to me is how little actual directing she did before Ishtar. Two movies period, both very good, but (as noted) the second of these was over a decade before Ishtar. So not really knowing the backstory (beyond just reading the wiki page), I'm left rather scratching my head about the whole debacle and yes, wondering how much cocaine was involved; not necessarily on her part but overall and all around. It was the 1980s after all.

Bottom line I can't help but wonder how much of

her career was instantly, definitively crushed,

was her just shaking her head and saying "who needs this shit"?
posted by philip-random at 9:00 AM on June 10 [3 favorites]


I haven't seen Ishtar, so who knows? But I've honestly never heard anyone actually say anything beyond "it wasn't that bad" until now.

FanFare's thread on Ishtar (that's where I learned this wasn't the one with Sean Connery in a bikini and leather boots)
posted by trig at 9:09 AM on June 10 [1 favorite]


This is very timely for me, as I just finished this so-so, too-gossipy biography of Mike Nichols. (Don't be fooled by the 4.5-star reviews. It's entertaining but very shallow, and gives little sense of who Nichols actually was.) May, too, gets the short shrift in that book: she's treated as little more than Nichols's occasional collaborator and semi-muse; she's clearly a whole lot more interesting and deep than that.

Added to queue! Thanks for the heads-up.

PS. Zardoz is one of the best (by which I mean "most utterly inexplicable") bad movies ever. It's batshit.
posted by Dr. Wu at 9:12 AM on June 10 [7 favorites]


> Bottom line I can't help but wonder how much of "her career was instantly, definitively crushed," was her just shaking her head and saying "who needs this shit"?

friendly suggestion to read the fpp if you're curious! :P
posted by kliuless at 9:30 AM on June 10 [7 favorites]


I remember seeing Ishtar and thinking it was just kind of boring, and probably badly cast. Probably what killed it was all the publicity. People were expecting So Much and it wasn't All That.
posted by seanmpuckett at 9:33 AM on June 10 [1 favorite]


I'm so glad Elaine May seems to finally be getting her due! I saw "Mikey and Nicky" a few years ago and was blown away; couldn't believe I'd never heard of her as a filmmaker before. I saw "A New Leaf" a little while later which I also very much enjoyed but haven't managed to watch Ishtar yet. I have a deep desire for it to be Good, Actually but unfairly maligned due to being made by a woman but I'll need to watch it to see. No matter how it ends up being, she'll continue in my estimation to be a great filmmaker who was often treated unfairly and not given enough credit for her work.
posted by matcha action at 9:36 AM on June 10 [3 favorites]


I think people are probably going to have very different intuitions in the story of a genius artist who makes four films, all of which go past schedule and over budget, and two of which end in lawsuits.

Ishtar has a sizable contingent of defenders on its Fanfare page. I wasn't one, as my comment made clear. It's a comedy that didn't make me (or anyone in the theater) laugh. As a political satire it was bland; you get more government malfeasance and cynicism in many movies that have heroic spies, especially in the '70s. In principle I can admit if I saw it today I'd see things I missed, but the odds of a rewatch are low.

Ishtar was very expensive--I think it was the most expensive movie of the year--and a box office flop. That's the source of its reputation. It's not close to the worst movie ever made, nor did critics at the time claim it was. I walked into the theater hoping I'd like it; the reviews where tepid but not all bad. But it was such an epic flop I'm sure some of the revisionism is that modern viewers have exceedingly low expectations for the movie on the first watch.

The article itself is interesting. I didn't know May's earlier history, other than she was famous within Hollywood circles and had the honorary Oscar. I now might give one of her other movies a try, but the comparison to Cassavetes isn't appealing to me.
posted by mark k at 9:38 AM on June 10 [2 favorites]


I am a huge, huge, huge Elaine May fan and have studied her professional history and travails closely, but Ishtar is just awful. I haven't found any way of approaching it that makes it less than... awful.

Nah, Ishtar is the GOAT. It's fucking savage.
posted by rhymedirective at 10:03 AM on June 10 [5 favorites]


Bottom line I can't help but wonder how much of "her career was instantly, definitively crushed," was her just shaking her head and saying "who needs this shit"?

friendly suggestion to read the fpp if you're curious! :P


I read it, maybe not every not word, but most of it. I'm not seeing the part where it goes any further than stuff like ...

