Shampoo artwork by Mister G


Shampoo artwork by Mister G

Director: Hal Ashby / Screenplay: Warren Beatty & Robert Towne / Editing: Robert C. Jones / DP: Lázló Kovács / Music: Paul Simon

Cast: Warren Beatty / Julie Christie / Goldie Hawn / Lee Grant / Jack Warden / Tony Bill / Carrie Fisher / George Furth / Jay Robinson   

Year: 1975


 Soap Gets in Your Eyes

Strange to think that, by this point, there are generations of film-goers who have no idea who Warren Beatty Is / Was / or What he achieved as a man of film, be it acting, writing or, latterly, directing. That he did all those things, only some of which won him Oscars, made money & lost money – often in thrilling combinations – makes him a fascinating character; all the more so, for how discreet he was, about a private life that become the stuff of legend… 

Shampoo is an interesting film, marking the end of the beginning of Beatty’s long career and has been re-mastered by Criterion for a new generation of cinephiles to admire; biting mid-Seventies satire has never looked better…

GlassesBeatty was always there or thereabouts in the Hollywood of the mid-Sixties. A player, looking to network his way into advantageous positions, as writer & producer, he acted only when a project deemed it necessary, to maintain his own ‘profile’, or both. Beatty had immaculate timing: the old ‘studio system’ was breaking-down, with a new wave of talent both behind – and in front of – the camera. The Sixties counter-culture, combined with an acidic disillusion with The Vietnam War, had opened the floodgates. The youthful audience who’d always been cinema’s biggest constituency, now wanted pictures that better reflected their own lives & experiences. In recognising that the Old Guard would be unable to address this emerging market, a new crop of younger production executives were elevated to key roles in several studios and they, in-turn, began commissioning – and green-lighting – fresh scripts & talent across the board, that oozed relevance.

As a result, the period was a great time for young film-makers in Hollywood; for a time – and for some, at least – it felt as though anything could get made. Take Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969) for example, or Beatty’s own Bonnie and Clyde (1967) as examples of how movies – even when financed & released by established studios – could still subvert the morals & smug congeniality that smothered the mainstream. Yet such films were often critical as well as commercial hits, which left the studios in a quandary: this so-called ‘Hollywood New Wave’ was like a Pandora’s Box of creativity; once opened, it couldn’t be squeezed back in. Studios would have to embrace the new or face the consequences.

Robert Towne had long-worked as a ‘script doctor’, tweaking material in often-uncredited pictures (Coppola’s Godfather (1972) being one example). But in the early Seventies he hit a winning streak, with three original works of his own. The Last Detail (1973) would establish a strong working relationship with both director Hal Ashby and its star Jack Nicholson. Chinatown (1974) would feature Nicholson, but be directed by Roman Polanski, in a re-affirmation of his creative power; it would also win Towne the Oscar (watch Chinatown, if you ever get the chance; this is Nicholson before he started relying, like a latter-day Pacino, on mannered pyrotechnics to get performances over-the-line). Shampoo would be the third. 

GlassesFlushed with power, as a result of Clyde, Beatty had tilted towards producing & script-development; I get the feeling that’s where his heart lay all along. It’s as though Beatty knew he couldn’t play the lothario forever; that his string of actress girlfriends & casual acquaintances gave him a popular notoriety that, inevitably, would catch-up with the real Warren Beatty and be found wanting. If nothing else, this intelligent, thoughtful man, who laboured for years honing projects, rather than push them out the door, was almost cursed for being so attractive a figure…

Beatty had been working on the idea & script for Shampoo for years, tossing it back and forth to Towne, his friend, who eventually ended-up writing a version of his own. Eventually, under the watchful eye of Hal Ashby (hired by Beatty in his capacity as producer), their efforts would be combined into one screenplay; the joins are impossible to see: little wonder they shared the writing credit.

In essence, the story follows a Hollywood ‘celebrity hairdresser’ over the course of 24 hours as the various women in his life, fuss, froth & frolic; their stories crashing together at a party, well, two parties to celebrate Nixon’s first successful Presidential campaign on November 4th, 1968. 

If only it were that simple… 

GlassesA few reviews ago, I covered Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth (2015) and mentioned a memorable, complex framing shot by his DP Sean Price Williams, who composes a frame with a kitchen at LHS and the interior of a first-floor bedroom at RHS. Ashby’s Hungarian DP, the absurdly talented László Kovács pulls-off a similar trick here. Beatty – George – is a-bed with an unidentified woman and gets a call from another, who’s lure is evidently strong enough to drag him away on a flimsy excuse. In one composed shot, he covers George getting dressed in the en-suite bathroom, then leaving the girl behind in bed before, in a sliver of on-screen real-estate at extreme-right, we glimpse him leave via the front door. An impressive start, and not just because Beatty is clearly playing-out his public persona; watch Shampoo and THEN accuse him of lacking self-awareness!

