Friday, 20 September 2019

Classic Movie Review: Shampoo (1975)

Shampoo (1975)
Directed by: Hal Ashby.
Written by: Robert Towne & Warren Beatty.
Starring: Warren Beatty (George), Julie Christie (Jackie), Goldie Hawn (Jill), Lee Grant (Felicia), Jack Warden (Lester), Tony Bill (Johnny Pope), George Furth (Mr. Pettis), Jay Robinson (Norman), Ann Weldon (Mary), Luana Anders (Devra), Randy Scheer (Dennis), Susanna Moore (Gloria), Carrie Fisher (Lorna).
Shampoo is an odd movie. It is essentially a screwball comedy – featuring one man juggling multiple different women, and the husband of one of those women – and his business – and yet as directed by Hal Ashby, the whole movie goes a little slower than screwball comedies do. The dialogue doesn’t snap – if played another way, it could snap – but here, everyone seems laid back. It’s also a screwball comedy with a melancholy ending – and that melancholy seeps into the movie slowly as it moves along, so that it certainly feels earned in the end. I’m not quite sure that all the political stuff going on in the background of the movie quite works – it feels a little like the film is straining for some greater significance that it doesn’t quite have – and frankly doesn’t quite need. It is used to signify the end of the era – the 1960s – and how eventually, all these ‘60s kids have grown up, and will sell out.
It’s also an odd film in that it was co-written by Warren Beatty, and is clearly at least in part based on Beatty himself, and yet it isn’t really a vanity project. His George is a dim bulb, a womanizer who both understands women, and on another level, is clueless about women. There is a reason why so many women want to sleep with George – and more reasons why none of them really stick around. He can offer them great hair, and great sex – and when you’re with George it’s great. But when George isn’t right there with you, he’s completely gone. He’s the type of guy who when caught cheating can say – and mean – that it just kind of happened, he didn’t plan it. And that’s because George never really plans anything. Which is why he will always end up alone.
In the film, George – an in-demand Beverly Hills hair stylist – juggles multiple different women. His current girlfriend is Jill (Goldie Hawn), a beautiful, young, insecure actress who hasn’t yet figured out who precisely George is. He’s also sleeping with Felicia (Lee Grant) – the older wife of a wealthy businessman, Lester (Jack Warden) – who may, or may not, invest in George’s salon he wants to open. Lester’s current mistress is Jackie (Julie Christie) – who used to be George’s girlfriend, and they are still friendly. At some point in the movie, George starts to believe that perhaps Jackie is the one that got away – and he wants her back.
The film takes place over just a few days, leading up the 1968 Presidential election, when Richard Nixon would become President (the film came out in 1975, just after Nixon resigned). You can use a lot of signifiers for the end of the 1960s, and the election is a good one. There is a sense that George is getting too old to keep doing this – Beatty was in his late 30s when Shampoo was made, perhaps playing a little younger (he could pull it off being such a beautiful man). That his life of womanizing has gone on too long. But he is incapable of really changing. He is incapable of seeing that Jill really does love him – despite the fact that he doesn’t seem to listen to her. He is chasing after Jackie – but is it because he actually does love her, or because she has slipped through her fingers, and is now with Lester.
If there is a central flaw in Shampoo, it is probably that Jackie is a fairly unwritten character, so you’re never really sure which one she is. It feels more like she is a prize to be won by one of the two men in the film – Beatty, or Jack Warden, the older, wealthy businessman who supplies everything to women – money, security, etc. – that George cannot, while not being able to provide what George can. In a strange way, even though Lester is older than George, he is the future – and George is the past. Shampoo was prescient in this observation – the rising tide of conservatism in America that would make people like George seem more like relics than people like Lester. You can make the argument that Lester is perhaps the most complex character in the movie – his “morning after” showdown with George is the best scene in the film to be sure.
The other female characters in the film are better written. Goldie Hawk is excellent as Jill – the na├»ve actress who gets her heart broken. She’s not playing the likable, funny dim bulb of her Oscar winning Cactus Flower – but perhaps that character a little further along, a little wiser, but not wise enough. It would be easy to write her as a dumb blonde – but the film doesn’t do that. Out of all the characters in the film, Jill is the one whose emotions feel the most real. Lee Grant is great (perhaps not great enough to warrant an Oscar in a year where they nominated Lily Tomlin for Nashville against her, but great still) – as the older, cynical woman. She sees through George, but doesn’t much care. She doesn’t much care about anything – not her husband, not her daughter (Carrie Fisher). She uses George for exactly what George is good for.
I do want to talk a little about the scene between George and Lorna – played by a then 19-year-old Carrie Fisher – which culminates with her asking him “So, are we going to fuck?” – which cuts to Lee Grant walking in on Lorna on her bed, and George walking out of her bathroom tucking in his shirt. Is this the scene where George really does lose the audience – where you really do completely see through him? Because for the first hour or so of this film, it’s fairly lightweight and fun – like I said, a laid back California version of a screwball comedy – but here, when you see just what George will do – practically anything – he isn’t quite the fun loving guy anymore. It’s one thing to sleep with a bunch of women – who whether they realize what he’s doing or not – are old enough to make their own decisions. It’s another to sleep with a teenage girl. It’s clearly consensual – I’m not arguing that – but I cannot help but wonder if this is where George crosses the line that he cannot be redeemed from, at least in this film – or if I’m watching a film from 1975, set in 1968, from the vantage point of 2019. Either way, I think it works.
Shampoo isn’t quite the film that Ashby’s other masterpieces – The Last Detail and Being There – are, but it’s close. Like I said off the top, I’m not quite sure all the Nixon stuff quite works – while I see what they are going for there, it comes across as fairly heavy handed, despite the fact that it’s always just there is the background. And it’s not really needed – because everything with George and Lester does the job better than those snippets do. And I still do wish that Jackie was a more complete character – Christie’s performance is quite good, but I don’t think the screenplay quite has a handle on why she does what she does, a part from the fact that it needs her to do it for the sake of the story. Still, those are minor complaints for a movie that is funny on the surface, but slowly, steadily sneaks up on you with more substance than you think will be there.


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