But she also got into trouble for asserting a more classic sort of directorial authority that other directors—male directors—were often celebrated for wielding. (Witness, for instance, the many admiring accounts of Stanley Kubrick’s demanding on-set methods).


and/or

With stories of the movie’s eccentric production, the press scowled at its cost. Even before it was released, the movie had become a laughingstock, a poster child for Hollywood’s self-indulgent excesses, and that instant stereotype is what most critics gleefully panned instead of the movie itself.

probably not fair but also not exactly unique in Hollywood history. Big deal movies with big deal casts always run the risk of getting enthusiastically (hyperbolically?) annihilated when they fall short of expectations, with the director taking the hit regardless of what really happened.

Unless you mean the "galling misogyny" she faced from the beginning. To which I'd respond yes, of course. But that informs my point. She tried to do things her way. She refused to buckle under to the boys. Unfortunately, the movie (Ishtar) just wasn't good enough to neutralize all the negativity. Maybe it never had a chance to.

So my read is that for sanity's sake, she finally decided "fuck it" and went off to continue to have a pretty cool career elsewhere.
posted by philip-random at 10:16 AM on June 10 [1 favorite]


Ishtar is pretty good. Having Warren Beatty play a doofus reminds of how the Coen brothers would often cast George Cloony in dumb guy roles. And the songs are very funny, bad songs.

My favorite May movie is The Heartbreak Kid. It doesn't seem to be available on streaming, except for maybe a rip on YouTube. (I see the Farrelly brothers did a remake in 2007...)
posted by paper chromatographologist at 10:47 AM on June 10


just watched a scene from Ishtar.

Escaping the Bazaar

Not bad. I did laugh out loud at one bit.

SPOILER ALERT:

The Beatty character is being held at gunpoint by some foreign agent. Foreign agent gets shot, goes down. Beatty's response is shock and concern, "Are you okay?"
posted by philip-random at 10:55 AM on June 10 [1 favorite]


One's mileage may vary of course, but have always found Ishtar a sly, sweet, humanistic buddy-romp, shot through with big laughs. Here's the opening two minutes...careful while watching, it's a dangerous business:

ISHTAR OPENING CREDITS
posted by jettloe at 11:00 AM on June 10 [7 favorites]


Ishtar is pretty good. Having Warren Beatty play a doofus reminds of how the Coen brothers would often cast George Cloony in dumb guy roles. And the songs are very funny, bad songs.

They were written by Paul Williams, one of America's greatest songwriters. If you want to do something badly, but in the right way, you need to know how to do it well.

The problem with Ishtar, as I think I've said here before, is everything after the first twenty minutes or so. It contains the seeds of a great movie, or at least a pleasantly entertaining one: a comedy about two down-on-their-luck New York songwriters with more ambition than talent, trying to get their big break. There's a lot of potential in there! But then it swerved into some dumbass Hope-and-Crosby orientalist nonsense and we ended up with...well, we ended up with Ishtar.
posted by Faint of Butt at 11:01 AM on June 10 [4 favorites]


Ishtar was very expensive--I think it was the most expensive movie of the year--and a box office flop. That's the source of its reputation. It's not close to the worst movie ever made, nor did critics at the time claim it was.

See also: Heaven's Gate.
posted by Pedantzilla at 12:13 PM on June 10 [2 favorites]


My memories of Ishtar are a little fuzzy, but I remember it as just a bad revival of the Bing Crosby/ Bob Hope movies.
posted by hairless ape at 12:14 PM on June 10


I discovered recently that she had a hand in punching up one of my favorite movies, Labyrinth. From what little else I know about her, I think she probably gets the credit for putting in a lot of the deep resonances that make it a movie that endured so well.
posted by PussKillian at 12:32 PM on June 10 [2 favorites]


But then it swerved into some dumbass Hope-and-Crosby orientalist nonsense and we ended up with...well, we ended up with Ishtar.

I mean, I'm not gonna argue that Ishtar is like, a lost masterpiece or anything, but... that is actually (one of) the point(s) of the movie, it's a critique of American foreign policy and how the American government sees the rest of the world.
posted by rhymedirective at 12:57 PM on June 10 [1 favorite]


I discovered recently that she had a hand in punching up one of my favorite movies, Labyrinth. From what little else I know about her, I think she probably gets the credit for putting in a lot of the deep resonances that make it a movie that endured so well.

