In our increasingly innumerate series of 47 films to see before death, we present Hal Ashby’s Shampoo.
Warren Beatty as a megastar is something of a fading memory. His director’s career hasn’t been as prolific as contemporary Clint Eastwood. Even as an actor, appearances diminished over the years. His big flop Ishtar became a smudge on his bankability. When a hit arrived with Dick Tracy, it never transformed into the kind of franchise to establish him in the minds of a new generation. But his star shone brightly. With films such as Bonnie and Clyde, The Parallax View and Splendor in the Grass, Beatty straddled Hollywood leading man status with a keen eye for the counter-cultural moments of the time. His appearance in Hal Ashby’s Shampoo is a case in point.
Scripted by Robert Towne in collaboration with Beatty, Shampoo tells the story of a hairdresser George (Beatty) who is looking to open his own shop. He swings from an obvious artistry to his profoundly wide-ranging libido. With multiple affairs going on, the husband of one of his lovers Lester (Jack Warden) might be willing to put up the money. It just so happens though that Lester’s extra-marital affair is with Jackie (Julie Christie), one of George’s exs. Goldie Hawn plays George’s current girlfriend, who herself is having to choose between her career and her relationship with George. Thinking George is gay (a hairdresser), Lester asks him to chaperone Jackie to a political fundraiser he will be attending with his wife.
The synopsis is one thing. It sets up very obvious ideas and oppositions. The cuckold versus Lothario, the artist versus the capitalist. In the background we also have a very obvious counterpoint in the Nixon Presidency and his famed Silent Majority versus the Hollywood based counterculture. What today we call the liberal elite. All of this works. But what it misses is the way Ashby brings out the other characters. A throwaway and thankless part like George’s boss at the salon is suddenly struck by the death of a loved one in an accident. Lester himself reads as a cardboard cut out. And yet Warden gives the character real sadness. He’s genuinely lost in a changing world. George himself comes across as a deeper man than we first assume. Just like Beatty, we can dismiss him as a hairdo attached to a penis, but despite his protestations and his selfishness, he harbors genuine sensitivity.
The razor sharp script, the excellent acting – a young Carrie Fisher makes her debut – and Ashby’s sensitive direction make Shampoo a brilliant portrait of a moment in time (1968), when things looked like they might change. And they did but not in the direction we hoped.