We catch-up with George as he arrives at the home of this mystery caller, riding his red & white Triumph Bonneville; this trusty steed will be ridden hard and, err, long by Beatty in this picture, as he shuttles from one assignation to the next, which begs the question: did sales rise to the occasion? I’d hope so: the bike’s the only thing in George’s life that doesn’t let him down (though, being a vintage Triumph, a breakdown is only a matter of time…). 

George arrives at the home of Jill; Goldie Hawn in a difficult role as George’s current ‘official’ girlfriend. It’s interesting to see her in a part, for which her brand of ‘Winsome Kookiness’ wasn’t deployed. A successful comedic actress already established a producer in her own right this point, Hawn would later cement her image with Private Benjamin (1980) but here, she’s content to show off her pins and dream of a future with George; oh, the folly of youth…  

GlassesCome the dawn of a new day, George is off to the bank. He wants a loan, with which to open a salon of his own; seems that he’s hot stuff with the ladies and their hair. One unlocks the other. But the meeting’s a disastrous clash between two worlds – and philosophies. George is a dreamer. An artist of sorts, wrapped in a naïve bubble that bursts when confronted with the reality of his situation; he has no credit rating (hairdressing being a cash business) and therefore, no way of getting the loan he needs. When he emerges, blinking in the glare of an unforgiving sun, he tears-off his unfamiliar jacket & tie and throws them into a rubbish bin; so humiliated is he, from prostrating himself before ‘The Man’. Still, Ashby has fun here, by having Beatty regret his rash move and retrieve them before riding off; he can’t afford to lose them.

At the same time, Ashby’s intercutting with Jill, who’s auditioning for a commercial to be shot in, of all places, Egypt. Both its producer & director want her, but she’s uncertain out of loyalty to George. So we have a situation where one wants to work but can’t and the other doesn’t want to work but can… It’s a delicious premise.

At some point that morning, George arrives at the salon where he works and the script does well to show him harassed and easily distracted, which doesn’t bode well for the outcome of his own ambitions. Yet help may be at-hand in the form of Felicia (Lee Grant), the pinched, under-estimated wife of a successful mogul and one of George’s regulars. If there’s one thing a forty-something woman living in Beverley Hills needs to believe above all, it’s that she’ll live forever and George’s frequent ministrations – both in the salon and [*cough*] ‘elsewhere’ – help in that regard. Felicia reckons Lester (her husband) ought to invest in George; what’s good for her hair stylist, is also good for her.

A meeting’s arranged, where George meets Lester. Jack Warden had one of those faces. You’ll have seen him in innumerable TV shows from the Seventies (usually wearing a ghastly suit) without ever putting a name to the face; such anonymity was perfect for the world of Shampoo. Lester is the money. The boring suit, locked in a loveless marriage with but one concession: he drives a sharp-looking Roller to the office. Actually, make that two: he’s got Julie Christie as a mistress – Jackie. Let’s be clear: he’s playing well above his average… 

GlassesHowever, the first wrinkle appears when Jackie turns-up during his meeting with George and it’s clear that they know each other; indeed, have been lovers. There’s more: Jackie’s BFF is Jill; the two of them were in an earlier lunch scene, talking about George… Jackie talks up George’s plan for a salon of his own, but Lester has no time to waste on this dissolute hairdresser (who he’s shown no interest in, to this point) and ushers them all into the lift, en-route to the basement garage. There’s a party, later, to celebrate Nixon’s hoped-for Presidential victory and, before he leaves, Lester finally sees George’s usefulness: he asks George if he could bring Jackie along to the party… In the fumes from Lester’s departing car, George complains ‘I’m not gonna be a beard for you and this guy!’ After Jackie mounts a spirited defence of her own moral compass, George relents and uses the one angle he knows will work: ‘Want me to do your hair?’ This, he does later, packing his hairdryer into the waistband of his crotch-tight jeans as if it were a loaded pistol; a proxy-phallus.

George is a shape-shifter. A virile social-chameleon in a female-dominated service industry where, at least in the film, the service providers appear, err, uninterested. He knows of the erotic sub-text in his job, even if his clients are too self-obsessed & vain to be aware. The film amplifies this. Remember, it’s set on the day of a General Election, yet aside from a few details scattered throughout the film (i.e. a girl walking down the street wearing a ‘Nixon-Agnew’ hat or various TVs showing coverage), you’d never know. George, in common with his circle, are oblivious to what’s going on, in the World, let alone the USA. This is 1968. The era of Vietnam. Social unrest. Riots. Yet here, in Beverley Hills, the world revolves around bob-cuts & permanent waves.

It was ever thus…

GlassesPleased with Jackie’s new cut, the two of them ‘vigorously embrace’, only to be interrupted by Lester’s timely arrival. Having made a plausible excuse to a clueless Lester, George then rides over to Lester’s house for an appointment with Felicia; after all, she’s going to the party as well, as Lester’s wife. Except she’s not there: but her daughter, Lorna is. 