Yes, this is my understanding, as well. From what I gather, she made a career of being a "script doctor" on some pretty major films, and would often refuse to be credited on screen.
posted by Dr. Wu at 1:00 PM on June 10


but... that is actually (one of) the point(s) of the movie, it's a critique of American foreign policy and how the American government sees the rest of the world.

she does explicitly say as much here:

TCM Comments on Ishtar (1987)
posted by philip-random at 1:29 PM on June 10 [2 favorites]


I saw Ishtar when it came out and thought it was hilarious. However, the only other person I know who felt that, was my brother (the late LeLiLo), but that was good enough for me.
I own the DVD, bought sometime this century, and watched it sometime in the last 5 years. I did not find it hilarious, but it still is quite funny, especially the songs. It was only in the last month that I found out that Paul Williams wrote the songs.
The two of them are having so much fun with their music, even though it is 'not that good', that I wanted to name my band Ishtar.
And Charles Grodin is quite Grodinesqe...
posted by MtDewd at 2:33 PM on June 10 [2 favorites]


Mod note: One removed. I'm sure people realize there are also men who never got to make more than one movie, but this book (and post) is not about them. Is there a male director that you feel got short shrift or a particularly striking cultural response? Go ahead and post about it if you'd like.
posted by taz (staff) at 3:04 AM on June 11 [8 favorites]


I (a millennial) had no knowledge of Elaine May before Blank Check did a miniseries on her. I just finished watching all her movies and listening to the episodes, and couldn't believe that I never knew her name before. Mikey and Nicky wasn't quite my speed, but the other three films were all so interesting and, often, fun! (I agree with the hosts' take on Ishtar, which is that the first 20 minutes is a near-perfect buddy movie, and then it loses the thread a bit once they leave New York.) (On preview: also Faint of Butt's take)

If you're new to Elaine May-- or if you're already a fan who appreciates thoughtful analysis of her career-- I would highly recommend these episodes.
posted by thoughtful_ravioli at 5:42 AM on June 11 [5 favorites]


I've seen Ishtar many, many times, though not in 30 years. Loved it when it came out and remember howling with laughter in the theatre opening night — as was everyone else in the sold out show.

It got a bad rap and I won't get into why as everyone already knows why. Admittedly if I were to watch it today, I would see issues with it I didn't see then, mostly to do with racism.

But I'll die on the hill that the film is and always has been funny. The songs are genius and my friends and I were always mad that a soundtrack was never issued. I can still sing them all by heart today.
posted by dobbs at 5:01 PM on June 11


Much too late to be read, I have a fat derail: how often do big bombs sentence a director to Director Jail? Below are the biggest bombs (per Wikipedia), given in descending order, and a bit about the directors’ careers. (Yes, I’m making the unfounded assumption that the people below whose directorial careers ended wanted to direct more movies but couldn't. This is probably untrue in many cases. ( Still, retrospectives and speculations are fun.)

=======

JOHN CARTER (2012), directed by Andrew Stanton

PRE-BOMB DIRECTING: Stanton had co-directed “A Bug’s Life” and directed “Finding Nemo” and “WALL-E.” So he had three massive, massive hits on his resume before his world-historic bomb.

POST-BOMB DIRECTING: After 2012, his only directing credit is “Finding Dory,” a sequel to one of his early hits. He’s currently listed as the director of the upcoming “Toy Story 5.”

DID HE GO TO DIRECTOR JAIL? No, I’d say he was sentenced to Director Probation. “John Carter” sent him back to Pixar and sequels, which is a long step down from “John Carter.” This movie hurt his career but didn’t end it.


THE LONE RANGER (2013), directed by Gore Verbinski

PRE-BOMB DIRECTING: A lot of hits: “Mouse Hunt,” “The Mexican,” “The Ring,” three “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, “Rango.” The “Pirates” movies were downright huge.

POST-BOMB DIRECTING: After 2013, his sole directing credit is a mid-budget horror movie from 2016, “A Cure for Wellness,” which also bombed. That’s it. Wikipedia claims he has another one in the pipeline, but we’ll see.

DID HE GO TO DIRECTOR JAIL? Yes. He went from a Very Big Director to “who’s that?” with “The Lone Ranger.” Given his very successful filmography, I have to wonder if he just quit.


