October 22, 2018
$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray;
Stars Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, Goldie Hawn, Jack Warden, Lee Grant.
Once perceived and basically sold as a sex comedy conceived to trade in on star/co-producer Warren Beatty’s then real-life rep as Hollywood’s predominant anti-monk, Shampoo now looks amazingly prescient and, thus, a whole lot more than we thought at the time. In a terrific half-hour jawbone between two of the ‘A’-team-iest journalistic film folk (Mark Harris and Frank Rich) on a Criterion supplement here, I was surprised and certainly tickled to hear Rich say that the trajectory of Shampoo appreciation has been identical to mine. Which is to say we both liked it a ton in 1975, then somewhat less so after re-seeing it a few years back, and now think it’s even better than it seemed 40-some years ago after taking fresh looks.
Politically, the picture was shrewd and, to some extent, lucky. For starters, it was a comedy set on the eve of the 1968 presidential election — and as I learned long ago from 10 years’ worth of professional programming, any time a movie features a wall painting or portrait of Richard Nixon or Spiro Agnew, it’s an automatic audience laugh. However, Shampoo’s inevitably informed filming took place during Watergate’s final days until it was all over for the Nixon Administration but the gas chamber — leading to a March ’75 release roughly seven months into the Ford Administration when, as Ford said, our “long national nightmare” was over and people were ready to laugh. Beyond this, and for unexpected posterity’s sake, the movie’s added good fortune was to have all those portraits of Ronald Reagan on the wall flanking Dick and Spiro (or, if you prefer, “Ted”) in its famous extended restaurant set piece — which comically skewers the kind of Orange County Republican Joseph Cotten played so memorably in Richard Lester’s Petulia.
Cotten, though, was sinister, whereas Jack Warden’s relatively apolitical Elephant-man is merely a badly coiffed dim-bulb who’s amassed a lot of green though vaguely delineated means — gruffly affable enough but probably capable of busting your knees if his beefy henchman are called to act upon his orders. Warden, who’s just magnificent (and a long way from 12 Angry Men or Donovan’s Reef), is continually on the fence about investing in the Beatty character’s hoped-for upscale hair salon. This is true, despite the fact that the latter is simultaneously having sex with Warden’s wife (Oscar-winning Lee Grant, definitely back from the Blacklist); his mistress (Julie Christie as, coincidentally, a former Beatty lover); and 17-year-old daughter (Carrie Fisher in an inspired screen debut). On all three counts, Warden is oblivious due to the picture’s motivating gag: Beatty has to be gay because he’s a hairdresser, right?
Shampoo employed the services of the production designer of the day (Richard Sylbert), whose previous work on The Graduate and Chinatown made this picture the third entry in a kind of L.A.-underbelly trilogy of Big Money soulless consumption. Either Harris or Rich notes the heavy emphasis on glass in their more well-off Graduate–Shampoo homes, so as to make their inhabitants the kind of people who are just “a few steps away from the pool” and yet can’t seem to enjoy or even get to it. No one seems very happy (which doesn’t prevent the narrative from becoming increasingly funny) and everyone is on the make, including even Fisher’s fast-track late adolescent. Even Beatty’s character is, though it’s more on a professional level than sexual. He’s not out to hurt anyone on the latter count and makes no bones that that having lots of sexual partners is simply … well, fun.
But is it? In addition to anticipating Ronald Reagan and the revitalized Republican Party, Shampoo also seemed to anticipate that the days of the Swinging ’70s were waning (hell, even the real-life Beatty eventually settled down to raise a brood). This is one reason why the movie’s wrap-up is surprisingly moving, though a lot of the credit goes to how well the Robert Towne-Beatty script has set up the characters — plus the characteristic disinclination of director Hal Ashby’s (in his compressed but brilliant 10-year prime) to overplay anything. I’ve started to make tentative inroads to take fresh looks at Ashby’s remarkable ’70s decade, and after just an opening tiptoe, I can tell you that The Landlord, Shampoo and Being There have all improved with age from their already lofty starting points.
Beatty’s commercial instincts may have had a hand (or not) in casting two former real-life girlfriends in key roles: Julie Christie (who’d been unforgettable with him in Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller) and also Goldie Hawn, who’d co-starred with Beatty in Richard Brooks’s Dollars (sometimes rendered as $ on audience-unfriendly marquees). In any event, each puts such a personalized slant on her performance that it isn’t easy to imagine alternate casting, and Christie gets to utter the million-dollar “did-she-really-just-say-that?” line of dialogue that no one had ever heard before in a Hollywood movie, to say nothing of one that boasted some of the industry’s top stars. In addition to the actors and Sylbert, Shampoo was laden with some of the day’s top behind-the-camera talent: Richard Towne as co-screenwriter, Laszlo Kovacs as cinematographer and Anthea Sylbert as costumer. On the last count, one can advance a case that the backless dress Christie sports at the election night restaurant outing qualifies as an entire career just by itself.
A friend of mine just told me she recently saw Beatty in the ’78 Heaven Can Wait and was put off by the fact that all throughout, he conveyed the self-knowledge that he was good-looking. I can’t vouch one way or another in this case (too long between viewings), but to me, the great thing about Beatty has almost always been that he never hogs the show from other actors and is all too willing to present himself as something of a doofus. Think McCabe, Bulworth and here, to name three; even in the Beatty-directed Reds, it’s clear that at least this version of John Reed is somewhat in over his head.
The actor’s “George” character in Shampoo is rather ingratiating in his dimness — before the real-life Beatty keeps the charm spigot going in an excerpt that I wish were longer from one of Britain’s old South Bank interview showings; he re-tells a story he used previously in George Stevens Jr.’s documentary about his father (A Filmmaker’s Journey), but it’s still hilarious. The bonus extras are more limited here than on many or even most Criterion releases, but when you’ve got Harris with Rich and then a Rich essay (I used to love his movie reviews in New Times magazine back in the mid-’70s), I’m in. As expected the Sony-Criterion print is has that “opening night” quality — a respite from the beat-up 35s that kept recirculating as blasts from the not so distant blast in my local rep houses once the Carter (and especially Reagan) Administrations took over.