In one of Gary Larson's "The Far Side" comic strips, captioned "Hell's Video Store," the entire store is stocked with nothing but copies of Ishtar (1987). Larson later apologized, saying "When I drew the above cartoon, I had not actually seen 'Ishtar.' Years later, I saw it on an airplane, and was stunned at what was happening to me: I was actually being entertained. Sure, maybe it's not the greatest film ever made, but my cartoon was way off the mark. There are so many cartoons for which I should probably write an apology, but this is the only one which compels me to do so."
Although the film had an overwhelmingly negative reception when released, it underwent three successful screenings with preview audiences. Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman and Charles Grodin have all defended the film's quality in subsequent years, blaming its bad reputation on reports of production and budgetary problems which had been leaked to the press by studio head David Puttnam who disliked Beatty and was on poor terms with Hoffman as well.
The film's reception was so awful it helped coin a new Hollywood term in relation to director Elaine May: "movie jail". The term referred to someone whose perceived failure as a director was so profound, they would not be allowed to helm a movie again for a very long time, if ever again. In fact, May has not directed a single new movie since Ishtar (1987).
Despite the film's reputation as one of the biggest box office failures of all time, Ishtar (1987) did, in fact, hold the #1 box office position in its first week of release. However, in its second week, with the release of Beverly Hills Cop II (1987), the film quickly dropped to fourth place.
Filming lasted from October 1985-April 1986. Columbia Pictures was originally going to release the film during the 1986 Christmas Season, but because of post-production troubles, and other budgetary issues the film was not yet ready for it's original December 1986 scheduled release date. The film's release was postponed until May 1987 in order to give Columbia enough time to get budget and post-production issues sorted out before the film hit theaters. The delay in the film's release also spread a negative vibe, that ultimately helped contribute to it's eventual overwhelming failure.
Elaine May and Isabelle Adjani did not get along during filming. Adjani was Warren Beatty's girlfriend at the time, and problems between her and May, caused Adjani to be very tense on set, and only months after the film's release Beatty and Adjani split as a couple.
As of 2014, this is the last feature film to ever be directed by Elaine May. The film's extreme failure kept her away from the Hollywood scene until nine years later in 1996, when she wrote the screenplay for The Birdcage, which was directed by her old comedy partner Mike Nichols. Two years later she re-teamed with Nichols to write Primary Colors (1998), for which she was nominated for an Oscar.
The idea for this film came about because Warren Beatty felt indebted to Elaine May who wrote the screenplay for his hit movie Heaven Can Wait (1978), and she also did an uncredited screenplay write on his Oscar-winning Reds (1981). Beatty wanted to give May a chance to make a film that she was artistically and commercially capable of making and offered to produce and be the lead actor in it. May presented the idea to Beatty about a Hope-Crosby Road to... type picture, and wanted to get another co-star, possibly Dustin Hoffman to sign on. Hoffman originally turned the movie down because of "misgivings", but eventually changed his mind after meeting with Beatty and his friend and confidant Murray Schisgaal. Hoffman, like Beatty was also indebted to May, as she did an uncredited writing job for his hit film Tootsie (1982).
Warren Beatty and Elaine May quarreled and argued quite a bit off camera and especially in the editing room. Dustin Hoffman would serve as the mediator between the two of them. Beatty would also take sides against May in disagreements between her and Director of Photography Vittorio Storaro. At one point Beatty and May had an argument with May telling Beatty, "You want this scene your way? You shoot it!", and May would abandon the set for long periods of time. Beatty then reported the incident to the Columbia Pictures production representative, who then offered to fire May as director of the film on Beatty's behalf as producer of the film, but Beatty did not want to take on responsibilities of directing the rest of the film himself had May been fired, and did not want to contradict himself as the whole point of the film was to give May the chance she never really had to show her talents as director. Beatty told Columbia, if they were to fire May, he and Hoffman would abandon the film entirely as well. In the end, May stayed on board and ended up directing the entire film.
Dustin Hoffman claims Warren Beatty told him several times on set in confidence, that he had made a mistake by agreeing to produce and star in the film. Hoffman said Beatty told him "I was going to give this as a gift to Elaine and it turned out to be the total opposite." Beatty said this in regards to the troubles of the film's production. He and May barely spoke for two years after the film's release. In 2008 May did attend and spoke at Warren Beatty's AFI Lifetime Achievement Award, implying that she and Beatty had reconciled and formed a friendship again.
While the credits indicate that a soundtrack was available on CBS Records a soundtrack was never released. According to an interview with Paul Williams a soundtrack was recorded and produced but never released due to the movie's box office failure.
Dustin Hoffman's first theatrical feature in five years since Tootsie (1982). During the five year hiatus in between both theatrical features, Hoffman did star in the television movie version of Death of a Salesman for CBS in 1985.