Lather, rinse, repeat

  • by Matthew Kennedy
  • Tuesday February 5, 2019
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Lather, rinse, repeat

"Shampoo" is an emblematic if somewhat neglected period piece from the fabled Hollywood Renaissance of the late 1960s and early 70s. Released in 1975, today it lacks the cache of that rich era's better-known titles "Bonnie and Clyde," "The Graduate," "Midnight Cowboy," "M*A*S*H," "The Last Picture Show," "The Godfather(s)," "Chinatown," and "Nashville." That's too bad. A huge hit in its day, "Shampoo" retains much of its bite as a savage black comedy of sexual and political immorality. It features stars at their zenith, and has a frankly scary political subterfuge more timely than ever.

"Shampoo"'s screenplay assembles like Legos. It's set on November 4, 1968, the night of Richard Nixon's first presidential victory. George (Warren Beatty) is a Beverly Hills hairstylist, which comes with some presumption he's gay. Actually, George is not only heterosexual, but rampantly so, bedding every "head" who sits in his chair. He's servicing Felicia (gloriously arch Lee Grant, an Oscar winner here), whose businessman husband Lester (Jack Warden) might finance George's own salon. Lester's mistress Jackie (Julie Christie) is George's ex, and best friend to his current girlfriend Jill (Goldie Hawn). With George pinballing from one woman to another, Jill, an aspiring actress, gravitates toward low-tier director Johnny (Tony Bill), who may be able to help her career. Meanwhile, George has never stopped pining for Jackie.

The election is forever humming in the background, barely acknowledged by so many preoccupied hedonists. The mere sight of a disgraced and exiled Nixon in 1975 could induce nausea, but who put him in the White House? There are precious few remarks made on the tumult of the times, civic responsibility, or government corruption, which is exactly the point. Ubiquitous political apathy is "Shampoo"'s political statement.

"Shampoo" presents its irreverent 70s credentials from the starting gate. It begins with the familiar Columbia logo, a robed woman regally holding a bright torch aloft, but here she's followed immediately by darkness and the unmistakable sounds of fucking. It's filled with references to 1968 freshly and humorously pass´┐Ż to 1975 audiences: "Tijuana Taxi," "Born Free," go-go boots, long bob hairstyling, and ultra-mini-skirts. Art directors Richard Sylbert and W. Stewart Campbell and set decorator George Gaines were Oscar-nominated for their pitch-perfect take on all that was slightly dated, from overstuffed mausoleum-like mansions to seedy apartments to a stylistically confused upscale beauty salon.

Under Hal Ashby's direction, "Shampoo" is exceptionally well-acted, and looks like it was a lot of fun to make. Still, it's more a comedy of human observation than laugh-out-loud funny. It's easy to imagine cast and crew giggling at the taboo-crushing shenanigans, the most famous being Jackie's drunken eagerness to fellate George at a political fundraiser. Yes, that's Carrie Fisher as a nymphet taunting George to a bedroom tussle one year before she affixed her Princess Leia cinnamon buns. Everyone in "Shampoo" is Id-driven, with the audience taking voyeuristic pleasure at the absence of any self-awareness. George is inarticulate and largely passive, more preyed upon than preying with his doomed, kid-in-a-candy-store sex life. Christie's Jackie is a restless kept woman, brittle, vain, and charged with a feline desire to be pampered. Regret never looked more movie-star gorgeous than it does travelling across her face. Warden's Lester is a cheap, possessive, and obscenely rich man who smells of organized crime. Somehow he makes Lester simultaneously funny and sinister. There's delight in the actorly character details, such as Warden tuned in to the radio stock-market dirge, Fisher evoking vagina dentata while biting a raw carrot, and Christie disciplining her yapping Yorkies with a casual "shut up" between consultations with a mirror. Grant's sybaritic, horny, bored housewife has a penchant for spontaneous quickies and revenge. Hawn's Jill is the closest "Shampoo" gets to a sympathetic victim, her panic attacks and neediness diminishing her Kewpie Doll prettiness.

"Shampoo" oozes hypocrisy. When lives start unraveling, the outrage one character expresses for another is choice considering everyone is betraying someone else — be it wife, husband, lover, ex-lover, parent, or friend. It's diabolically well-written by Beatty and Robert Towne, the latter preceding "Shampoo" with no less than "The Last Detail" and "Chinatown." As producer, co-writer, and star, Beatty relished the film as a serio-comic statement on his life and reputation. Michelle Phillips, his girlfriend du jour, can be spotted as a party extra. He and Christie were former lovers playing former lovers, and George's many conquests paralleled Beatty's global reputation as a womanizer. George's political obliviousness was in blatant contrast to Beatty's impassioned stumping for George McGovern in 1972. But "Shampoo" owes much to Ashby, too, who was smack in the middle of his stupendous run of 1970s films both socially conscious and flat-out entertaining. "Shampoo" came after "The Landlord," "Harold and Maude," and "The Last Detail," and before "Bound for Glory," "Coming Home," and "Being There." Burdened with drug addiction and out of step in the Spielbergian 1980s, Ashby's career went into swift decline. He died of pancreatic cancer in 1988 at 59.

The extras are skimpy by Criterion standards. There's a perceptive essay by Frank Rich concentrating on "Shampoo"'s politics, a worthy sit-down with Rich and fellow essayist-columnist Mark Harris, and an excerpt of a 1998 interview with Beatty. But none of the surviving principals — Beatty, Towne, Christie, Hawn, Grant, or Bill — came back to talk for this edition. The transfer is magnificent, bringing out every split-end, wicker stick, and background philodendron.

Nearly a half-century hence, the strange time warp "Shampoo" gave its original audiences is near lost. The shocking upheavals in America between 1968 and 75 gave Beatty and company the opportunity to engage in contemplative and witty seven-year hindsight. A smart filmmaker could do that again. Seven years ago at this writing, Barack Obama was gearing up for a second term and Donald Trump was a sleazy real estate tycoon and reality TV host. My, how times have changed. We could use another "Shampoo" right about now.