Director: Hal Ashby
Screenplay: Robert Towne and Warren Beatty
Starring: Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, Goldie Hawn, Jack Warden, Lee Grant
Running Time: 109 mins
BBFC Certificate: 18
Shampoo is the story of two days in the life of a Los Angeles hairdresser. It is also the story of how America squandered the promise of the 1960s. The hairdresser is George, played by Warren Beatty. He is in high demand, both for his skills as a stylist, and his abilities in the bedroom. At the start of the film, he is introduced mid-intercourse with Felicia (Lee Grant), one of his clients. Felicia is married to Lester (Jack Warden), a wealthy businessman who is having an affair with Jackie (Julie Christie), who used to date George. George is currently in a relationship with Jackie’s friend Jill (Goldie Hawn), an actress who could really use George’s support at a crucial moment in her career. Unfortunately, George is also distracted by the possibility of setting up his own salon, for which Lester’s money could be very useful. And then of course, there are all the other woman vying for George’s attention, not least Felicia’s daughter Lorna (Carrie Fisher).
These are all the ingredients of a farce, and Shampoo is often very funny, but the filmmakers (led by co-writer and producer Beatty, co-writer Robert Towne and director Hal Ashby), have something much bigger and bleaker in mind. The film was made in 1975, but – as an opening caption pointedly tells us – it is set on the eve of the 1968 presidential election. As George and Felicia and Lester and Jackie and Jill are busy fornicating and fretting and deceiving, the country is electing Richard Nixon in the hope he will fix a fractured society. The extent of division is made plain in two climactic party sequences attended by the key characters, the first a staid Republican fundraiser complete with oak panelling and chanting, the second a wild gathering of drugs, music and body paint. The latter is clearly a reaction against the former, but not an automatically positive one; change has been so rapid, with so many new possibilities presenting themselves, that with a weak moral compass it is easy to become lost, and that is exactly what has happened to George. Even while he thinks he has beaten the system, going to beauty school to get access to beautiful women, his life has become so complicated and distracting that he is utterly blindsided when important questions of business and love arise, and totally oblivious to the political dimension underpinning both. This is the failure which Shampoo presented to viewers in 1975: people were so overwhelmed by the superficial pleasures promised by the 1960s that they missed what really mattered. It still feels relevant today.
Though in many ways it’s an archetypal (if slightly late) early-1970s studio production, the filmmaking also feels remarkably fresh. George is like the Coyote in Road Runner: at the start of the film he’s already off the edge of a cliff, but we get to watch him pedal furiously in the air for a while before his inevitable fall. Beatty plays him with considerable charm, until charm isn’t enough and he becomes a pathetic child. It’s a great performance, especially given the parallels between the character and the star’s own reputation. All of the supporting cast are superb, particularly Grant (who got an Oscar), Christie and Hawn, as three very different women who each perceive the realities of George’s and their own situations much more clearly than he does. The soundtrack is also exceptional, including an original score by Paul Simon and hits by The Beach Boys and The Beatles. In scenes where George is pedalling hardest – at the salon and the centrepiece Republican party – there is a crazed, swirling energy to proceedings that must have been an influence on avowed Hal Ashby fans Paul Thomas Anderson and David O. Russell in the likes of Punch-Drunk Love and American Hustle. As that opening caption makes clear, Shampoo is about a very specific moment in time, but its qualities are timeless.
The film is presented as a new 4K restoration, and you get the impression that you’re seeing exactly what the filmmakers intended (there’s no print damage or signs of digitisation), but the main gain in terms of detail is the busy grain of the filmstock. There’s the option to hear either the original mono or a 5.1 soundtrack; either way, the dialogue (and grunting) is clear, and the music sounds great.
There are only two extras, both good, but more would have been welcome. First there’s a 12-minute except from an interview between Beatty and Melvyn Bragg from 1997 when Beatty was selling Bulworth. They rehash (with contributions from David Thomson) the history of the Hollywood renaissance with the usual emphasis on Bonnie and Clyde, although it’s nice to hear it direct from Beatty. Second, there’s a 30-minute discussion of Shampoo by critics Mark Harris and Frank Rich, who both love the film. They marvel at its subtlety and cover everything from cinematography to Beatty’s star persona to the film’s forward looking views on gender.
Review by Jim Whalley