Hal Ashby followed up his successful run of early 70’s cinematic triumphs trifecta of The Landlord, Harold & Maude, and The Last Detail with 1975’s sexual and political satire Shampoo. Starring Warren Beatty as a Lothario hairdresser named George, who finds himself juggling three women at once surrounding a 24 hour period during the 1968 election. A lot of the cleverness of Shampoo comes from the fact that we know what’s going to happen due to the results of the political ramifications taking place during the drama of these characters lives.
Hal Ashby reflecting back to a time when sexual freedom was rampant and that perhaps a more somber tone was appropriate. Like his other films, Shampoo is loaded with social and political clues as to the mood and atmosphere of the time and place. He lampoons the sexual revolution as being hedonistic and excessive, and is able to craft a film that makes us feel what was lost during this crucial time in our history.
There is a mosaic like quality to Shampoo’s story and plot, spending the entirety of time with six characters who are all interconnected in one way or another. George wants to open his own hair salon, finding that he’s more talented than Norman the owner that he works for, and frustrated by his lack of success and notoriety.
Unable to secure a loan at a bank or secure financial backing from another source, George reconnects with Jackie (Julie Christie) an old flame who’s the mistress of a notable business tycoon named Lester. Doing his best to covet the relationship and milk an investment out of him, George is dependent on Lester to be his main and sole investor. Despite his distress with being unable to secure funding, George openly flaunts his sexuality and promiscuous nature, never giving anyone a clue that he’s ever professional or serious about himself.
The film opens with George in bed with Felicia )Lee Grant), having sex when the phone rings. It’s George’s other girlfriend, up and coming actress Jill (Goldie Hawn). He sweet talks his way out of bed, telling Felicia how “great” she is, and goes over to see Jill. This goes on, for the most part, all the way throughout the film. George is sleeping with Lester’s Wife Felicia, his girlfriend Jill, and Jackie, an old girlfriend while trying to secure funding for his own place from the husband and boyfriend of two of the women.
It’s an incredibly intricate plot that is executed wonderfully, and in a satirical manner that allows for extensive commentary on each character and what they represent. George hilariously lacks self awareness around people he should be trying to convince he’s balanced, shows good judgment, and has a vision for the future. Instead he openly goes about his business obsessed with visions of haircuts and bedding beautiful women.
Some of the most interesting character development comes from the female lead characters. All three women, in their own way, make choices that promote freedom and agency that speak to the best results to come out the 1960s. But we can also see where Ashby’s underlying criticism comes in that speaks against hedonism. That mindlessly jumping into bed with attractive strangers doesn’t leave you with anything. That Beatty’s character has constant sex with beautiful women who’s hair he cuts, but has no satisfaction or fulfillment from it, it could even be seen as a harbinger of Steve McQueen’s Shame. It’s not quite there specifically, but it runs along the same lines especially as you get closer and closer to Shampoo’s ending.
Warren Beatty himself was known at the time to be something of a playboy who slept around quite often. I think it was a really brave move by someone who could have taken the easy way out, or made something less dramatically substantive. But writing the script along with Robert Towne, Beatty stuck to the hard truth of examining this character and how truly foolish he is. It’s revealed that George is nothing more than his own worst enemy, telling Lester not to waste anymore time and hang onto Jackie, the woman he secretly loves. By the end of the film, George comes undone, finally knowing what he wants in life, it’s too late, it’s already too late.
The very final scene of Shampoo, George being left alone on the cliffside, is heartbreakingly somber, and leaves the audience with one of the most devastatingly cold ending moments in film. This scene succeeds as a total emotional shift in the film, a crack in the narrative that definitively shifts it’s mood and understanding of circumstance. It reminds me greatly of the ending of Up In The Air, my favorite film of 2009. Our “hero” is just left there at the end, left to live with that kind of empty loss, left to live with their own flaws and their own shortcomings.
Shampoo does an excellent job taking a very flawed human character, and shows them as they are. Doesn’t pull any punches, and finds a way to humble the excesses of the 60s and what we were left with. The film does an excellent job of examining the mood of the 70s by looking back to the late 60s, a group of people lost to their own narcissism and the going ons of their encapsulated world. People really running around with no clue as to what they’re doing, acting almost on instinct and nothing more.
While being viewed as a comedy, I think Shampoo is a great human drama that has comedy. How foolish are these characters? And how deeply do we feel for them? What an accomplishment for Hal Ashby and the entire crew. He said so much while entertaining us to the very end and then he left us alone on that cliff, all by ourselves.