In praise of "Shampoo" (1975)

Julie Christie and Warren Beatty acted opposite each other three times between 1970 and 1979—first in McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) for Robert Altman, lastly in Beatty’s directorial debut Heaven Can Wait (1978), and, in between, in Hal Ashby’s Shampoo (1975).  Despite being one of the highest-grossing films of its year as well as an Oscar winner (for Lee Grant) Shampoo has never really maintained much of a reputation as a classic film, which seems unfair; watching it this week for the first time, it struck me as one of the slickest, grooviest, funniest movies of the decade.  And one of the sexiest, too, thanks to Beatty and Christie’s scintillating onscreen chemistry, no doubt informed by the traces of their own off-screen relationship which had run from the late ’60s to the early ’70s.  Christie’s Jackie is the only woman beautiful and intelligent enough to make the womanizing George (Beatty) want to settle down and become an honest man; but their hope of finding happiness together is undone by bad timing, and by circumstances that mirror the state of the union at the dawn of the Nixon administration (the film is set portentously on Election Day, 1968).

I don’t think the ending of Shampoo really works; it’s too much of a downer, and it chills the tone of the entire film, the rest of which is sublimely funny and almost as horned-up as George himself.  The geometry of the characters and their relationships is straight out of stage farce: George juggles three different women throughout the film, all of whom are tied in some way to Lester Karpf (Jack Worden), a blustery mogul with a mansion in the Hollywood hills.  Lester is currently cheating on his neurotic wife Felicia (Lee Grant) with Jackie, who happens to be George’s ex; meanwhile, Felicia is cheating on Lester with George.  Fluttering in the background is Jackie’s friend Jill (Goldie Hawn), a would-be actress who clings to George like a needy little girl. 

Pauline Kael compared the moonlit antics of the second act of the film—in which all of the characters’ paths cross hilariously at an election-night shindig—to The Rules of the Game, Smiles of a Summer Night, and Bringing Up Baby.  It’s true that Shampoo is in the same comic-romantic tradition, though it can’t hold a candle to Renoir when it comes to balancing comedy with poignancy.  Jackie and George’s parting scene doesn’t have quite the emotional weight that it ought to.  A better scene (one that does have the spirit of Renoir in it) is the one that precedes it, in which Lester confronts George for cuckolding him—not with his wife but with his mistress.  The two men end up having a reconciliation of sorts in George’s squalid apartment over mid-morning drinks.  It’s a sad and funny scene, one in which nothing feels strained, not even the irony of Nixon on TV in the background, promising to build an administration based on honesty.      

Shampoo is the rare kind of movie that wears its satire lightly; it feels utterly weightless and delicious.  Much of that is the result of actors like Hawn, who has built an entire career on the soap-bubble charm she displays here.  But it’s really on Beatty and Christie’s charisma that so much of the appeal of the film hangs: he of the rakish, adolescent smile, she of the soulful, pleading eyes.  Naturally captivating as they are, their star power is put to use in the service of absolutely sparkling comedy, courtesy of a crackerjack screenplay by the venerable Robert Towne.  They don’t make ’em like this anymore.

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