Shampoo: First as Farce

Shampoo: First as Farce

On Film / Essays — Oct 16, 2018

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.

“The timing of the film’s release could not have been more in sync with the country’s post-Nixon moral reckoning.”

Yet viewing this film now, the other side of Beatty, the driven producer, is equally apparent. While he had yet to become a director—a role he wouldn’t take on officially until the 1978 Heaven Can Wait—he by all accounts played a larger creative role in Shampoo than the first-rate director he hired, Hal Ashby, much as he had with Bonnie and Clyde, where the billed director, also excellent, was Arthur Penn. By the time Shampoo was nearing production and Ashby was hired for a shoot that would commence in March of 1974, Beatty had been nursing the project for six or seven years, a typically prolonged gestation period for him. (Early on, it carried the title Hair.) He and Robert Towne had each written screenplays along the way—they would share the final credit—and it was Ashby who served as referee for a volatile ten-day collaboration in which they merged their two versions. It was “the most creative ten days of my life, probably,” Beatty would later say. 

Shampoo directly followed production of Towne’s screenplay for Chinatown, which went into release in June 1974, just as Shampoo wrapped, and the affinity between the two projects is apparent. As Chinatown weds the noir genre to a fictionalized recounting of real-life corruption among Los Angeles’ elites in the early decades of the twentieth century, so Shampoo blends farce with a portrait of corruption LA-style in the 1960s. The film opens with a card announcing that it is set on November 4, 1968, election eve; the gala at which all the principals subsequently converge is an election-night dinner for fat-cat Republican donors—chief among them Warden’s character, Lester Karpf—held in a private dining room at the reigning Rodeo Drive power restaurant of the day, the Bistro. The well-heeled revelers are inclined to strike a high moral tone: “Some of us are trying to make this country a better place to live in,” Lester lectures his wife while holding forth at a table festooned with American flags. (Elsewhere at the party, he can be heard conferring with male cronies about “offshore-drilling permits.”) No less sanctimonious are the diners’ political standard-bearers, whose sound bites occasionally float above the din from the scattered Sony Trinitrons tuned in to NBC’s election coverage. Richard Nixon vows to “restore respect for the United States of America,” while his running mate, Spiro Agnew, promises an end to “permissive attitudes.” The ironies are clear enough. By the time Shampoo was in production, Watergate was nearing its endgame, and Nixon would resign when it was still in the editing room that August of 1974. The timing of the film’s release—the following February—could not have been more in sync with the country’s post-Nixon moral reckoning.

In retrospect, though, the film captured a bigger and more enduring slice of political history than Watergate, albeit one not yet visible to the audiences of 1975. At the time of Shampoo’s premiere, it’s worth recalling, American conservatism was thought to be in its death throes. Barry Goldwater had been humiliated in the 1964 Lyndon Johnson landslide, and Watergate had negated Nixon’s victories of 1968 and 1972. But obituaries for the New Right of that time would soon prove laughably mistaken. Along with the mammoth oil portraits of Nixon and Agnew that decorate the Bistro dinner in Shampoo, there is a much smaller black-and-white portrait of Ronald Reagan, who had been elected California’s governor in 1966. While Nixon and Agnew would indeed be swept away soon enough, the Reagan Revolution would survive and flourish, capturing the White House just six years after Nixon’s demise and five years after the release of Shampoo.

The backers of that revolution were typified by Lester Karpf and his cohort. The revolution’s birthplace, after all, was Southern California—in both Beverly Hills and Orange County, whose activists were crucial foot soldiers in the rise of the John Birch Society and the Goldwater putsch of the GOP. With a keen satirical eye, Shampoo nails this political culture with a maximum of humor and a minimum of preaching. The movie’s characters—not just Lester’s crowd but also the less affluent George and his harem—are laughably insulated from and oblivious to the violence and political tumult ripping America apart in 1968. They care about the election only to the extent that it may affect their bottom line. Even when the party at the Bistro, in the film’s most mysterious moment, is suddenly aborted by a loudspeaker announcement instructing everyone to evacuate the restaurant “as quietly and quickly as possible,” no one clamors for an explanation (which is never forthcoming)—they simply head on to the next party. The only time the real world pricks George’s bubble is when he learns that the son of his boss (Jay Robinson) was killed in a car accident en route to reporting to Camp Pendleton. In its way, the Beverly Hills of Shampoo—an invincible, opaque, and provincially LA enclave of power, privilege, and corruption—is a latter-day correlative to the byzantine earlier LA that Towne and Roman Polanski metaphorically christened “Chinatown.”

“The political divisions and extreme economic inequality seen in Shampoo have never been resolved.”

Shampoo’s LA is much funnier, however. It is animated by delicious comic turns—from all its principals and also such secondary players as Robinson, George Furth (a persnickety bank loan officer), and Tony Bill (an on-the-make Hollywood hanger-on). The production design by Richard Sylbert—who also created the vintage SoCal environments for Chinatown and Mike Nichols’s 1967 The Graduate—is a riot of telling detail, culminating in the chintz apotheosis that constitutes Lester Karpf’s household. The soundtrack score, a small dose of original Paul Simon post-Graduate music interstitched with a lot of period pop, is perfectly calibrated: a Muzak-esque cover of “Yesterday” at the Bistro dinner gives way to the actual “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” at a subsequent late-night blowout where George and his cohort intermingle with a stoned crowd of hipsters, orgy-seekers, and even the occasional dashiki-outfitted black man. Of course, this counterculture conclave takes place at a vast LA manse offering valet parking.

Somewhere along the way over this long and fateful election night, we hear the NBC News anchor David Brinkley in the background opining, “I don’t think we’re going to get a winner tonight.” He was speaking in the present tense: 1968 was a close three-way race. But he was also proved correct in a larger sense by history to come. The political divisions and extreme economic inequality seen in Shampoo have never been resolved. The crowd at the Bistro would always live to fight another day, finding perhaps its ultimate victory in Donald Trump’s ascension to the White House. In this sense, Shampoo has thus far proved a more prescient portent of the future than that better-known Hollywood classic of the Watergate era, the 1976 All the President’s Men, which canonized the conviction that truth, justice, and investigative journalism could in the end rescue us from corruption in high places. For that matter, the brand of politics captured in Shampoo has also outlasted Soviet Communism, the ideology whose birth pangs Beatty chronicled in his 1981 epic Reds. 

All of which is to say that this high comedy, a period film even at the time of its release, seems more timeless than ever as it approaches a half century in age. If in spirit Bonnie and Clyde was Beatty’s answer to Jean-Luc Godard’s cheeky Breathless, so Shampoo may be as close as Hollywood has come to Jean Renoir’s sublime portrayal of France’s haute bourgeoisie frolicking on the eve of world war in The Rules of the Game.