The 1970s is arguably the greatest decade for cinema. Not only in terms of the quality of movies coming out, or the careers launched, but in regard to the subject matter being tackled on film. Coming out right in the middle of the decade, Hal Ashby’s Shampoo is a must see for any film fans brushing up on the New Hollywood Era of American film.
Shampoo represents three important voices of the New Hollywood era coming together for the ultimate collaboration. Fresh off the success of Bonnie & Clyde, writer Robert Towne and actor/writer/producer Warren Beatty talked of a satirical film about a Don Juan-type…This would eventually become George Roundy: the 1960s Beverly Hills hedonistic hair dresser Adonis, a role that Beatty would play himself. Bonnie & Clyde lead the wave that changed Hollywood films for a decade. Along with The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, and Easy Rider, these films represented a shift in movies in regard to thematics, stylistics, content, violence, and sex (it’s important to note that this shift was heavily influenced by the French New Wave, which began in the late 1950s). The Hays Code was dead, and the auteur was in full swing.
Among those auteurs was director Hal Ashby, who had just made a name for himself with the cult classic Harold and Maude and The Last Detail. While Ashby’s role on the film has been downplayed over time, and Shampoo may not be the most representative of Ashby’s work as an auteur, the script demanded a director of Ashby’s stature. Critic Pauline Kael noted that only a craftsman of Ashby’s caliber could have kept Shampoo from going too far off the rails. After all, a 1970s sex farce comedy runs that risk.
Set during the night of the 1968 Presidential Election, the film follows George Roundy, who could be the first realistic representation of sex addiction on film. A Don Juan character who is a fantastic hair dresser, which ends up being a fantastic cover in 1960s America–most of his client’s husband’s assume because of his profession that he’s a homosexual. This allows George to fly under the radar to sleep with his clients without suspicion.
George feels he’s underserved at work and desperately wants to open a salon of his own. George, who is cheating on his current girlfriend Jill (Goldie Hawn) with the wealthy Felicia Karpf (Lee Grant), is set up with Felicia’s husband, Lester, as a potential investor. George finds out that Lester is cheating on Felicia with George’s old flame Jackie (Julie Christie), a flame which gets reignited. And all of this doesn’t go down before George also sleeps with Lester and Felicia’s daughter, Lorna (the on-screen debut of Carrie Fisher). Complicated, huh?
“He wakes me up at two o’clock in the morning just to make my hair.” -Jill
Early in the film, George is working in his salon after getting denied a business loan by the bank. The gatekeepers are keeping him out. He’s getting pulled in multiple directions as Jill shows up to ask for advice, Felicia offers to introduce him to her husband Lester for a loan, the salon is in chaos, and all George is focused on is how he’s going to style Felicia’s hair. Styling hair is akin to sex for George; he’s not a lawyer, a businessman, a doctor. He’s good at sex and hair. George found what he was good at and made it his life.
George’s setbacks at his current salon are his own: he comes and goes when he pleases, because he’s seeks what he wants when he wants it. George’s setbacks in his relationships are his own for the same reason. George’s inability to operate successfully in the adult world is because of his childlike need to fulfill his needs immediately without compunction. He’s a complete Id. And we leave George at the end of the film in a bittersweet fashion, his revelation that he’s in love while he stands on the top of a hill watching her drive away with another.
The film’s characters, played excellently by all, aren’t particularly likeable or morally upstanding, which became a hallmark of New Hollywood; and the film pushed boundaries by showing the Los Angeles elite acting deplorable too. Social status, money or geography don’t exempt people from acting like people. Far from the days of Sabrina, when David Larrabee’s playboy status is established without a hint of sex, Shampoo operates by showing, not telling, the sex lives of our adult cast.
Like most films of the New Hollywood Era, Shampoo sits firmly in the grey. There are no heroes or villains, just people. Some of stature, some middle class, but the film presents a world where the material matters not, people are people and they will cling to the company of others whether it’s physical or emotional. For George all he needed was sex and shampoo, until one day that changed.