by Mel Valentin
SCREENED AT THE 2008 SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Directed by Hal Ashby ("8 Million Ways to Die," "Being There," "Coming Home," "Bound for Glory," "The Last Detail," "Harold and Maude") and co-written by Robert Towne ("Chinatown") and Warren Beatty ("Bugsy," "Reds," "Heaven Can Wait"), "Shampoo" is a caustic, cynical, if ultimately dated, satire that took aim at the “Me Decade” through the prism of the late 1960s and the end of the counter-cultural revolution. With a callow, self-absorbed, self-involved, egotistical, unsympathetic lead character, “adult” sexual situations, and a jaundiced view of human nature, "Shampoo" fit into the broad range of films that defined the New Hollywood or Hollywood Renaissance of the late 1960s and the 1970s, a second Golden Age for writers, directors, and actors interested in creating art first and commercial films second.Towne and Beatty set Shampoo on the eve of the 1968 presidential elections that pitted two former vice presidents, Richard Nixon (vice president under Dwight D. Eisenhower for two terms) and Hubert Humphrey (vice president under Lyndon B. Johnson). While the presidential election serves as a backdrop, the real focus of Shampoo is on George Roundy (Warren Beatty), a straight hairdresser who, when he’s not having sex with his numerous clients, tries to keep his long-suffering girlfriend, Jill (Goldie Hawn), ignorant of his infidelities. Tired of working for another hairdresser, Norman (Jay Robinson), Roundy tries to get a business loan to open his own salon, but fails miserably. One of his clients and frequent lovers, Felicia Carp (Lee Grant), suggests that Roundy approach her businessman husband, Lester Carp (Jack Warden), for a loan and possible partnership. At Lester’s office, Roundy runs into his former girlfriend, Jackie Shawn (Julie Christie), Lester’s mistress.
"Dated satire short on cleverness and insights."
Eager to hide his affair with Jackie from his wife, Lester, ignorant of George’s relationship with Jackie or his sexual orientation, suggests that Roundy act as chaperone for the evening. Jill, unhappy with George’s inability to make a commitment to her, ponders accepting an acting gig in Egypt. The director, Johnny Pope (Tony Bill), makes a play for Jill, who, in turn, invites him to the election eve party. Shampoo’s storylines and conflicts converge first on the election eve party held by local Republicans and, later, a drug- and sex-fueled party at the home of a mutual acquaintance of several of the characters. George has to navigate between the voracious Felicia, the sweet-natured, if increasingly frustrated Jill, and Jackie, the woman he loves (as far as the narcissistic Roundy can love anyone).
Shampoo spares no one from its satirical jabs, not Lester, the crude, amoral businessman, not Felicia, his wife, just as amoral and voracious in their appetites, their daughter, Lorna (Carrie Fisher), spoiled and self-centered, not Jill, naïve in her trust of men and their motives, not Jackie, comfortable as Lester’s mistress as long as he provides her with whatever she wants materially, and certainly not Roundy, a classic narcissist incapable of empathy or sympathy for anyone else. It’s a bleakly cynical view of human nature, made all of the more so by a typically downbeat ending that rejects romantic conventions completely.
Setting Shampoo in 1968, just as Richard Nixon wins the presidential election with false promises (which he quickly broke) and malfeasance ahead of him (Watergate was still four years away), wasn’t accidental, of course. Besides the dramatic irony of characters unaware of the dim future that awaits them and their fellow Americans, the 1968 setting also serves as a critique of the self-absorbed characters. Outside of Lester, who sees a Republican administration as good for business, the other characters are too absorbed in their petty wants and needs to recognize the importance of the presidential election, let alone participate in it (not a single character is shown voting or expressing a desire to vote).
The deep cynicism and pessimism that runs through Shampoo, however, doesn’t excuse the backward, regressive depiction of women, all of whom seem to be looking for men to take of them emotionally, sexually, and financially (not necessarily in that order). The closest Shampoo comes to a fully sympathetic character is Jackie, but her participation in an affair with a married man, ostensibly in exchange for room and board (and a credit card), puts a sharp limit on any sympathy or empathy moviegoers are likely to feel for her predicament. Not surprisingly, Julie Christie had problems with playing such a character with a mercenary personality, but relented at Beatty’s insistence (they were former lovers and longtime friends).Whether he was playing himself or someone a few degrees from his real-world personality, it’s hard to argue with the authenticity of Warren Beatty’s performance as the narcissistic Roundy. Roundy’s self-absorption, his refusal to accept responsibility for his self-destructive behavior, and the ease with which he lies out of any situation, doom him to an ultimately empty, vacuous life. If moviegoers felt anything for Roundy it was probably due to Beatty’s skill as an actor (as well as his persona). The supporting cast is equally as solid, even if, like Goldie Hawn, they’re forced to struggle with underwritten roles. Lee Grant unsurprisingly won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance as the unrepentantly sexually voracious Felicia. Whether it’s barely suppressing her lust for Roundy or expressing contempt and jealousy for Jackie through facial expressions or body language, Grant is riveting.
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originally posted: 05/12/08 20:00:00