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Shampoo

by Glenn Erickson Oct 16, 2018

Beverly Hills 1968 — Sunset Blvd., The Strip, The Bistro, the haze in the Hollywood Hills — where a lowly hairdresser-stud is locked in a crazy lifestyle free-fall while having the time of his life with four beautiful women. Warren Beatty puts a facet of his public personality on display as a world-class ladies’ man who just can’t keep things together.


Shampoo
Blu-ray
The Criterion Collection 947
1975 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 110 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date October 18, 2018 / 39.95
Starring Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, Goldie Hawn, Lee Grant, Jack Warden, Tony Bill, George Furth, Jay Robinson, Carrie Fisher, George Furth, Luana Anders.
Cinematography László Kovács
Production Designer Richard Sylbert
Art Direction W. Stewart Campbell
Film Editor Robert C. Jones
Original Music Paul Simon
Written by Robert Towne and Warren Beatty
Produced by Warren Beatty
Directed by Hal Ashby

 

Mr. Pettis, banker: “What kind of references do you have?”
George Roundy: “I do Barbara Rush.”

 

Shampoo is the movie that Hal Ashby got almost completely right. In fact, it’s the ’70s ‘New Hollywood’ movie that Robert Altman thought he was making. Robert Towne’s sly script dissects a couple of days in the life of a narcissistic Hollywood hairstylist living an endless round of sexual conquests amid the beautiful people of 1968 Los Angeles. Although it takes on Republicans, gays, Peter-Pan playboys and Hollywood’s inimitable brand of smiling insincerity, this is not a farce or a satire. That’s its strength — no matter how outrageous things get, we believe the people we see, and measure our own desires and insecurities against theirs.

Shampoo is an unsung example of those superior ’70s movies that have retained their integrity — it’s original and unapologetic. Warren Beatty produced several few fine pictures, and this movie about fringe Hollywood dwellers, the Beverly Hills and Bel Air crowd is one of the best. As Beatty says, he knew the scene because it was his stomping ground from the 1960s forward — and he openly admits that he perhaps spent too much of his time ‘having fun.’

 

Talk about being in demand: hairdresser George Roundy (Warren Beatty) barely has time to put in a few working hours at a Beverly Hills salon because he’s too busy servicing the women in his life. Actress Jill (Goldie Hawn) is his neurotic semi-steady girlfriend. The sexually demanding Felicia (Lee Grant) is the slightly older and much more reckless wife of preening businessman Lester (Jack Warden). Lester seems willing to give George the cash to open his own salon, but when his present mistress Jackie Shawn (Julie Christie) turns out to be an old flame of George’s, the confusion and jealousies become too much for even the inexhaustible hairdresser to handle. Thanks to Lester’s invitation, everyone converges on an election eve investor’s party to watch the returns come in — Lester with Felicia, Jill with her director Johnny Pope (Tony Bill), and George serving as Lester’s unofficial beard with Jackie. George finds himself at a table with three women that think he is their exclusive bed partner, and the uncontrollable Jackie already drinking too much.

“Great!” says George Roundy, repeatedly. It’s his stock answer to almost every question or statement
he hears. This is the trendy West Side of Los Angeles where everyday subsistence problems are unknown, everyone is beautiful, and everyone is connected in some way to show business. Yet it’s a Los Angeles most of us Angelenos will recognize: at one point George blurts out, “Jeez, I was supposed to take Jill to El Cholo.” George’s women don’t exactly work for a living. Two are unmarried, and two feel a need to be sexually ‘in play.’ The top concern of the day is denial — to maintain the illusion that their privileges and beauty will be ‘forever.’

 

In this land hair is everything; Warren Beatty conceived the movie years before, and his preferred title ‘Hair’ was overtaken by the counterculture musical. The pursuit of the perfect hairstyle makes George’s services with a comb and scissors essential. These insecure women have chosen him as their sex ideal partly because they’ve already invested their trust in him. When ‘not feeling right,’ the first thing Jackie does is question her hairstyle. George volunteers to cut it on the spot, and his utter confidence in the right thing to do puts her in his hands before sex is even part of the deal. ‘The Hair is the Life,’ almost.

