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Shampoo: First as Farce

<em>Shampoo: </em>First as Farce

When Shampoo was released in February 1975, Warren Beatty was at once a movie star known for his prolific and unabashedly public love life and an ambitious cinematic auteur who had helped trigger a sea change in Hollywood filmmaking. His sheer willpower as both producer and star had pushed the 1967 Bonnie and Clyde, a groundbreaking American response to France’s New Wave, into the cultural mainstream despite hostility from critics and the studio (Warner Bros.) that had made it. By contrast, Shampoo, a rollicking sex farce set over a roughly twenty-four-hour time span, was mainly greeted by the press and moviegoers as a divertissement—a lighthearted goof on Beatty’s movie-star persona. He cast himself as George Roundy, a bubbleheaded Beverly Hills hairdresser who ends up in bed with most of his clients. To heighten the in-jokey echoes of Beatty’s tabloid image, two of his real-life ex-girlfriends, Julie Christie and Goldie Hawn, were cast as, respectively, George’s former and current flames. It didn’t hurt the film at the box office, either, that a single line of dialogue delivered by Christie—“I want to suck his cock!” (apropos of George)—became the movie’s titillating calling card at a time when such language was still verboten in all mainstream media. 

Shampoo remains hugely entertaining on those comic terms. The comparisons contemporary critics made to Restoration comedies like William Wycherley’s The Country Wife are apt, and the plot’s farcical payoff, in which George and too many of his playmates collide at the same black-tie dinner, carries a whiff of the golden-age Hollywood comedy classicism exemplified by George Cukor’s Dinner at Eight. The sexual politics of the piece have not aged badly either. Women spend all day talking about “how men are fucking them over,” observes George about his clientele. He’s speaking matter-of-factly, not making a political statement—he’s dumb as a post about everything except his two specialties, sex and hair. But if he is no incipient feminist, Shampoo is correct without being politically correct about George’s paramours. The female characters are smarter than George is and often give as good as they get; the couplings are consensual; and George’s transparent, almost guileless ardor for his calling as a Don Juan, like the gentle charms of Beatty’s light comedic style, keeps smarminess at bay. Even when it comes to pass that George has hooked up with the wife (Lee Grant), mistress (Christie), and daughter (the seventeen-year-old Carrie Fisher, in her first film role) of the same middle-aged Beverly Hills power broker (Jack Warden), we can’t quit him. Nor can most of the women. Nor can the ostensibly humiliated husband, who is seen as the movie ends contemplating an investment in George’s dream of opening his own salon.

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