I don't think I saw Shampoo when it came to the theater in 1975—I most likely read the Mad Magazine version and decided it wasn't my cup of tea. When I finally did watch it, maybe decades later, I think it gave me an anxiety attack. The temptation, at least for a man, is to put yourself in the place of the main character, a hairdresser named George, because his life—riding around LA on his Triumph motorcycle from affair to girlfriend to salon to affair to girlfriend, etc.—looks great. That's the word everyone uses to describe each other, and everything is great—their hair, cars, clothes, lives—except maybe not their lives, because they all seem to be miserable. Then you realize that the entire movie takes place within a two day period around Nixon's election in 1968, which happens to be a day of crucial turning points in the lives of the characters in this story—after which—and this is the saddest thing—most likely nothing will really change for any of them. At the point that George has sex with an underage girl (who happens to be the daughter of the woman he's having an affair with and the man whose mistress he's having an affair with, I you can follow that!) we realize that what George is best at, hairdressing, is just a means to facilitate his addiction, sex, and nothing's going to change him—certainly not “love”—short of maybe becoming a Buddhist, or death.
I don't think I saw any of Hal Ashby's movies until Being There, in 1979, which was around the time I started piecing together all of this 1970s cinema, Scorsese, Coppola, etc.—re-watching what I'd seen and seeing what I missed—that was the most fun and rich time, movie-wise, of my life. It was a little more difficult placing Hal Ashby and Robert Altman in there—directors who seemed to be outsiders among the outsiders. This movie could almost be confused with an Altman movie—and it came out the same year as Nashville (which I didn't see at the time, either)—how's that for a double feature? What Shampoo has going for it most are these pretty amazing performances—it's really more of an ensemble cast than anything—Warren Beatty, Goldie Hawn, Julie Christie, Lee Grant, Jack Warden, Tony Bill, Carrie Fisher, and then even all the smaller parts. I think both Altman and Hal Ashby both made actors comfortable enough to give the most vulnerable and raw performances they were capable of, but not in most movie settings. That's why I can watch this movie over and over now, even just isolated scenes, or partially, when it's on television—the subtleties in the acting is so pleasurable to watch, and rich with meaning, and possible to keep taking things from.
A crucial scene near the end of the movie—that almost seems like lesser filmmakers would have decided didn't belong—is when George, at the hair salon, finds out his boss's son died in a car accident. I don't know what it means to have that in there, for sure—maybe it's just a warning to George that he has to change, he is mortal, and he'd better pick one of these woman and decide there is true love. Is he going to change, or is there any compassion within him? I don't think so, really, which is sad. More likely, he will be killed in a car accident—but we don't need to see that. What hurt about this movie, though, even more than that, is seeing this kind of amazing historical backdrop of Nixon's election, that feels like it was put in there to reflect our current national climate. If you were going to remake this movie now, you would do it on the eve of Trump's election, and the story would ideally be more inclusive with race, sexual orientation, and women involved in business, but there would still be a lot of people lying, deceiving each other, substance abuse, and aimlessness. Everyone would be on smartphones and social media, the cars would not be as cool, and the music—well, I wouldn't like it as much. Would there be any more potential for happiness for any of the characters? That's the big question, isn't it?
Randy Russell 10.9.18