05th Nov2018

‘Shampoo’ Blu-ray Review (Criterion)

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, Goldie Hawn, Jack Warden, Lee Grant | Written by Robert Towne, Warren Beatty | Directed by Hal Ashby

shampoo-blu

Shampoo opens with the sounds of George (Warren Beatty) and Felicia (Lee Grant) having sex. It immediately establishes that hairdresser George is straight (his male colleagues at the salon are risible camp stereotypes), and it’s also an example of how this 1975 film fully embraces the newfound freedoms of filmmaking in that decade. The increasingly feeble Hays Code had been abandoned in the year Shampoo is set: 1968.

Something else that happened in 1968 was the inauguration of the infamous Richard Nixon, and this provides the backdrop for the bed-hopping antics in the foreground. Political satire and ‘70s sex comedy are hardly the most obvious bedfellows, and the result is predictably mixed.

It’s all about the characters, but let’s skim the story. George wants to start up a salon of his own, so he approaches the mega-wealthy Lester (Jack Warden), the husband of the aforementioned Felicia. On the way he’ll drop in and see Jill (Goldie Hawn) and assure her that she’s his main girl. Then he meets with Lester and finds out the old-timer is cheating on Felicia with Jackie (Julie Christie), to whom George used to be married.

“I can’t get out of my own way,” George says, insisting he’s seeking a normal life. There are tentative nods to sex addiction throughout, although the film doesn’t dare go to such dark places (if it were even a recognised condition at the time). Rather, George’s promiscuity is the driving force for a procession of farce. In this way, this is an old-fashioned picture even for the time – a smutty update of the screwball comedies of ‘40s.

The sexual politics are fascinatingly dated, and it must be said that the women don’t come out looking great generally. While George is depicted as a tragic figure, lousy with a lack of control but basically retaining his irresistible smoothness, the females are more extreme and annoying: Felicia is pure desperation, fighting ageing like it’s the Grim Reaper; Jill is naïve and neurotic; and Jackie is gold-digging, fickle and sulky. Meanwhile, Carrie Fisher (in her debut role) plays a disturbingly young nymphet, whose successful seduction of George is played for laughs.

This being a Hal “Harold & Maude” Ashby picture, written by Robert “Chinatown” Towne, a strain of dark irony runs through all of this, of course. Set in the aftermath of Nixon but set prior, this is a post-mortem of the Love Generation. While its relevance has dimmed, it does have something universal to say about the nature of mass social movements: specifically, how they can distract a populous from the crimes of those in power, as they breed political complacency.

It’s because sex itself has become a matter of politics for these people, with every decision bound up with questions of ethics and morality. A society unshackled by traditional rules of sexual conduct will inevitably become preoccupied by sex, at the expense of other human concerns. Sex complicates the uncomplicated.

While the characters are busy bed-hopping, the big politics play out in the background. It’s Nixon, for crying out loud, and the characters couldn’t care less. Even at a political fundraiser, no one mentions the new POTUS. The local candidate stands in front of the crowd and bellows a strange, meaningless chant, and the society audience accepts it as they would a speech about taxes. Nixon can be heard saying that the main purpose of his administration is to “bring America together”. Yet Towne is painting a socially incohesive world.

One character straddling the old and new worlds is Lester, who is a paranoid mess. Ill-equipped for the changing times, he is an old school philanderer. He functions as a reminder that promiscuity isn’t a new thing, or a young thing – it’s just no longer an exclusively male thing. The sexual values he clings to aren’t conservative, or “better”, they’re just outdated.

The overarching point about complacency is interesting but that doesn’t mean the comedy is particularly funny. I’m not sure Beatty is particularly well-suited to the comedic lothario role. Forever appearing older than his years (until he started making himself look younger than his years), he’s too brooding; his gaze promises too much violence. The best of the cast is Hawn, whose character also gets the most unambiguously empowering arc.

This being a Towne script, and this being an auteur film made in the 1970s, means that this great game of sexual musical chairs can’t end well for everyone. Shampoo is a cautionary film, and absolutely a film of its time (even if it is depicting another time). Steeped in the values, sensibilities and politics of its era, it takes effort today to draw direct relevance. But it’s well-made, well-played and brisk and witty enough to hold the attention.

Extras:

  • 1988 episode of The South Bank Show featuring Warren Beatty discussing his career
  • Critics Mark Harris and Frank Rich discuss Shampoo

Shampoo is out on Criterion Blu-ray from today, 5th November 2018.

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