THE MARVELS (2023), directed by Nia DaCosta

PRE-BOMB DIRECTING: Only two movies, a small crime drama and the remake of “Candyman,” which did very well.

POST-BOMB DIRECTING: Wikipedia claims she has another movie the works, an adaptation of “Hedda Gabler.” We’ll see if it ever gets made.

DID SHE GO TO DIRECTOR JAIL? Too soon to tell.


THE 13TH WARRIOR (1999), directed by John McTiernan

PRE-BOMB DIRECTING: A run of huge hits: “Predator,” “Die Hard,” “The Hunt for Red October,” “Die Hard with a Vengeance,” and “The Thomas Crown Affair.” In between those, he also made the disappointment “Medicine Man” and the giant bomb “The Last Action Hero.”

POST-BOMB DIRECTING: Post 1999, he directed the bomb “Rollerball” in 2002 and the disappointing “Basic” in 2003. Nothing since.

DID HE GO TO DIRECTOR JAIL? Yes, though not with this one. Yet another bomb after this one (“Rollerball,” which didn’t lose nearly as much money but still lost a lot) followed by prison time, along with with his reputation as an arrogant dickhead, was enough to tank even his career.


THE MORTAL ENGINES (2018), directed by Christian Rivers

PRE-BOMB DIRECTING: None. He was Peter Jackson’s second unit director and visual effects supervisor.

POST-BOMB DIRECTING: Since 2018, he’s directed nothing. Wikipedia claims he’s directing an upcoming remake of “The Dam Busters.”

DID HE GO TO DIRECTOR JAIL? I’d say yes. “The Mortal Engines” was his big shot, it failed, his directing career ended.


CUTTHROAT ISLAND (1995), directed by Renny Harlin

PRE-BOMB DIRECTING: He made his name with “Nightmare on Elm Street 4,” “Die Hard 2,” and “Cliffhanger,” all of which were fat hits.

POST-BOMB DIRECTING: After 1995, he made “The Long Kiss Goodnight,” “Deep Blue Sea,” and a bunch of other action dreck.

DID HE GO TO DIRECTOR JAIL? Not even Director Probation. He’s gone downscale since “Cutthroat Island,” but that’s not a surprise.


SINBAD: LEGEND OF THE SEVEN SEAS (2003), directed by Tim Johnson and Patrick Gilmore

PRE-BOMB DIRECTING: Johnson had directed “Antz,” which had made decent money. Gilmore never directed before. He was a video game guy.

POST-BOMB DIRECTING: After 2003, Johnson directed “Over the Hedge,” another animated film and a fat hit, followed by “Home,” yet another animated hit. “Sinbad” didn’t end his career. Gilmore returned to video games and never directed again.

DID THEY GO TO DIRECTOR JAIL? Johnson clearly did not. Gilmore may have been, but it’s more like he left the business.


STRANGE WORLD (2022), directed by Don Hall

PRE-BOMB DIRECTING: Hall had directed “Winnie the Pooh,” “Big Hero 6,” and “Raya and the Last Dragon.” He also co-directed “Moana.” “Winnie” and “Raya” were disappointments, “Big Hero 6” and “Moana” were huge hits.

POST-BOMB DIRECTING: Wikipedia doesn’t list anything.

DID HE GO TO DIRECTOR JAIL? Too soon to tell.


BATTLESHIP (2012), directed by Peter Berg

PRE-BOMB DIRECTING: He’d directed five movies prior to “Battleship.” Three of them were disappointments: “Very Bad Things,” “The Rundown,” and “The Kingdom.” One was a solid hit, “Friday Night Lights,” and the last one before “Battleship” was “Hancock,” a giant hit.

POST-BOMB DIRECTING: After 2012, he became the Mark Wahlberg TroopCop Movie (MWTCM) Guy: “Lone Survivor,” “Deepwater Horizon,” “Patriots Day,” “Mile 22,” and “Spenser Confidential.” That’s right, **all** of his post-“Battleship” movies are MWTCMs.

DID HE GO TO DIRECTOR JAIL? No. Granted, being the MWTCM Guy is not prestigious, it’s still a significant career. He’s also done some TV directing.


MARS NEEDS MOMS (2011), directed by Simon Wells

PRE-BOMB DIRECTING: Four animated features: “An American Tail: Fievel Goes West,” “We're Back! A Dinosaur's Story,” “Balto,” and “The Prince of Egypt.” The first three had disappointing box office, though they probably did well on home video, while “The Prince of Egypt” was a big hit. He got a shot at live-action filmmaking with 2002’s “The Time Machine,” which did okay.