This marks the screen debut of the much-missed Carrie Fisher. Just Seventeen here, Lorna’s dressed in a diverting tennis kit and, after a little hard questioning (i.e. ‘Are you making it with my mom?’), she pops the age-old question to George, who’s momentarily flummoxed for a response, until his Lizard-brain stirs. When Felicia returns, later, there’s a brazen reaction from a defiant Lorna, that prompts Felicia to grab George for herself and drag him through to her room; no wonder George is starting to look a little ragged by this point: it’s been quite a day…

So what have we learned by this point? I think one of its key themes, has been the sexual hypocrisy as-displayed on all sides. The Establishment, as represented by Lester and his cronies, might have the money and the connections, but that just allows them to keep mistresses in expense-account bungalows. Meanwhile, their wives & daughters behave with abandon; insulated as they are from the ‘real world’; they’re bored, plain and simple. At the other end of the food-chain, are those that rely on their patronage: the restauranteurs, florists & hairdressers. 

This is where George is confused. For someone in his position, the options are stark. Either fall-in with a superannuated, Norma Desmond has-been and live that pampered life. Or, he could listen to salon boss Norman (Jay Robinson) and really learn how a salon works (and what it takes to make it work). Or, he could pursue his dissolute path to loneliness and eventual ruin. This being a sex-comedy – a farce – tinged with a stack of pathos, which path do we think he’ll take? Everyone’s lying to each other throughout the film, so why wouldn’t they lie to themselves as well? Towne & Beatty’s script leave one aspect of George’s persona ‘unspoken’: the fact that he’s being used as a disposable plaything, in a reversal of convention, and he’s too dumb to see it… For Shampoo to work as satire, its hero has to be ignorant of the forces at work about him; such ignorance reinforced by the film’s limited worldview. 

GlassesThe final reel deals with the two parties. The first, sees our heroes come together at a private dining room, for a gaggle of Hollywood grandees, to celebrate Nixon’s apparent victory. George has brought Jackie, Jill’s brought Johnny Pope (Tony Bill), the commercials director, who’s there to make up the numbers and who looks like a (intentionally) younger version of Beatty. As the evening unfolds, there’s a groundbreaking line of dialogue (for 1975, anyway) that I won’t spoil for you, that prompts a little honesty – at last – between characters who should’ve known better all along. A bizarre, unexplained fire-drill then turfs everybody out on the street (including a memorable U.S. Senator, who’d begun his speech with Native American chanting). This leads everyone (Felicia excepted) to move on to another, wilder party across town. There’s nudity. Drugs. An obligatory jacuzzi scene and valet parking…

Add an incongruous Lester, who couldn’t look more like a fish-out-of-water if he’d tried, which was probably the idea. More scores are settled. George returns home, alone, to be confronted by Lester & two goons, brought along to ‘beat the truth’ out of him: but George is too tired to lie. Instead – and with a refreshing lack of guile – he asks Lester if ‘he’d ever heard women talk’? He goes on to open Lester’s eyes to the impact of most men’s language & behaviour on their women and what it drives them to do. Lester looks shocked as a result; by George’s revelation as much as hearing Nixon’s victory speech on George’s TV: ‘The first duty of my administration, will be to bring people together’. This is George’s wake-up call. He rides over to Jackie, suddenly aware of the path he must take, but it’s too late. Too late. He looks to the horizon and knows, finally, what it means to be alone, in Beverley Hills, of all places. Talk about bleak

GlassesAlthough Beatty had been working on Shampoo’s script for years, its production occurred during Nixon’s fall from grace, in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal. As a result, its ironic setting and the commentary it offers on the state of then-contemporary American society, verges on being scabrous. It delights in poking holes in the very fabric of the town, that’d supported Beatty and that ‘New Hollywood’ generation. In 1974-75, Beatty was unafraid to bite the hand that feeds, but things were about to change. Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) would open later that same year, with Star Wars (1977) just two years-on. Suddenly, the beleaguered studios would rediscover the power of a blockbuster franchise – and their mojo, into the bargain. The coming-generation would become the new suits and, inevitably, as corporately-minded as those they replaced.

Of course, Shampoo is reflective of an easier-going, permissive society. A time before disco, AIDS and Curb Your Enthusiasm’s corrosive view of Hollywood. 

It’s an artefact suggestive of a ‘better time’ to be alive. We watch it. Study it, as though it were suspended in aspic and part of us feel morally superior to what we see. The other part, just feels sad at what’s been lost.

Yeah, you should’ve seen those kids. About forty of ‘em. All blind. We put those mattresses on the front lawn. They came running out of the house. Tripping and stumbling all over the place, just having a hell of a good time. I mean, they were blind, of course. I don’t know, it gave me the feeling of accomplishment. Can’t tell you when I had such a good time.

 Shampoo  Triple Word / Score: ACERBIC / ATTENTIVE / ASSURED / EIGHT

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