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.
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.