But George can barely handle the strain, of which the sexual demands are just a symptom. Everybody wants to make the right connections, and every ambitious beauty in Beverly Hills that sees him, is attracted. He spends all night telling phone callers to ‘drop by work and talk’, and all day at work telling his visitors he’s too busy to see them.

 

Yes, we see the Rich & Famous lifestyle all around us here in L.A., no matter how humble our individual lives. People cruise by in their Ferraris, and lines of limousines form up at the chi-chi watering holes. They’re naturally fascinating to watch and to daydream about. George Roundy is a service-industry superstar, a celebrity without portfolio. He rides a motorbike on unauthorized breaks from work. He doesn’t have to worry that his West Hollywood place isn’t the trendiest available, as he’s too busy playing musical beds to think about home. He’s the dream guy, the one so attractive that women flock to him, the fellow whose immaturity only makes him more desirable. When we meet guys like this, the ones who, as the saying goes, ‘get all the girls’, we can’t help but envy them.

Shampoo concentrates minute-by-minute on the social nuances. We note the way Jackie and Jill manage their unattached or kept status; the careful way Lester tries to assert his masculinity while worrying about his comb-over hairstyle; the chemistry involved when the mistress and the wife both drink too much and square off against each another. It’s a lot of well-fed animals in plush cages, frustrated and desperate. In this pocket of unrestrained hedonism, it’s no wonder that Felicia’s daughter Lorna (Carrie Fisher, in her first film role) expresses her hatred by seducing Felicia’s lover.

 

The main showdowns take place at pair of lavish parties, each attended by parking valets. One is a restaurant full of square Nixon boosters and the other a wild, swinging Hollywood Hills estate party complete with dope, skinny dippers, and body-painted females — the Maserati Hippie set. All the personal agendas and hidden relationships are out in the open, and it’s no wonder that some extreme behavior breaks out. Gving a deadly dinner speech, complete with an incomprehensible Indian Chant, is a politician played by the weird, wooden Brad Dexter, better known from The Magnificent Seven. The frustrated mistress Jackie shocks everyone with a sex act in the middle of a dining room. Pleasure is the only currency, and to be a beautiful person moving in this dream of luxury is to be able to ignore the rules. Julie Christie’s most famous obscene quote is delivered to a grinning, cigar-smoking gent to her left at the dinner table, who is none other than horror schlockmeister William Castle, of The Tingler and 13 Ghosts fame.

The average moviegoer found in Shampoo the ability to indulge their fantasies about Warren Beatty, who at the time was tinsel town’s most notorious, You’re So Vain lady-killer. He always looked like he was having a great time flitting from flower to flower. But the film is really about dissatisfaction, fear of aging, and the lack of fulfillment that even the pampered rich experience. George’s women each live in their own kind of desperate isolation. Even Julie Christie’s desirable Jackie sees her limits, her need to find something she can hang onto. In the final equation George isn’t a safe bet. Although he was too busy to even think of her the day before, his despair at losing her now is sincere. It’s just that he’s never been tested by even the simplest commitment, so
even he doesn’t know if his feelings are real or not.

 

Part of the joke about George Roundy is the stereotypical assumption that male hairdressers are gay. Lester pokes the question at Felicia, who is at a loss for an answer that won’t give away the fact that she’s sleeping with George. The impish Lorna brings the issue right to George, even challenging him with the word ‘faggoty.’ George at least has no doubt about which way he swings: becoming a hairdresser gave him instant access to all those girls he dreamed about.

Shampoo convinces us that it was made by genuine insiders, those that know the difference between the invisible superstars and the garden variety to be found on the hoof on Rodeo Drive. Robert Towne’s dialogue never seems false or forced.Hal Ashby’s direction is so well judged that we’d think he had a magic want to make his actors behave ‘Beverly Hills Casual.’  *   The show also lets outside reality peek in from the sides, from TVs and radios on the periphery of shots. The audio heard from radios ranges from election news to Beatles records. The time frame is very specific, a warm November in 1968 with Nixon happy to be elected President. In 1975 we were thinking, could Charles Manson have wheedled himself an invitation to the hipster party?

