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?   

Friday, July 24, 2020

Rising While Seated: The Surprising Career of Nell Blaine

It’s an old Hollywood cliché: someone is felled by a tragic illness or accident, but still rises (literally or figuratively) to have a satisfying life. I’m thinking of such schmaltzy films as 1959’s semi-biographical The Five Pennies, in which the little daughter of bandleader Red Nichols (Danny Kaye). contracts polio and loses the use of her legs. Her disability throws her dad into such despair that he throws his beloved trumpet into San Francisco Bay. Years later she persuades him to resume making music, and at last he’s rewarded by seeing her discard her cane to dance with him. Something similar happens in Disney’s 1960 Pollyanna. In this screen adaptation of a popular 1913 novel, a hyper-cheerful youngster (Hayley Mills) loses her spunk when her legs are paralyzed in an accident. Happily, she’s helped by loving neighbors to regain her high spirits in time for an operation that will restore her to good health.

In a more realistic vein are several war-related films showing disabled veterans who—though permanently affected by injuries—still find room in their lives for emotional satisfaction. In Coming Home (1978), the soldier played by Oscar-winner Jon Voigt returns from Vietnam a paraplegic, but his bitterness dissipates when he embarks on a passionate affair with a VA hospital volunteer played by Jane Fonda. Born on the Fourth of July, the 1989 film based on Ron Kovic’s autobiography, shows how a Marine sergeant who has returned from Vietnam in a wheelchair finds new purpose in his life through active support of the anti-war movement. In Forrest Gump (1994), Lt. Dan (played by Gary Sinise) recoils from his “cripple” status after losing both legs in a Vietnam ambush, but is helped by Forrest to recover his will to live. By the end of the film, he’s found both wealth and love.

Then there are the multiple versions of Love Affair (also known in its 1957 Cary Grant/Deborah Kerr iteration as An Affair to Remember). Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne had starred in the 1932 Love Affair, which was remade with Annette Bening and Warren Beatty in 1994. All three films showcase a shipboard romance between a man and a woman who have other romantic commitments awaiting them on shore. They vow to reunite months later at the top of the Empire State Building if their love has a chance to move forward, but the woman—seriously injured in a traffic accident—fails to keep the rendezvous. It’s only by happenstance that the man discovers what has kept his beloved from his side. Of course, though she can no longer walk, there’s a happy romantic fadeout.

All of which adds perspective to Alive Still, my colleague Cathy Curtis’s well-wrought new  biography of 20th century American painter Nell Blaine (1922-1996). In 1959, Blaine, already a rising American artist, saved up to take a dream trip to the island of Mykonos. The Greek landscape and dazzling light enthralled her, but it was there she contracted polio. After surviving a long stint in an iron lung, she recovered enough to resume painting. Alas, her right arm no longer had its prior strength. Nothing daunted, she trained herself to paint left-handed when she worked with oils. For watercolors, she could rely on her right hand, but only by using her left hand for support. Curtis’s book makes clear how very difficult it is to navigate daily New York life from a wheelchair. Staircases? Taxis? Small apartments with tiny bathrooms? But, steadily resisting the urge to ask for public sympathy, Blaine rose to greater artistic heights than ever before. Brava, truly!

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

The Candidate Discovers Plastics

This is an intensely political year, and so I chose to catch up with a 1972 film that American political junkies often reference. At a time when Richard Nixon was winning re--election, The Candidate focused on a fictional California race for the U.S. Senate, one that seemed to reward the value of style over substance, suggesting the evolution of politics into a beauty contest in which the best-looking candidate wins. And they don’t get much better looking than the young Robert Redford, who was the film’s star.

Coincidentally, Redford came close to winning the title role in 1967’s The Graduate, in which “plastics” stood in for all that was crass in the modern world. Plastics in The Graduate was something that recent big-man-on-campus Benjamin Braddock was determined to resist in his adult life. In The Candidate, Redford plays Bill McKay, an idealistic young California activist with cover-boy looks. When the film opens, he has absolutely no use for political game-playing; obviously this is a reaction against his father (Melvyn Douglas), a seasoned political pro who was once the governor of the state. Because the Republican incumbent, Senator Crocker Jarmon, seems to have a lock on the upcoming election, the Democratic party hack played by Peter Boyle only needs to find a patsy to be Jarmon’s token opponent. He persuades Bill to run by pledging he’ll have full independence to state his own views.

But wait! Bill captures the public’s fancy, and soon Boyle’s character is reshaping him into a bland but attractive golden-boy who can steal the Senate seat from the ageing silver fox currently holding the office. It’s made clear, especially in a televised debate scene, that neither of them is going to go beyond platitudes and nice-sounding slogans. At times Bill fights against his makeover (which includes a trendy new haircut and wardrobe), but everyone, including his loving wife, is soon pressuring him to play the game. He reluctantly accepts his father’s involvement, though he cringes at Dad’s proud acknowledgment that he’s become a politician.

In an age when the differences between Democrats and Republicans are marked by deliberately divisive rhetoric, it’s fascinating to recognize that there was a time, among national  political candidates, when bland was beautiful, when the whole point of campaigning was to bank on personal appeal. It often worked: an acquaintance of my mother was a big supporter of Vice-Presidential candidate Dan Quayle because she found him “cute.” Good looks and personal magnetism are still, of course, highly useful in politics. But what’s striking about The Candidate is that neither man dares to really express an opinion. After seeing the film, I checked on the actual U.S. Senators who represented California in the 1960s and 1970s, discovering that most of them were an undistinguished lot. Though the serious and hard-working Alan Cranston held one of the California seats from 1969 to 1993, the other passed through the hands of Pierre Salinger (JFK’s former press secretary, who served less than a year), George Murphy (a Hollywood song-and-dance man), John Tunney (a young lawyer with Ivy League cred), and S.I. Hayakawa (a noted linguist and university president who entered the Senate at age 71). Hayakawa, who was embraced by conservatives after he came down hard on student protestors at San Francisco State, is best remembered for dozing off during Senate hearings.

It’s Tunney who comes closest to Redford’s character. The son of champion heavyweight boxer Gene Tunney, he was propelled into politics by name recognition, a Ted Kennedy link (they were law-school roommates), and clean-cut youthful good looks. What did he accomplish? Not much.