Monday, October 22, 2018
SHAMPOO - #947
Shampoo is easily the most Warren Beatty of all of Warren Beatty’s movies. A political and interpersonal comedy, it says as much about Beatty as it does the world. The writer/actor/producer lets his point of view be known, but he also embraces a certain image of himself as the pretty playboy, simultaneously reinforcing and undercutting it, creating a complex portrait of a man who knows what he wants but is often derailed by either his baser desires or what other people perceive of him. In many ways, it’s a prototype for a character and a movie he would revisit/remake more than once. Is George in Shampoo all that different from Jay Bulworth in Bulworth? What about Joe in Heaven Can Wait? Are their journeys that different?
Though Beatty didn’t direct this one, he had a hand throughout the production. He also had the confidence to place the great Hal Ashby (Being There [review]) behind the camera. Shampoo was released in 1975, but its story takes place in 1968, the day Richard Nixon is elected President. The election hangs over everything in the picture, a foregone conclusion not just to contemporary viewers, but also to the men of wealth whose wives go to George to get their hair done. The rest of the participants don’t seem to realize the change that is coming, but they are already starting to feel it. By the morning of the next day, an era will have passed. Ashby uses the Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” to bookend the picture, and it goes from a sweet, hopeful anthem of youth to an ironic remembrance of false promises.
Election Day is also the day that George has decided to meet with the bank to talk about opening his own hair salon. George is popular in his profession, and he believes his customer base would follow him if he had his own shingle; unfortunately for him, the bank sees through his lack of business acumen. George is too scared to tell his girlfriend Jill (Goldie Hawn) about this failure, but he does end up spilling the beans to his mistress, Felicia (Lee Grant), who is also a top client. Knowing George’s skills, Felicia sends him to her husband, Lester (Jack Warden). Even though Lester doesn’t sign on immediately, he sees the adulation George receives first-hand, since Lester’s own mistress, Jackie (Julie Christie, Beatty’s dance partner in McCabe and Mrs. Miller [review]), can also vouch for George’s magic hands. Little does Lester know, George and Jackie also used to date, a tidbit that might have dissuaded him from hatching an ill-fated plan: he asks George to accompany Jackie to an election night party, acting as cover for them while Lester attends the same shindig with Felicia. Oh, and Jill will be there, too, because she’s schmoozing a film director to get a part. (The director is played by Tony Bill, who did go on to be an actual film director, helming My Bodyguard, Five Corners, and one of my all-time favorites, Untamed Heart).
Sounds complicated, doesn’t it? Well, Beatty and co-writer Robert Towne (The Last Detail, Chinatown) never lose track of all the players, nor do they ever leave the audience hanging. In may ways, Shampoo seems like it would have been a perfect match for Robert Altman, who could have juggled the massive ensemble and the crisscrossing scenes without breaking a sweat; that said, Ashby shows no perspiration himself. Shampoo is complicated, but never messy, and watching all these things converge ends up being a delight.
For all the trampled feelings and missed connections that happen as the various participants travel from the election event to a large Los Angeles soiree, and then off into the night, most everyone here has similar needs and ambitions. Everyone in Shampoo is after something that they likely can’t have, and for most of them, they can’t have it due to some fault of their own. The clash between George and Lester could have easily been a celebration of a free spirit and the excoriation of a corporate fat cat, but when the two men finally compare notes, they both appear to be just as stranded in a world of their own making. Maybe today is the day they can make their change. Maybe not. Maybe Nixon will change it for them. Knowing what we know, things will probably change more for George than Lester. Then again, I bet if we had a sequel to Shampoo set in the Reagan era, we’d see them both thriving in the excess of the Me Decade.
Don’t confuse Shampoo for a polemic or a message picture, however; the film is quite funny, both in its quirky rhythms (which is where Ashby probably trumps Altman) and in some of its broad contrivances. Julie Christie getting drunk and wicked provides many a good laugh, as does Lester’s utter confusion over George. Warren Beatty loves to play his characters as befuddled, a little off vibration from the rest of the world, somehow always one step behind but still looking at his next move. He’s great here, especially in the later scenes when George finally opens up. “You’re the only one I trust,” he tells Jackie, and we are with her when her heart breaks for him, knowing that soon he will be all alone. And, of course, watch a very young Carrie Fisher steal the show as Felicia’s randy, vindictive daughter.
Shampoo is also quite sexy. Again, the film leans into Beatty’s ladies man image. Every woman in the movie approaches him projecting an aura of sex. Amusingly, through most of the movie, he is either just missing the moment or we, as the audience, are shut out. So, when we finally do see George in action, it’s a scene that is first met with applause and then uncomfortable laughter, both from within the narrative and from without.
It’s interesting that Shampoo is a mid-’70s Hollywood production looking back at the tail end of the 1960s. The nostalgia is both wistful and disappointed. One gets the sense that Beatty knows how ridiculous some of George’s outfits look, or that choosing to have him ride a Triumph motorcycle is meant to mock him as a false rebel. All these flamboyant, fashionable choices--from having George be a hairdresser to his own artfully messy mane--seem to be intended to provoke a certain segment of the film-going public that probably had a lot of disdain for Beatty (mainly guys like Lester). Nothing on the surface of Shampoo will change their minds. Thus, shoving the cliché in everyone’s faces--fans and foes alike--only to bust it apart, transforms the screen idol into an enduring symbol of the idealistic decade that Shampoo is eulogizing, dashed hopes and all.