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.