A seminal New Hollywood movie with a specific historical backdrop somehow manages to transcend the year in which it takes place. Mark Fraser wonders whether this was intentional.
For a film predominantly set on the eve of the US Presidential election in 1968 – when the fabric of American society was set to dramatically change – Hal Ashby’s Shampoo (1975) has virtually nothing to say about the turbulent 1960s.
And for a movie which acknowledges the arrival of the morally corrupt and (eventually) disgraced Richard Nixon Republican administration after eight years of trouble-ridden Democrat rule, it is surprisingly ambivalent when it comes to national politics.
Rather, the story – a successful mixture of adult-orientated situation comedy and melodrama – focuses on the affluent, but extremely insular, community of Beverley Hills in Los Angeles and how, through narcissistic self-absorption, it not only manages to remain immune to any significant external events, but ultimately doesn’t seem to care about what goes on in the outside world so long as the financial markets keep ticking along and the money continues to roll in.
Because of this historical aloofness (although the soundtrack does contain a few obligatory songs from the period, many of which are played during a pot-riddled party scene) it’s arguable that Shampoo could really have been set in the year it was released without significantly impacting its narrative.
Indeed, if one thinks about it, there are moments during the movie which actually look like they belong in the Watergate era rather than pre-Mansion Family LA, when the façade of late 1960s innocence still existed in the sun-soaked city.
A good part of the reason for this is the fact Shampoo is not so much concerned with renewed hope and optimism – as promised by the Nixon campaign – but is rather about crushed expectations and broken dreams. When looking at the film from this viewpoint, it seems to reflect American society post-1974 (after the damage had well and truly been done) more so than it does life in southern California just before the arrival of the Republican administration.
Whether this was the actual intent of scriptwriters Robert Towne and Warren Beatty is difficult to say. And, at first blush, one would be tempted to say no. But, as a dramatic ploy, it works remarkably well.
For the denizens of Beverley Hills, who were never really part of Nixon’s so called silent majority – and who enjoyed the privilege of being rich enough to be buffered from the turbulence which came with sweeping historical developments like the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War – change wasn’t the issue; the important thing was the retention of the socioeconomic status quo. And throughout the Republican reign from 1968 until the election of Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1976, this is pretty much what they got.
At Shampoo’s dramatic core is George Roundy (Beatty), a hairdresser whose sole aim, aside from bedding all of his female clientele, is to break away from his current boss Norman (Jay Robinson) and open his own salon.
When the story starts Roundy is in the midst of a sexual dalliance with the married Felicia Karpf (Lee Grant), as well as a non-committal relationship with his unsuspecting actress girlfriend Jill Haynes (Goldie Hawn). Meanwhile, he is still nursing a broken heart over old flame Jackie Shawn (Julie Christie), who not only happens to be Jill’s closest confidant, but also the proverbial side dish for Felicia’s cuckolding husband Lester (Jack Warden).
Although Lester shows an interest in investing in Roundy’s proposed salon, he also suspects he is gay, prompting him to ask the womanising hairdresser to accompany his mistress to a Republican election night shindig, where US senator Joe East (Brad Dexter) sings a couple of old Indian songs in what is possibly the film’s most hippyesque moment.
Problems at the function arise for both men, though, when Felicia openly makes her disdain for Jackie known, while Jackie – who starts drinking heavily – takes umbrage at Lester for ignoring her. Jill also turns up with TV commercial director Johnny Pope (Tony Bill) to watch Roundy juggle the two women as the night goes on. Eventually she figures out what her role has actually been in her promiscuous boyfriend’s universe.
The night also sets Roundy on the road to his own post-Watergate moment when he realises – to steal from Nixon himself – he is unable to leave the valley of despair, despite being at the top of a figurative mountain (overlooking Mulholland Drive) where he can see the glory of the new American day.*
While he ends the film in a deep state of emotional distress, it’s difficult to feel any sympathy for Shampoo’s protagonist as, during the course of the film, he not only nails the Karpf’s resentful teenage daughter Lorna (Carrie Fisher), but later confesses to Jill the extent of his expansive sexual exploits.
There is, however, a brief moment in the third act when Roundy recognises that his own problems pale in comparison to the grief being experienced by others around him – a scene (that won’t be revealed here) which not only reaffirms his modicum of misguided humanity, but prompts him to finally try and commit to someone.
Nevertheless, he spends most of the movie showing why he seems to fit in so well with the Beverly Hills set. Despite not being in their class, he is as self-centred, selfish and hedonistic as the rich women he seduces and the businessmen he aspires to join.
As suggested at the start of this review, Shampoo avoids getting caught up in a specific political discourse despite being set against a backdrop in which politics dominated the social landscape.
Although there are a few references to the 1968 US presidential election between Nixon, Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey and independent George Wallace peppered throughout the film, the first direct one isn’t made until around 15 minutes into the story, while the rest, which admittedly provide the narrative with some hindsight-driven morally ironic counterpoints (and directly concerns only the Republican candidates), are few and far between.
And never once are some of the biggest moments which helped define the late 1960s zeitgeist – namely “the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, inner-city riots, militants demanding black power, campus upheavals, and the turmoil in the streets at the Democratic convention in Chicago”** – mentioned.
Moreover, in a film where sex takes a front row seat, issues pertaining to sexual politics play a sometimes quiet second fiddle. While Roundy’s emotional downfall may, in no uncertain measure, be due to his rampant penis (which can be construed as a form of male chauvinism), he is not subjected to any feminist-related ire.
Outside of history and politics, though, there is another key reason why Shampoo could have been set in the 1970s and essentially remained the same film – and that’s the fact it is no period piece. In this regard it’s arguable the movie’s costumes and production were purposely designed (by Anthea and Richard Sylbert respectively) so they wouldn’t look too out of place in any film set between 1968 and 1975.
Furthermore, Laszlo Kovacs’ crisp cinematography is rather unsentimental – instead of evoking a Time-Warner 1960s look in the same way Oliver Stone and his cameraman Robert Richardson did with The Doors (1991), director Ashby chose to focus on the actors’ performances and the unfolding melodrama in which they find themselves rather than create a mythologised view of the past.
It’s primarily because of this that Shampoo, like many other New Hollywood movies from the 1970s, has aged particularly well.
*In his speech at the Republican Convention in Miami during August 1968, Nixon said: “My fellow Americans, the dark long night for America is about to end. The time has come for us to leave the valley of despair and climb the mountain … to the top of the mountain so that we may see the glory of the dawn of a new day for America, a new dawn for peace and freedom to the world.” (Norman Mailer, Miami and the Siege of Chicago, Weidenfeld and Nicolson [London], 1968, p 72)
**Robert Dallek: Nixon and Kissinger, HarperCollins (New York), 2007, p 77
Words by Mark Fraser
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Shampoo was released on Criterion Blu-ray in the UK on November 5, 2018.