Classic Corner: Shampoo

Hal Ashby’s Shampoo begins and ends with The Beach Boys’ 1966 hit “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” the opening track to their seminal Pet Sounds album in which the soaring, Spector-ish Wall of Sound is tempered by lyrics of wistful longing. Brian Wilson said he wrote the song while harboring a secret crush on his wife’s sister, making it the perfect de facto theme music for Ashby’s melancholy sex farce about a habitually horny hairdresser and the comings and goings of California girls. A Restoration comedy transplanted to Beverly Hills, Shampoo’s bawdy tale of musical beds has a gossamer touch hiding a heavy heart. It’s a lot of silly screwing and running around until the last shot of the film sneaks up on you, packing an unexpected wallop.

Warren Beatty—who co-wrote the screenplay with Robert Towne—sends up his reputation as the movie industry’s most prolific ladies’ man by playing George Roundy, a dim-bulb hairstylist popular among Hollywood housewives for far more than his skills with a pair of scissors. One of the running gags is that because of his profession, every male character in the movie assumes George must be gay. (This is to their peril, leaving their wives alone with Warren Beatty.) George says he spends all day, every day, hearing from his clients “about some guy who fucked them over.” He isn’t very bright, but he listens. George makes women feel pretty, and to most of them, he’s a harmless plaything.

He’s also got to be the most innocent lothario you’ve ever seen in a movie, a smiling naif who’s eager to please but never quite sure exactly what the score is. There’s nothing conniving or deliberate about his constant cheating on his long-suffering girlfriend Jill (one of the actor’s real-life exes, Goldie Hawn), it’s just that this stuff just seems to keep happening to George. Beatty’s biggest comic gift has always been for befuddlement, and he plays every scene a beat or two behind his co-stars, his fuzzy attention only snapping into focus when the subject turns to women’s hair. George desperately wants to open his own beauty parlor, but nobody serious is going to lend this flake any money.

Well, maybe Lester Karpf will. A slightly shady money manager played by Jack Warden, he has no idea this “fruity” fellow is sleeping with his wife, Felicia (Lee Grant, who won an Oscar for her performance.) She’s the one we see in George’s bed during the opening scene, when he interrupts their assignation to answer the telephone. One of the stipulations to the loan offer is that George first needs to act as a beard that evening for Lester’s mistress, Jackie (played by another of Beatty’s real-life exes, Julie Christie) at a function where all the town’s top muckity-mucks will be watching the election returns.

Another thing that Lester doesn’t know—and there’s an awful lot to which he isn’t privy—is that George and Jackie used to be a thing. In fact, George never really got over her, and the McCabe and Mrs. Miller reunion proves once again that Beatty was never more endearing then when helplessly pining for Julie Christie. (And really, who can blame him?)

It’s Election Night in 1968, when the country was coming apart at the seams in a maelstrom of assassinations, protests, and political unrest. Not that you’d be able to tell from Shampoo, in which not even the Vietnam war stands a chance of penetrating this Beverly Hills bubble. (The closest it comes when George’s employer’s son—a soldier—is killed, but notably in a traffic accident, not combat.) One of the slyest jokes in Beatty and Towne’s screenplay is that the characters move freely between Karpf’s Republican fundraiser and a cool counterculture party in the Hills. The only difference is that the latter plays better music. Both have valet parking.

The political significance of Shampoo has perhaps been overstated by folks who aren’t comfortable admitting just how much they enjoyed a crackerjack sex comedy. Indeed, the language in the picture broke all sorts of taboos—as had Towne’s blisteringly profane script for The Last Detail two years before. The difference here is that the dirtiest words are uttered by the women, with Christie announcing a particular intention that made the movie briefly notorious. Even more shocking by today’s standards is a 17-year-old Carrie Fisher as Grant and Warden’s blasé daughter, her words taking the form of a bored sigh when asking Beatty “Wanna fuck?”

Yet Shampoo is not a smutty film, nor a mean-spirited one. It has the gentle, shambling worldview we associate with director Ashby, extending a real generosity to characters who in any other film would be simple villains. I have a soft spot for Tony Bill’s unflappable Johnny Pope, the low-ranking Hollywood player determined to put the moves on Hawn’s Jill, but Warden’s Lester Karpf is the film’s biggest surprise. It’s a great performance by an actor you were always happy to see. The wonderful morning-after scene, in which Lester confronts George with all he’s learned, finds the poor guy flummoxed by just how much he likes the man who screwed his mistress. And his wife. And his daughter. (Just thinking about this part of the movie makes me smile.)

Hawn’s character describes her boyfriend as always running around but never getting anywhere, and the sadness of Shampoo is that we know there will be no happy ending for George Roundy. Setting the film on the night of Nixon’s victory is a none too subtle sign that the party’s over for these hapless libertines. The filmmakers couldn’t have foreseen the Reagan Revolution that was looming only five years away, but you can spot the former governor of California’s portrait in a key scene. Meanwhile, poor George is left abandoned by the side of the road. A discarded plaything. 

“Shampoo” is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

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