Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Film #146: Shampoo

Released in 1975, Hal Ashby’s Shampoo very well may rank as the great director’s most cynical film. Ashby had previously given us The Landlord, Harold and Maude, and The Last Detail, and would go on to deliver Bound for Glory, Coming Home and Being There before beginning a cocaine-fueled downward 1980s slump that would end in his untimely death in 1988 at age 59. It’s been years since I’ve revisited Shampoo, because it strikes me as a truthful, mildly funny but ugly movie. It hard to watch, but extremely worthwhile. I know I’ll be at Georgia State University's Cinefest on Thursday, July 21 at 7:30 pm to check out what is probably the first 35mm screening of Ashby’s film since the old days of the Rhodes and the Silver Screen, two long-gone Atlanta repertory theaters that closed their doors in the mid-1980s. We’re lucky to have a venue like Cinefest, which seems to be cultivating a desire to expand Atlanta’s repertory movie options these days.

Star Warren Beatty also acted as producer and co-writer, along with Chinatown and Last Detail scribe Robert Towne. As such, he labored for almost a decade to get the film made. When it finally reached screens, it arrived like a bombshell designed to blow apart the sexually revolutionary Me Decade and everything connected to it. Set in 1968, on the eve of Richard Nixon’s election to the White House (which held particular resonance to 1975 viewers, who were still reeling from the Watergate debacle that drummed Nixon out of office), Shampoo tells the story of a philandering self-obsessed hairdresser named George Roundy (Beatty). The beautifier and sexual partner of choice for many of his clients, George is sick of life as a mere employee at a Beverly Hills salon. And so he finally steps up to realize his ambition of opening his own hairdressing business. But he’s broke and the banks won’t lend to such a flighty guy. So he sets his sights on a private investor, an equally self-absorbed, aging millionaire named Lester Karpf (played by Jack Warden, who tellingly has the worst hairstyle in the whole film).

The problem is that Roundy has slept with almost every woman that Karpf knows--his wife (Lee Grant, in a bitchy, Oscar-winning role), his daughter (a young, pre-Star Wars Carrie Fisher, in her film debut) and his mistress (the always fetching Julie Christie, in the movie’s most engaging performance). All this indiscriminate screwing makes asking Lester for money pretty difficult. The film--which takes place over 48 hours--is really an dissection of the directionless, serially unattached George as he lurches towards the realization that his stance as a person unworthy of trust has left him with a pretty messy, and lonely, bed in which to sleep.

Cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs captures Beverly Hills in all its grim tackiness (side note: Shampoo contains one of my favorite final shots in all of film history.), and production designer Richard Sylbert was nominated for an Oscar for his glittering sets. Lee Grant is good in the film, but her role is minor at best (she probably won the Academy Award that year for being a survivor of the 1950s blacklist--there’s no way she was better than fellow nominee Ronne Blakely, who was superb as a country singer experiencing a nervous breakdown in Robert Altman’s Nashville). Goldie Hawn, while beautiful, sort of gets lost in the background as George’s increasingly angry girlfriend (though she never had a role as deadly serious as this one). Christie, as Roundy’s ex-girlfriend and best friend, gets some of the best lines and scenes from this award-winning screenplay, particularly the one in which she confesses to an amorous fatcat her one true desire (I won’t spoil the scene for you, but it’s a hoot). And Beatty is quite excellent in a role that, I suspect, may be closer to the real Beatty than he would like to admit.

Scored quite minimally by Paul Simon (whose song “Silent Eyes” serves as a plaintive refrain for the characters’ embalmed emotions), Shampoo is an important film but one that’s not very easy to love. Still, it’s always worthwhile to see any movie from the golden era of the 1970s on the big screen (in a newly restored 35mm print). I’ll certainly be giving Ashby’s terribly harsh picture another shot on Thursday at Cinefest, and I encourage everyone to join me in supporting the new and inventive programming staff at Georgia State University’s cozy little movie house.


Stacia said...

This is terrific, I'm so glad I read your take on the film. I had a very tough time connecting with it, finding myself so irritated with the hollow lives of nearly everyone there that it was difficult to watch, especially knowing the things that were just about to happen to them.

Joseph Aisenberg said...

It's weird your writing about this film as, coincidentally, I was just now sitting down to watch it again. I thought your piece was terrific, though I fell in love with it the first time I watched it.

I read somewhere that Towne considered George to be the real hero of the movie because he was the only one in it who used sex innocently, even if he was cheating, while for every one else it was just a tool to get somewhere, salve frustrations, exercise hostilities, or hedge bets. All of which creates cross purposes of a peculiarly muddy moral order tugging viewers in contradictory ways unique for a movie. My own personal favorite scene, aside from the one with Christie you alluded to, is the one with Carrie Fisher (seventeen years old at the time), and then Grant's reaction to it, which apparently became notorious.

This brings me to another issue: I disagree with you that Blakely deserved an Oscar more than Grant for her performance in Nashville, a film I frankly never have cared for. Grant is a real actress, who knows how to sharply shape a performance to do something, make an impact, while Blakely is an absurd amateur (to see what I mean watch her as the mom in Nightmare on Elmstreet, one of the most hilariously hopeless performances I've ever seen). I never believed that this limp suffering noodle of a character could possibly have been a great country star like the very charismatic and funny Loretta Lynn. Grant, on the other hand, makes something believable, devastating, and amusing in Shampoo that I don't think I ever would have thought could possibly work.

Also, I thought Goldie Hawn has never been better than she is here; she doesn't get lost at all, her last confrontation with George perfectly contrasts Christie's final betrayal of him, showing us that George is simply too dim and innocent to ever really get anywhere in a corrupt world like Shampoo's, where fornication is a form of coin.

Interestingly Peter Biskind in his bio of Beatty--or was it in Easy Riders?--says that originally the movie was going to culminate in a Manson-style murder, but that Beatty decided on a lighter, more ambivalent conclusion. The movie has always reminded me of an American La Dolce Vita; that kind of tabloid atrocity bit would have been a very Fellinish sort of grotesquerie.

Finally, I would like to say that I think Beatty's is the worst hairstyle in the film, a ridiculous fluff-job that screams shallow California boob, totally out of touch with reality. His hair is the most satirical prop in the movie.

Dean Treadway said...

Thanks for those comments, Stacia and Joseph.

Blakely may have never gotten another performance down pat (she was a country singer by trade, in real life). But her performance in NASHVILLE, whether or not it's a movie you like, is a marvel. She's clearly someone who's been overworked and is hooked on pills (just like Loretta Lynn was at the time of the film's making); I don't see her as a limp noodle at all.

I will admit that my viewing of SHAMPOO on Thursday night will be my second time with the film; the first time was more than a decade ago. My tastes have changed since, and if I feel I've been erroneous in any of my assessments of the film, or if I notice some new things about it (I agree about Beatty's hair; it's hilarious), I'll be adding some new bits into my review. Grant, for me, though, has always been a self-conciously harsh actress--she always plays tough. At any rate, your comments are fascinating and quite astute! Thanks for reading.