POST-BOMB DIRECTING: Nothing.

DID HE GO TO DIRECTOR JAIL? Yes.


PAN (2015), directed by Joe Wright

PRE-BOMB DIRECTING: Three prestige literature adaptations, all successful: “Pride and Prejudice,” “Atonement,” and “Anna Karenina.” Plus an Oscar-bait biopic “The Soloist,” which flopped, and the thriller “Hanna,” which did well.

POST-BOMB DIRECTING: After 2015, he directed the big Churchill biopic “Darkest Hour,” the musical “Cyrano,” and the straight-to-Netflix thriller “The Woman in the Window.” “Darkest Hour” did very well, “Cyrano” was hosed by COVID, and “Woman in the Window” went to streaming.

DID HE GO TO DIRECTOR JAIL? No. His movies after “Pan” are much smaller in budget – down from $150 million to about $40 million – but that’s hardly Director Jail.

======================

TO SUM UP: Of the top eleven bombs, three sent their directors to Director Jail: Verbinski, Rivers, and Wells. (McTiernan ended up in Director Jail, but it took yet another bomb plus literal jail to put him there.) DaCosta and Hall may be in Director Jail too, but it’s too soon for outside folks like me to tell.

Thinking about May, it’s fun to pull back to Giant Flops from earlier eras. What were the big bombs before the year 1995? Again, going by Wikipedia, the biggest bombs from pre-1995, in descending order:

=======================

HEAVEN’S GATE (1980), directed by Michael Cimino

PRE-BOMB DIRECTING: Two movies: “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot,” a successful crime movie, and “The Deer Hunter.” That movie went overschedule and overbudget, but it was a solid hit and won a lot of Oscars. “Heaven’s Gate” took the “overschedule and overbudget” route as well, but without the subsequent success to forgive it.

POST-BOMB DIRECTING: After 1980, Cimino directed four more movies, though none until 1985. All four were crime movies, all four were mid-budget, all four flopped.

DID HE GO TO DIRECTOR JAIL? No, which I have to admit is a surprise. I thought he had. His career took a mammoth hit, but he kept working for another decade and a half on smaller and smaller projects before becoming a recluse.


THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE (1964), directed by Anthony Mann

PRE-BOMB DIRECTING: Mann had a long and impressive career, directing a number of classic film noirs and westerns, then moving into Widescreen Epic territory. By the time of “Roman Empire,” he was in his late fifties.

POST-BOMB DIRECTING: After 1964, he directed two more movies, a good-sized World War II movie that flopped and a spy movie that didn’t do much. He died in 1967.

DID HE GO TO DIRECTOR JAIL? No. “Roman Empire” probably hurt his career, but he kept working.


INCHON (1982), directed by Terence Young

PRE-BOMB DIRECTING: A long, long list of British movies, including three of the first four James Bond films. From the mid-Sixties to the Eighties, he directed a lot of French and Italian movies. He was a busy working director.

POST-BOMB DIRECTING: Post-1982, he directed two movies, a spy thriller and a sports drama. Neither made much of an impact.

DID HE GO TO DIRECTOR JAIL? No, he turned out two more movies not too long after.

And then we get ISHTAR in 1987.

May’s pre-“Ishtar” filmography is three films, at least two of which both went way over budget and flopped, despite critical approval. I think the other, “The Heartbreak Kid,” did well, but my sloppy, quick research doesn’t say. She’d been a hugely successful screenwriter/script doctor, so Warren Beatty got her “Ishtar” to let her do her thing without studio interference. It also went way over schedule and way over budget and flopped hard. She never directed another movie, so she absolutely went to Director Jail. To be honest, I would say that her term there was not without merit. Anyone who consistently produces overbudget movies that flop is not going to be embraced by Hollywood. Throw in misogyny and boy howdy.

Nobody on the list above is a very good comparison for her – the other directors all had some level of financial success prior to the big bombs or were fresh out of the box. May’s history is unusual.

I would bet there are good comparisons with smaller-budget moviemakers. Off the top of my head, I’m not sure who, but I’m sure there have to be some.
posted by Harvey Jerkwater at 5:11 AM on June 12 [1 favorite]


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