1 Hr., 50 Mins.
Shampoo November 2, 2020
lives of real people. Director Hal Ashby and co-screenwriters Warren Beatty and Robert Towne never allow for the movie to get too comedically off the rails.
They make sure this is all relatively sobered — that it’s plausible.
Shampoo chronicles 24 hours in the life of George Roundy (Warren Beatty), a Los Angeles hairdresser who is as dedicated to womanizing as he is to trimming bangs. His womanizing is so all-consuming, in fact, that one might think that’s why he got into his field in the first place. It’s not for the love of an art where the tools to create are scissors and freshly dyed tresses; it’s for a love of women and sex and wanting to have more of both in a steadier stream. But he really does love it. Sex is a bonus. George’s idea of a good first date might involve him coming over to a woman’s house and giving her a new look. When he asks if he can do her hair outside of the salon, it’s a pick-up line. He’s not trying to say that her hair looks bad, necessarily, but imagine what it could look like if he were able to get his hands on it. It's follicular foreplay. George’s outward self-possession and nonchalance about life in general (all that matters, it seems, is seeking pleasure) is so appealing that we almost envy him. “I’m never serious about anything,” George at one point tells someone almost proudly. How serious is he when he says that?
George was reportedly inspired by stylist to the stars Jay Sebring (more infamous for being one of those killed alongside Sharon Tate by Charles Manson's acolytes), but audiences are clearly supposed to be tickled by the conspicuous reality that he is a cartoon version of the man playing him — the famous womanizer who would continue being a famous womanizer until the early 1990s, when Annette Bening proved herself too irresistible to not settle down with.
Shampoo is set in 1968. It begins the morning of that year’s Election Day and ends the dawn after Richard Nixon’s win has been confirmed. It’s the kickoff of a disastrous presidency that the world does not yet know will be disastrous; it’s also the kickoff of a disastrous day for George he's not anticipating to be
disastrous. He figures today, like most days, will probably encompass his usual frenetic bed-hopping routine, with work and a handful of election parties just
seasonings on top of his various rendezvouses. Right now George is pinging between an endearing actress with a megawatt smile named Jill (Goldie Hawn); her perpetually vexed best friend Jackie (Julie Christie), with whom George used to be in a real relationship but is now just having sex with once in a while; and Felicia (Lee Grant), the always-huffy wife of a successful, conservative-leaning businessman named Lester (Jack Warden).
All this is more complicated than it needs to be. Jill doesn’t know about George’s thing with Jackie, though Jackie knows about Jill and George. Jackie is Lester’s mistress, and she really loves him — she doesn’t want to admit it, but if he left Felicia she would more than happily start a new life with him. George is still in love with Jackie; he could picture himself with her, not Jill, in 50 years. Sick of not being the heavyweight at his salon, George also wants to open his own business, and thinks it might work to get Lester to bankroll him. (No one else will.) The last act of the movie is consumed by election-night parties — one of them pro-Nixon and abundant in middle-aged people, another liberal and youth-choked. The characters flit between them. We wait hungrily for all of these barely-avoiding-each-other secrets to come crashing into each other in a funny-but-maybe-a-little-sad climax.
It finally ends up just being sad. Shampoo is a movie about the danger of shortsightedness — of so steadily prioritizing your immediate desires above everything else that it can ultimately have a destructive effect, especially when you’ve surrounded yourself with people living the same way. We figure this is the message the movie is going for early on, when we see Jill turn down a potentially major role (she’s still mostly in the dilettante stage of her career — we sense she might drop it at any moment) because she doesn’t like the sound of having to travel to Egypt for a part. If she can turn this down with nothing else going on, how is she going to get anywhere? Everyone prefers to think about what tomorrow will look like.
Some critics have taken the election backdrop as a reaching attempt to lend the movie larger grandeur. But I don’t think it feels unnaturally tacked-on, necessarily (Shampoo came out just a few months after Nixon noisily departed office). It complements, albeit broadly, how the characters in the movie are heading for surefire doom in their everyday lives but don’t yet know what they’re in for, or how soon they’re going to be disappointed. They’re improvising, but increasingly badly. There is nonetheless a vague sense of dread in the air — a clue from the cosmos, maybe. “I feel like somebody is going to get me,” Jill confesses to George one night. She has this recurring dream where a person she can't see the face of breaks into her house, pins her down, and then ties her up. She always wakes up before things can get too bad.
f it were a little more hysterical, Shampoo (1975) might have been a prototypical — and probably forgettable — sex farce. But it’s so groundedly made that when you’re watching it, you don’t think about how silly and almost madcap its complications would sound if you neatly listed them all out on a piece of notebook paper. Shampoo is what it would look like if the storyline found in a standard-fare bedroom farce was grafted onto the
couldn’t help but think of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup, which came out about a decade earlier, as I watched Shampoo. That movie was “about” — or at least seemed to desperately want to be “about” — a lot of things while trying to avoid heavy-handedness. The thing that sticks out most in Blowup is its critique, by Antonioni, of the current bout of youthful hedonism — specifically the younger generation's embrace of anti-
establishment thinking and a sex-, drugs-, and-rock-'n'-roll ethos. Antonioni’s view of pleasure-seeking youths was condescending — like they were too naïve to be aware of just how wasteful the more wasteful things they did to make life more enjoyable in the short-term was. What they liked to do and what they pursued he seemed to think was foolish. He knew better than they did.
Shampoo at first seems like an echo. Its primary characters think almost exclusively about their own pleasure and what type of pleasure they will be seeking next. Their hang-ups are usually related to something they find pleasuresome being out of reach. They aren’t “destroyed” at the end of the movie, but it’s made clear to us that living almost strictly on the terms of quick gratification isn’t as sustainable or rewarding as they wish it were.
Shampoo works while Blowup in many ways doesn’t because it isn’t patronizing; it just presents a crashing and burning as a result of one’s own unwillingness to seriously consider the ramifications of endlessly hasty decision-making. It’s not generalizing the same way, and because it's not generalizing or patronizing the ultimate message isn't curdled. (Blowup is mostly populated by older teenagers and 20-somethings pinballing between parties and hangouts in 1960s London, chasing trends and little else.) Shampoo gets us to care about what gets burned. It doesn’t mock — it just generates an evocative atmosphere of inescapable myopia (relating to pleasure for the younger characters, and then relating to status quo maintenance when focusing on the older characters, who are mostly Nixon supporters). Everyone is searching for meaning, and if not meaning, exactly, the best way to keep themselves contented in their presently comfortable bubble.
Everything in Shampoo feels trivial. That the movie also is a period piece sitting at the precipice of national doom drives that in. But nothing about the film strains to get us somewhere. I never detected a belaboring of a point. Shampoo is unaffected and immediate — unnervingly lifelike. When Jackie tells George in frustration that even though he never stops moving, he never goes anywhere, it’s directed at him specifically. But you take it personally. When the end credits start rolling, we wonder where George is going to go next — and where we will, too. A