Sunday, October 27, 2013

Shampoo (1975)

          Here’s just one of the many fascinating details about Shampoo: Although it’s rightly considered a pinnacle achievement for the New Hollywood, the principal creative force behind the picture is very much a creature of Old Hollywood. Warren Beatty, the film’s leading man, producer, co-writer—and, according to gossip that’s surrounded the project for decades, uncredited co-director—was groomed for greatness by the studio system, even though his star didn’t truly rise until the counterculture era. And, just as Beatty is an inherently complicated Hollywood persona, the vision of late-1960s America he and his collaborators present in Shampoo resists simple classifications.
          On one level, the story of a lothario hairdresser who gets away with screwing his female clients because their husbands think he’s gay is a satire of social mores during a period of shifting sexual identities. On another level, Shampoo is a savvy political story examining various attitudes toward Richard Nixon at the time of his 1968 ascension to the White House. And yet on a third level, Shampoo is an ultra-hip study of Me Generation ennui, because nearly ever character in the film experiences some degree of existential crisis. Furthermore, the execution of the film is as classical as the content is brash—director Hal Ashby relies on elegant camerawork and meticulous pacing, rather than the flashy experimentation associated with many New Hollywood triumphs, even though the brilliant script by Beatty and Robert Towne breaks one taboo after another. (Let we forget, one of the film’s most memorable scenes involves costar Julie Christie drunkenly slurring, “I want to suck his . . .” Well, you get the picture.)
          Beatty, who often cleverly capitalized on his personal reputation as a Casanova, plays George Roundy, a Beverly Hills hairdresser beloved as much by female clients for his way with their bodies as for his way with their tresses. At the beginning of the story, he juggles relationships with his long-suffering girlfriend, Jill (Goldie Hawn), and with a rich housewife, Felicia (Lee Grant). Eager to open his own shop, George uses Felicia to get to her husband, Lester (Jack Warden), a wealthy businessman—who has a mistress of his own, Jackie (Christie). Smart and strong-willed, Jackie beguiles George, who somehow imagines he can have everything he wants—Felicia’s support, Jackie’s affection, Jill’s devotion, Lester’s patronage.
          Woven into all of this sexual farce is a bitter thread of class warfare, with Lester representing the arrogance of financial power and nearly every other character representing the desperation of financial need; Beatty and Towne draw provocative parallels between the cynicism of Nixon’s politics and the way various characters pursue skewed versions of the American Dream. The people in Shampoo are players and strivers, right down to Lester’s adolescent daughter, Lorna (Carrie Fisher), who has been taught by the unforgiving world to embrace her sexual power at a young age.
          Shampoo has moments that some find screamingly funny, such as the scene in which Christie makes the aforementioned startling declaration, but this is character-driven comedy of the most brittle sort, riding the fine line between humor and pathos. And that, among so many other things, is what makes Shampoo endlessly interesting—the film captures myriad facets of a confusing time. How appropriate, then, that the unobtrusive score is by pop star Paul Simon, one of the most important musical voices of the ’60s.

Shampoo: RIGHT ON

1 comment:

Tommy Ross said...

Quite simply one of the best movies of the entire decade and one I never tire of viewing. Casting is so important and everyone is perfect in this, I really like Jack Warden in this, he plays his part with the perfect subtle humor. Yes, the film operates on the levels you mentioned but ultimately I see it as a character study and who can't help but be enthralled with George the hairdresser, a grown man who just can't seem to grow up. Sound familiar?