Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Shampoo: Pandemic Porn at the Beauty Salon


Blame it on the fact that I need a haircut and can’t get one right now, due to the new COVID-related mandates in Los Angeles County. But last night I got a hankering to watch Shampoo, the 1975 film in which Warren Beatty—as a Beverly Hills hairstylist—uses a blow-dryer as a tool of seduction. Frankly, those scenes of soignée women buzzing around Beatty at a hair salon come across to me now as pandemic porn. And I can see the appeal of Beatty’s tousle-locked George, who makes house calls and has never heard of social-distancing. On his lips, the words, “I’d like to do your hair” sound like a love-call. Or (to be frank) a booty call.

Shampoo comes from Hollywood royalty, produced by Beatty, directed by Hal Ashby (The Last Detail, Coming Home), co-written by Beatty and Robert Towne (Chinatown). It plays like a poisoned Valentine to L.A., made by someone who hates the place while also being infatuated by it. The film certainly contains moments of wit, as when the cuckolded Lester (Jack Warden) nearly barges in on George in flagrante, but (conveniently certain that all male hairdressers are gay)  sees a blow-out instead of a blow-job. And there’s a sharply etched portrait by seventeen-year-old Carrie Fisher in her film debut as the precocious daughter of one of George’s many flames, played by the Oscar-winning Lee Grant. (Others in George’s harem include the very miniskirted Julie Christie and Goldie Hawn, all golden locks and gangly limbs. The film was made in the era when Beatty, coming off Bonnie and Clyde, was still a Hollywood heartthrob; he and Christie, who were romantically linked in real life, had previously starred together in Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller.)

Shampoo tries to rise to social significance via covert references to the politics of the era. The action begins on the eve of the 1968 election of President Richard Nixon and Vice-President Spiro Agnew. No one in the film expresses a heartfelt political opinion, but some key scenes take place at a Republican election-night fundraising soiree, so the implications seem clear. There are also frequent reminders, via radio and television bulletins, that the Vietnam War is raging all the while that oblivious Angelenos party on.

Frankly, I didn’t find any of the above terribly meaningful, though others may see in Shampoo an apt skewering of an era of self-indulgence, fostered by what a John Updike character once called “the post-pill paradise.” I will admit that the film looks fabulous, showing off both the gorgeous curves of the female characters and the glorious curves of the roadways on which George’s motorbike whizzes as he moves from Downtown Beverly Hills to Bel-Air to the Valley in pursuit of sexual gratification. Richard Sylbert, who had so successfully captured the look of L.A. in The Graduate (not to mention Chinatown) picked up another Oscar nomination for art-directing all the varieties of chic décor in the characters’ drop-dead-gorgeous houses. Another parallel to The Graduate is that this film too advertises a Paul Simon score. Alas, though a very entertaining trailer for Shampoo uses Simon’s “59th Street Bridge Song” (aka “Feelin’ Groovy”) to set the mood, the film itself makes little memorable use of Simon. I did like, though, the number we hear under the closing credits, the Beach Boys’ wistful “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” Their lyrics, suggesting a dream of a more mature but still romantic future,  ideally represent the boy-man Beatty plays, with his fantasy of a better life to come. Wouldn’t it be pretty to think so?   



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