Shampoo (Hal Ashby, 1975)

Hal Ashby’s Shampoo, made as Watergate broke and released the following year, is underrated. It was a box-office success, beaten in revenue that year by only Jaws, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Rocky Horror Picture Show; but critics, including Ebert, Nora Sayre and whoever reviewed it for Variety at the time, agreed that the stellar line-up didn’t deliver. A pretty stellar line-up, too: Hal Ashby directing, Robert Towne writing, Paul Simon scoring, and Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, Goldie Hawn, Jack Warden and Lee Grant starring.

shampoo-poster

The consensus is that it doesn’t deliver as satire, and indeed Ashby worked to incorporate references to Watergate almost as it was happening. As a result, the anti-Nixon /-politician disillusionment feels underdeveloped. It’s also true that the movie isn’t laugh-out-loud hilarious. Sex comedy, or slice of early ’70s melancholia? Star-studded commercial vehicle, or subtle reflection of a society slowly learning it’s being cheated, deceived and short-changed? (The funniest takeaway from which would be Beatty as a stand-in for Richard Nixon.)

If there’s any justice, my revisionist interpretation will bring about a sea change in critical opinions of Shampoo – for I believe it’s an inspired allegory of US foreign policy.

This view came to me after about half an hour of the film’s 110-minute runtime, and I found it hard to shake, though the movie never explicitly discusses foreign policy. In 1974, US troops were still very much in Vietnam, and the superpower was having trouble (ahem) pulling out. What better way to explore unnecessary entanglements, blithe exceptionalism, self-deception and strategic failure than through a Robert Towne-penned sex farce starring Warren Beatty as a hairdressing lothario?

shampoo-hairdressing

None better. Even the crappy 35mm print I watched, marred throughout by pink coloration, felt like some sort of visual pun on “rose-tinted specs”, inadvertently underscoring the film’s sympathetic view of its daft characters. Exhibits A to G in defence of the foreign policy interpretation are listed in reference to Beatty’s character George:

a) George’s philandering is inherent and self-perpetuating, much like the US’s interventions;

b) George has his fingers in as many pies as possible, yielding tactical successes but causing him to overstretch himself;

c) George is fiercely headstrong, quixotic and individualistic;

d) George is goddamn irresistible to everyone despite his obvious ridiculousness (and indeed, every year in the ’70s, an average of 425,000 legal immigrants put down roots in the US);

shampoo-ridiculous
Obvious ridiculousness

e) George plays a beauty-school graduate obsessed with cosmetics – and what could be more cosmetic than the US government’s insistence on its moral rectitude as the world’s policeman?;

f) George’s character is refused a bank loan thanks to his suspect financial history, and what was happening in 1974? The US was in the middle of a recession caused partly by an oil crisis precipitated by – you guessed it – US intervention in the Middle East;

g) George is basically apolitical – he uses politics as a means to an end, schmoozing around at Nixon fundraisers to achieve his ultimate goal of setting up his own shop. And America, on the world stage if not domestically, is certainly apolitical, or at least un-ideological. It follows baser urges than its liberal rhetoric would suggest, and indeed its utilitarian foreign policy was explored to chilling effect in another film of the same year, Sydney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor. Note that under Nixon, the US was cosying up to a nascent Communist superpower, the People’s Republic of China.

The movie works as satire on the domestic front, too. George is tawdrier than he’d like to admit. Just as Watergate broke thanks to an unlocked door, it’s the slowly opening door of a fridge that reveals one of George’s trysts to none other than his would-be creditor – a tryst, that is, with his benefactor’s mistress. ‘I don’t know what’s right or wrong anymore,’ the creditor moans later, reflecting his (country’s) pathetic loss of political identity and trust.

shampoo-jack-warden
Jack Warden as the creditor

Ashby uses sound as well as vision in an ironic, Altmanesque sense. This is most obvious in the excerpts of Nixon’s speeches, from which the occasional platitude about ‘bringing America together’ floats into earshot; but it’s also clear from the score. In contrast to his shapely compositions for The Graduate, Paul Simon twiddles around wordlessly on acoustic guitar, accompanied by his pretty, empty, directionless moans. The other songs hang over scenes poignantly: the most audible line in Hendrix’s “Manic Depression”, as people begin to fall away from George, is ‘Really ain’t no use in me hangin’ around’. The Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, while heralding the film with a sunny swing in its step, is repeated to much more melancholy effect as the end credits roll and George watches his true love be driven away, too ineffectual and chronically self-serving to stop her.

It’s a good film. No masterpiece, perhaps, and there were sharper satires in the mid-’70s, but Shampoo works as multi-layered allegory (we haven’t even touched on the fact that Hawn and Christie were exes of Beatty’s), and Towne is generous enough with his characters that we can sympathise with their follies. Keep an eye out for a scene-stealing debut from Carrie Fisher, who, funnily enough, would marry Paul Simon nine years later.

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