Directed by Hal Ashby (Being There, Harold & Maude), 1975’s Shampoo is a multifaceted comical look at sex, politics, gender, and well, hair.
Set on the day that Richard Nixon won the 1968 presidential election, Shampoo stars Warren Beatty as George Roundy, a handsome lothario and hairdresser from Los Angeles who aspires to one day open his own shop and be in charge. With his rock-star swagger, rippin’ motorcycle, and bouffant hair, it’s hard to take Roundy seriously, despite his actual talent and charisma. Having been rejected for a loan and feeling lost in his life, Roundy is more vulnerable than the women he routinely services in his salon… and in their beds.
We learn that Roundy is simultaneously sleeping with his ex-girlfriend, Jackie (Julie Christie), and her best friend Jill, his current girlfriend (Goldie Hawn). He juggles his sordid bedroom escapades while also trying to get a loan from a prominent businessman, Lester (Jack Warden), despite the fact that he is also sleeping with Lester’s wife, Felicia (Lee Grant). Lester is an older conservative, and just assumes Roundy is gay. After all, he is a hairdresser.
Lester asks Roundy to accompany Jackie to a Republican soiree that night. The night does not go as planned, and things soon turn out worse for Roundy, who finds he is still in love with his ex-girlfriend and may have ruined his only shot of appeasing, well, anyone. It is a screwball comedy seemingly where everyone is getting screwed one way or another.
Beatty offers a complex and compelling character study in Roundy, who seemingly can never give a definitive answer, nor turn down an attractive client’s advances. It is hard to sympathize for him even as a quasi-tragic character, as he’s seemingly talented, beautiful, and wooing women left and right with little to no effort. He is essentially an artist with no capability to go anywhere. Roundy’s profound indulgences offer him no real insight or understanding of his relationships. Ultimately, they bring about his own personal and professional undoing. The film showcases Roundy’s lack of focus, vanity, and callousness continuously, conveying these things without much preaching against Roundy’s objectionable behavior.
Some aspects of Beatty’s character may stem from Beatty’s own reputation around Hollywood at the time as a libertine. Casting his ex-girlfriends in Shampoo is pretty meta, and adds to the hubris of his character for those in the know. The sexual minutiae of the film remain provocative and engrossing today. Carrie Fisher’s debut role in the film is also noteworthy; she plays Felicia’s young daughter, who quizzes Roundy on his practice and his heterosexuality before eventually seducing him. The sexual politics of these scenes are not about exactly about titillation, or a lack of moral fiber, but rather about self-absorption, and how clueless the characters are in their actions and search for satisfaction.
Shampoo articulates a specific lack of understanding of oneself and one’s own desires so well that it feels worth the truly-earned bummer ending. As the film ends, our hero seemingly has lost everything he holds dear. Roundy realizes his opportunity for real romantic connection may be gone, and he is now adrift in the wake of his own carelessness. His ending mirrors the way Nixon’s presidency, still to come on the day the film takes place, will eventually go down in flames and bring about uncertainty in turbulent times. Roundy’s comeuppance is well deserved, as is ours, as the political separations and extreme economic inequality of Nixon’s era have never been resolved and still linger today.
The film’s long gestation in pre-production, which Beatty began in the late 60s, was worth it; Shampoo was a massive hit, making 60 million on a modest 4 million dollar budget, and landed Lee Grant a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, among other nominations for the cast. Its reputation has dimmed in the following decades, however; in Hollywood, aging can be a tricky thing. Shampoo is not as provocative as it once was, and its political undertones are somewhat less novel than they were at the time. They seem almost quaint in light of the way the political landscape has mutated. That said, the film does offer some great acting and compelling insight into a transitional period in American history.
Shampoo comes to the Criterion Collection in a wonderful 4K digital restoration with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack exclusive to the Blu-ray. The amount of supplements is a little low, but what’s there is good. The best is a new 30-minute conversation between critics Mark Harris and Frank Rich, who discuss the film’s various topical points and background. Rich also contributes an essay on the film. Also included is an excerpt from a 1998 appearance by Beatty on The South Bank Show, which gives some insight on the star, producer, and co-writer of the film.
That’s really all we get, though, and it’s a shame, since a lot of principal players are still around and would have made for some interesting interviews. While the extras are nothing to write home about, the transfer does look great and really upgrades the film’s look. The film feels shiny and sunny during the day, cool and sexy at night, which informs the L.A. setting perfectly. The bright colors are rich and robust here, complementing the film’s sense of fading idealism from a bygone era.
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