Elaine May’s reputation has travelled further than her films. She has been hailed as a key influence by a whole generation of American comedians – including Steve Martin, Lily Tomlin and Woody Allen – but her work has been allowed to fall out of circulation and she's been largely neglected by Hollywood for over 30 years. The reason for that absence from filmmaking lies in another reputation that casts a long shadow. May’s long-delayed and over-budget comedy Ishtar (1987) was widely derided as a disaster before it even hit cinema screens and it quickly became the go-to title for hacks discussing the worst movies ever made. Its failure marked an abrupt and unjust end to a thrillingly unconventional directorial career.
Watching Ishtar now, it’s hard to understand how this goofy and frequently inspired buddy comedy could have once inspired such opprobrium, but as May noted in 2012, “If all of the people who hate Ishtar had seen it, I would be a rich woman today.” The film seemed a cursed project from the start, but behind-the-scenes drama was par for the course by the time May came to Ishtar. Two of her first three pictures led to long and acrimonious battles with Paramount, with the studio excising more than an hour from her debut A New Leaf (1971) before its release and then dumping a hastily assembled version of Mikey & Nicky (1976) in a handful of cinemas following a two-year editing period. A brilliant improviser who had revolutionised sketch comedy with Mike Nichols in the 1960s, May brought that same improvisatory spirit to her filmmaking; the freewheeling, exploratory approach that made her such a headache for producers is what gives her films their unique rhythm and energy.
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