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During a fight with his girlfriend Jill (Goldie Hawn), hairdresser George (Warren Beatty) pleads with her to understand: “I’m trying to get things moving.” She screams, “You never stop moving! You never go anywhere!”
It’s a devastatingly truthful remark, skewering the go-go-go energy of Shampoo (1975), a Los Angeles-set sex farce in which the undercurrents of melancholy and cynicism have the power of a sucker punch – one that hits home on both a personal and national level. “The subject of Shampoo is hypocrisy,” Beatty has said, “the commingling of sexual hypocrisy and political hypocrisy.”
Directed by Hal Ashby, with a screenplay by Robert Towne (Beatty is credited as cowriter), Shampoo takes place on the eve of the November 1968 presidential election. Even though Shampoo was made just seven years after the date in question, the film feels like it’s looking into the distant past.
It’s 1968 seen with the consciousness of the Manson murders and Altamont. It’s 1968 seen from the perspective of an exhausted country lurching rightward with each election. And yet, the film hasn’t dated at all. On the contrary, its prescience is still eerie.
The year 1968 was a tumultuous and sometimes horrifying one: Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were murdered, raucous protests took place against the Vietnam War, violence rocked the Democratic National Convention and the ‘Summer of Love’ came apart at the seams.
Nixon was re-elected with a promise to bring the country together. By 1975, Americans had been worn down by Watergate and the events leading to his resignation. The depleted energy of 1975 retrospectively suffuses the events of the film, bringing with it harbingers of things to come: a country, a people, losing its way.
Shampoo began with Towne’s desire to write a modern version of William Wycherley’s 1675 Restoration comedy The Country Wife, in which a rakish Don Juan spreads a rumour that he is impotent so husbands will trust him with their wives.
George, the hairdresser ‘rake’, races from hookup to hookup on his motorcycle, always on the go, always late, women panting impatiently for him all over town. He is not a playboy or pickup artist. He has what the critic Pauline Kael called a “pagan purity”: women are lonely and frustrated, he provides a service. He tells ex-lover Jackie (Julie Christie) that he doesn’t “fuck people for money. I fuck people for fun.” But he’s running on empty. The clock is ticking. He is perpetually behind, not just in his sexual schedule but in his life.
George is dating Jill, while having an ongoing fling with rich, bored Felicia (Lee Grant). Felicia is married to Lester (Jack Warden), who is having an affair with Christie’s Jackie, who also happens to be Jill’s best friend as well as George’s ex. Beverly Hills is a small world. George cares about all these women, but something profound exists between him and Jackie, an oasis of truth and calm, which George only realises once it’s too late.
The film’s final sequence takes place early the next day. Nixon has been re-elected and is seen on television making his acceptance speech. George watches blankly: it has nothing to do with him. He rushes to Jackie’s house to declare his love, only to find her frantic to get rid of him as Lester is on his way over. She zooms off in her car, with George in pursuit on his motorcycle. It will be his final chase, the only chase that really matters.
They career uphill until they reach a sandy plateau, green hills stretching out below them. The road ends. There is nowhere left to go. The lonely spot gives them a bird’s-eye view of her house below, of Lester’s car pulling into the driveway. In the pained and tender confrontation that follows, George says, “I don’t trust anyone but you.”
You believe him. She leaves in tears, and he watches from above, as Lester and Jackie drive off on an endless road to the horizon. Now it is others who are on the move. He, finally, is still, looking down on the life he lost, the life he didn’t realise he needed to fight for.
Early on, Jill confides in George, saying, “I have this terrible feeling something awful’s going to happen.” She’s referring to a recurring nightmare, but looking at George on that cliff, a lonely figure, head exposed and vulnerable against the white sky, all of Los Angeles in a hazy smog below him, it’s clear that “something awful” has already occurred. The party’s over. For everyone.
Sight & Sound June 2021
In our current issue, Mark Kermode and Prano Bailey–Bond talk Censor and the 80s British censorship massacre. Read if you dare! Plus the history of ‘video nasties’, Kelly Reichardt on First Cow, Suzanne Lindon’s Spring Blossom, the sprawling brilliance of Robert Altman’s Nashville, and vintage Jack Nicholson. Available in print and digitally.Find out more and get a copy