Shampoo has some odd and affecting touches. Carrie Fisher’s Lorna is a bitter Beverly Hills princess, a monster-in-the-making ready to attack her own mother. More easy assumptions are leveled at the gay hairdresser stereotype, especially George’s boss Norman, played with impressive restraint by the usually unrestrained Jay Robinson, whose Caligula in the very entertaining Demetrius and the Gladiators must surely be the top camp performance of the 20th century. Then a tragedy makes Norman the only person in the story with a real reason to despair. We experience his loss mostly through George, who is struck by Norman’s bad news. But for George the immediate future is still clear and bright. George still has no permanent consequences to deal with, at least not yet. There is no set reality in La La Land, and there will always be more women.


 

The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of Shampoo is quite a beauty — I haven’t seen it this bright or this clean. The new 4K transfer shows how László Kovács’ cinematography added to the impression that New Hollywood movies were ‘real’ in a way that Old Hollywood pictures were fake. The interiors look like location work (some were likely not) and never do we get a sense of high-key studio artifice. The wild party on the green estate allows us to see pretty much only what we might see under such circumstances. When several people peek at a couple making love in an outbuilding, they can’t identify the participants until a refrigerator door swings open.

The soundtrack lists a score by Paul Simon, but I’ve never listened for it — but we’re impressed by the expensive needle-drop cues from big names like The Rolling Stones. This is one of the few movies that uses real Beatles songs as indistinct background music; an earlier United Artists picture dropped part of a scene to avoid steep royalty payments. The end credits play over a top-rank Beach Boys song, ironically about the yearning for sexual freedom that George Roundy sometimes thinks is a curse.

 

Criterion surprises us this time out — there are no new interviews with any of the key participants in the movie, although all except Jack Warden and Carrie Fisher are alive and well. Did Warren Beatty put out the word not to cooperate? That’s an unfair thought, actually — I don’t know what Christie, Hawn, Grant or Beatty would have to gain by spilling out their thoughts on a movie that’s already been thoroughly examined. Maybe it’s a few years too soon.

We instead get a 1998 clip from an English talk show, with Beatty talking just a few minutes about this show and his Bonnie and Clyde. Helping to compensate is a very insightful two-critic discussion of Shampoo between Mark Harris and Frank Rich. They point out that the movie takes place in 1968, a year of assassinations and political upheaval, yet none of the film’s characters pays any attention to the baleful election and war news coming in over the TVs and radio. Actually, Lester does, but his only hope is that Nixon will be better for business than that loser LBJ. The two critics’ examination of the film’s amazingly well-sketched characterizations raises our admiration for Ashby, Towne and Beatty to a higher level.


*  The Beverly Hills Casual I knew was sort of a class distinction, a radar with which anointed individuals could tell who was ‘important’ and who was not. Celebrities on their own turf sometimes expected to be invisibly ‘private’ in public. Movie stars trying to relax in Westwood might become surly if a lowly student (me) recognized them. I saw a rich guy walking through a parking lot weeding pennies out of the change in his pocket and throwing them on the ground. He then complained that the rough water on his boat the day before made the deck pitch, and now his ankles were sore. A trendy couple came in driving a Jaguar XKE, wearing all leather. They were so immersed in their coolness, they seemed upset because I didn’t fawn over them. And the elderly rich in Westwood would become monsters when inconvenienced. At a premiere they simply wouldn’t wait in line for us to clear the theater. I was sworn at, one ‘lady’ kicked me for not obeying her, and they eventually just untied the ropes and pushed through — little 60-year-old entitled thugs.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Shampoo
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Alternate 5.1 surround soundtrack; New conversation between critics Mark Harris and Frank Rich, Excerpt from a 1998 appearance by producer, cowriter, and actor Warren Beatty on The South Bank Show; insert folder with an essay by ‘Rich.’
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 13, 2018
(5841sham)
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.