#33 — Shampoo (Hal Ashby, 1975)
There are so many different that a film can surprise, and I’ll freely and fully admit that I ultimately prefer the shrewder, more low-key surprises to the trickster gotchas designed to upend everything that came before. Yes, it’s quite something when The Sixth Sense reveals its big mystery, but that’s more carnival ride than cinema (and I type that with the acknowledgment that I like Sixth Sense quite a bit). I’m more impressed when a film surprises me by pulling drama from the unlikeliest of places and putting together seemingly disparate elements in a way that is illuminating. I want a movie to surprise me with the unexpected inspiration of its intricate ideas, not by pulling off the narrative storytelling equivalent of a card trick. I want a movie to surprise me like Shampoo did.
In many ways, I shouldn’t have been surprised. By the time I came to the film, its status as a important brick in the mighty wall of seventies American cinema was secure. Even without knowing it was highly regarded, the pedigree is there: it was directed by Hal Ashby, whose spectral fingerprints are over the celluloid of some of the decade’s most important films, and the screenplay was largely the work of Robert Towne, who’d scored an Oscar triumph by penning the previous year’s Chinatown. The script also had contributions from star Warren Beatty, who’d long been putting his imprint on projects, but was first asserting it to the degree that he needed an official writing credit, a level of authorship that would largely be necessary to get him interested in a project for the rest of his markedly unprolific career. Still, before seeing the film, it was prejudicially difficult for me to conceive of how the story of a harried Beverly Hills with a glancing connection to the politics of the day could have the sort of import that its reputation promised.
My reservations and preconceptions were clearly foolhardy. Shampoo is stealthily insightful and blissfully entertaining. It takes place on one eventful day in the life of George Roundy, played by Beatty. It just so happens to coincide with Election Day 1968 and much of the film’s gentle, knowing satire is grounded in an assertion that Richard Nixon’s election was the beginning of the end of the movement towards greater freedom, of every sort, that blossomed in the sixties. George and everyone around him operates with a distracted mix of confidence and neediness that represents the schisms running wild across the culture. Confusion reigns, thanks in part to the dysfunctional juxtaposition of what is happening in the voting booth and what is happening in the street. Could there have been a less counter-cultural figure than Nixon in 1968?
And could there have been a better match to a role in 1975 than Beatty and the charmingly lascivious stylist who somehow manages to build layabout glamor into everything he does. Beatty was never an actor who disappeared into roles, but when he found one that suited him (or remade one until it did), he had a presence that was so intoxicating that his simplest actions on screen are enough to elicit cheerful giggles. As he bounds between the different women in his life who are demanding his attention–played by Lee Grant, Goldie Hawn and Julie Christie, all doing wonderful work–he makes the mental and emotional juggling act of it all thoroughly engaging. Beatty is delivering a delicate act that requires equal care from his director, a task for which Ashby is ideally suited. At his best, he was a master of taking films with confoundingly tricky tones and making them seem so natural that they became breezy, no matter what dark undercurrents might exist within them. There are plenty of fine examples of that skill, but maybe none quite as convincing as Shampoo.