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In a rare spectacle, two big-budget, star-studded movies fought it out at the box office last weekend.

“Beverly Hills Cop II,” directed by Tony Scott and starring Eddie Murphy, came up the big winner. In its first six days, Paramount’s cop comedy grossed more than $40 million. Its four-day Memorial Day weekend gross fell just short of the record $33.9 million racked up by “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” in 1984.

“Ishtar,” directed by Elaine May and starring Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman, got knocked for a loop. Last weekend, Columbia’s camel comedy took in just $3.4 million, for a two-week total of $9.1 million.


Movie making is about more than winning or losing. But the thrill of a hit and the pain of a flop are still the basic emotions in show business. Director Scott and actor Hoffman talk about both.

Dustin Hoffman says he’s been “in pain, walking the streets,” trying to figure the “Ishtar” fallout.

Not that he has any regrets about having done the mega-budget comedy, he told The Times this week.

“I don’t want to name the scripts that I turned down. Let me just say that I’m glad I did this over the other ones.”

Speaking by phone from New York City, Hoffman stressed, “I like the movie. I predict the movie will be around longer than the bad press.”

Audiences like it too, insisted Hoffman, who explained that he’s gone into a number of theaters (“In the Valley, in L.A. and in New York”) just to see how audiences respond.

He’s also sent friends to the movie--and they’ve returned with positive reports. “And I’ve sent my (teen-age) daughter, Jenna. She told me about this one girl in the theater who was laughing, saying ‘He makes me feel so good!’ That girl happened to have a big nose--and she was reaching up to it as she laughed. Which is why I know it was me she was talking about!”


But, Hoffman admits, he was told of another moviegoer, “who came out of the theater and said, ‘Well, I liked it. But, is it worth $40 million?’ ”

Said Hoffman: “Unfortunately, I guess we never started out to make this movie look like it cost $40 million. That wasn’t our intention. We wanted to make a comedy.

“We never realized there would be this blitzkrieg.”

The blitzkrieg has included numerous press accounts questioning the film’s hefty $40-million-plus budget, including the salaries of its three very well-paid principals. Hoffman and Warren Beatty each got $5.5 million to star as the comedy’s earnest and likable but decidedly untalented singer-songwriters who journey from New York to the fictional Middle Eastern country called Ishtar. Writer-director Elaine May received $1.5 million. And for executive producing, Beatty got an additional $500,000.

Then there were the reviews.

Though the film had its supporters (including the Times’ Sheila Benson), some of its foes were venomous: “Colossally dunderheaded,” said the Hollywood Reporter; “a truly dreadful film,” said the Chicago Sun-Times’ Roger Ebert.

And it seems as if the public has sided with the naysayers. In its first two weeks’ release, “Ishtar” has brought in less than $10 million in ticket sales. And the audience appears to be dropping off, considering that box office dipped 21% in the second week.

Hoffman was last seen in the 1982 box-office hit “Tootsie” (in which he played Michael Dorsey, a struggling actor unbowed by many rejections), following his 1979 Academy Award-winning performance in “Kramer Vs. Kramer.” Thus, reaction to “Ishtar” has been a sobering experience for Hoffman. Not that he was completely taken by surprise.


“At the expense of sounding like sour grapes, which I’m sure it will I was aware that we were in a very good position to be hurt,” he said.

The reason: “I could say on a courtroom stand that I don’t know just what the budget was. But I was always aware of the fact that our salaries were hefty salaries--and that before we ever started filming we would have spent $13 million (the combined total of the salaries). I knew that could not help us--it could only hurt us.

“I remember saying, ‘Why take all that money?’ ” (It was Columbia Pictures, Hoffman reminded, that decided against deferring the Beatty-Hoffman salaries.)

In addition to mulling over the money, the press had a heyday with the colorful reputations of the “Ishtar” participants.

As Hoffman noted: “The word went out that we’re perfectionists--which made it sound as if we had some disease.

“Next came the reports--which were erroneous--that the movie was out of control.”

Then there were post-production accounts of cutting-room wars (where Beatty and May shared final cut, and, in the case of an impasse, Hoffman had a swing vote).


It was as the result of all this hoopla, Hoffman believes, that “Ishtar” was judged on the basis of its colorful ancestry--rather than its own merits.

As an impassioned Hoffman put it: “The movie is a baby. It doesn’t know it had rich parents. It doesn’t know they spent too much money on it. This film is only itself.”

(Though as Hoffman admitted, “That’s not to say the film shouldn’t have cost less.”)

By the same token, he argues, he and Beatty are actors who should be judged on their own merits--not on the basis of their star salaries. (Not that they didn’t all earn their salaries, said Hoffman, who stressed, “Warren was the producer. I was with the film from the beginning to the end. Ultimately, I spent two years with the film. It’s not as if I just showed up for 12 weeks of filming and then left with my check.”)

But many critics refused to accept Hoffman and Beatty as unsuccessful entertainers.

Hoffman debated that point over a luncheon interview, done in tandem with Beatty, with the Chicago Tribune’s Gene Siskel during the film’s promotional campaign.

According to Hoffman, Siskel frankly told the pair that he didn’t like the movie. “So Warren said, ‘Don’t talk to him. He hates the movie,’ ” recalled Hoffman. “But I said, ‘No, it’s worth the argument.’ ” Explaining that Siskel had also disliked his performance as Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman” (performed on Broadway in 1984 and, later filmed for television broadcast in 1985), because, “He couldn’t buy me in the role of an old man,” Hoffman said he countered with, “What are you going to do? Tell Laurence Olivier that he can’t put on blackface to play Othello? (And I am certainly not comparing myself to Olivier.)”

Surmised Hoffman: “It’s as if the critics are saying that we (he and Beatty) can’t play characters who, for example, aren’t famous.


“That we can’t play someone other than who we are.”

But, continued Hoffman, “What about actors just being actors--and trying every role they think they can do? What about that?”

Somewhat philosophical about his “Ishtar” experience (“Actors always take a beating”), he reiterated to a reporter that, as proof of the film’s worth, he need only walk inside a theater where it is playing.

“You can try it yourself,” he said.

In fact, as the interview ended, Hoffman implored a reporter to see, first-hand, how much audiences like the movie. Said Hoffman: “Just stand in the back, and listen to the audience whooping it up.

“They’re having a good time with the movie. You’ll see.”