THE CONTENDER: Shampoo (1975)
Number of Nominations: 4 – Supporting Actor (Jack Warden); Supporting Actress (Lee Grant); Original Screenplay (Robert Towne and Warren Beatty); Art Direction (Richard Sylbert, W. Stewart Campbell and George Gaines)
Number of Wins: 1 (Supporting Actress)
Several months ago, around the time Rules Don’t Apply was released to thunderous waves of indifference, I was surprised to find myself having to explain who exactly Warren Beatty is to a few younger people. This wasn’t an isolated incident and, while I don’t think any of the people I spoke to would necessarily describe themselves as hardcore movie buffs, they certainly aren’t entirely ignorant of film history. They were very aware of Beatty’s contemporaries, including Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford. But Beatty and his work had made little to no impact. By the time the Oscars rolled around, social media reactions to this year’s Best Picture snafu confirmed what I already suspected: an entire generation has grown up without a single clue who Warren Beatty is.
As I rattled off titles of Beatty’s most famous films to these twenty-somethings, it gradually occurred to me that it was no wonder they’d never heard of him. He’s only made half a dozen pictures since around the time they’d been born in the early 1990s and none of them really lit the world on fire. His biggest hit, 1990’s Dick Tracy, didn’t leave much of a footprint after it left cinemas. Today, it’s warmly regarded by certain fans as sort of a cultish curiosity but nobody has clamored for Dick Tracy Returns in the years since (except, perhaps, for Beatty himself and he’s in no hurry). Both Bulworth and Bugsy have their admirers and supporters but that isn’t the same as having fans. And you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone willing to speak up for Love Affair or Town & Country, the latter of which is the nadir of multiple careers.
But even the movies that made Warren Beatty an icon have had surprisingly little staying power. Odds are the first movie that jumps to mind with Beatty is Bonnie And Clyde. But Beatty was already a huge star by the time it came out in 1967. He struck it big in his debut, 1961’s Splendor In The Grass, a soapy potboiler that really has not aged well. None of his other movies of the decade made much of a mark (although some are worth checking out) until Bonnie And Clyde. That film’s impact should not be underestimated but, for whatever reason, it’s no longer a movie many people check out just for the hell of it. I first saw it myself in a film history class. It wasn’t something I necessarily wanted to see. It was something I was required to see.
As both a movie star and a filmmaker, Warren Beatty is inextricably linked to the late 60s and 1970s. Many of his movies were very popular at the time of their release but they remain trapped there in amber, occasionally revisited by those who experienced them first but rarely discovered by new audiences. There is no better example of this than Shampoo, Beatty’s first venture as hands-on star-as-auteur following the success of Bonnie And Clyde. It was one of the biggest hits of 1975, was nominated for Oscars and Golden Globes, and is even ranked at #47 on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Laughs list of the best American comedies. But while I was certainly aware of it, I’d never actually seen it until recently and, judging by its relatively low popularity ranking on such sites as Letterboxd and IMDb, I suspect I’m not alone in that.
Beatty (who also produced and co-wrote the screenplay with Robert Towne) stars as George, a Beverly Hills hairdresser whose talent as a stylist is equaled by his proficiency as a lover. He’s eager to open his own salon but when the bank won’t take his request for a loan seriously, he agrees to meet with Lester (Jack Warden), the conservative business tycoon husband of his client/lover Felicia (Lee Grant). Lester, who assumes George is gay, agrees to consider the partnership. He asks George to escort his mistress Jackie (Julie Christie) to an election night dinner party he’s hosting, unaware that she used to be George’s girlfriend. Meanwhile, Jackie has become something of a mentor to George’s current girlfriend, Jill (Goldie Hawn), and invites her to come along as well.
Shampoo is an unusual film in many respects. Beatty and Towne took William Wycherley’s Restoration-era comedy The Country Wife as their inspiration and it’s easy to see how Shampoo could be translated back to the stage. The action takes place in a tight 24-hour time span and the characters and their histories are woven together in the style of a classic sex farce.
The film takes place during the 1968 election and televised results feature prominently throughout. The deliberate foregrounding of the first Nixon/Agnew victory, coming just a year after Watergate and Nixon’s resignation, calls attention to the fact that Shampoo is a period piece, albeit one where the “period” was less than a decade earlier. But America had changed substantially in those seven years in both mood and style. Beatty, Hawn and Christie don’t even look the way they do in the movie on the poster. There, they’re given a contemporary makeover that looks more like the cover of a 1975 issue of Esquire than a bit of movie marketing. But this is very much a movie about the end of the 60s and the counterculture, the rise of conservatism, and the ultimate failure of both of these value systems. I can almost imagine a remake of Shampoo set during the Trump/Pence election coming out in 2023, although who knows what the world will look like then.
But while Shampoo is explicitly political and the sympathies of noted lefties like Beatty and director Hal Ashby aren’t exactly difficult to crack, its sexual politics are a bit harder to pinpoint. I do think it’s a mistake to view art of the past through the prism of today’s societal attitudes. So while Beatty’s casual dalliance with Grant and Warden’s sexually aggressive teenage daughter (played by Carrie Fisher, no less, in her film debut) probably wouldn’t pass without comment in today’s world, the fact that it does here shouldn’t necessarily ruffle too many feathers.
Also, while the movie isn’t exactly progressive in its views of homosexuality, it’d be a stretch to call it homophobic. George certainly isn’t bothered by the fact that Lester and other men think he’s gay. Indeed, it’s in his best interest that they do. And only once does Beatty start to edge toward the clichéd, limp-wristed flamboyantly gay caricature that most movies would use as their default mode and even in that moment, he stays a safe distance away from it. But actual gay people are pretty much invisible in this movie. This is homosexuality as a plot contrivance, not as a way of life, which may be offensive in its own way to some but it isn’t really what the movie’s about.
On the other hand, the movie is very much about women and that’s where its perspective gets a bit muddled. You’d be on thin ice if you called Shampoo a feminist movie. Sure, the women here are all sexually liberated and sleep with whomever they please, whenever they please. But for the most part, they all want to sleep with Warren Beatty and define themselves based on how much Warren Beatty wants to sleep with them. Goldie Hawn’s Jill is a model (or an actress…even her job is vague) weighing a job offer that’ll take her to Egypt for a few months. It’s annoying that she even has to think about it. There’s no indication that George loves her even half as much as she seems to love him and Jackie tells her as much.
George eventually realizes that Jackie’s the one woman he’s ever truly loved but that epiphany comes too late for him. Unfortunately, it isn’t because Jackie realized she doesn’t love him. It’s because Lester has decided to divorce his wife and run away with her. Jackie defines herself entirely by the men in her life, ultimately aligning herself with the one most likely to take the best care of her.
The film’s only Oscar win went to Lee Grant for her supporting turn as Lester’s wife, Felicia. Grant had been nominated twice before in this category, for her debut in 1951’s Detective Story and in Ashby’s The Landlord in 1970, and would be once again the following year for Voyage Of The Damned, so it’s fair to say that the Academy had been wanting to give her one for awhile. A victim of the blacklist after she refused to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, there was likely an element of Hollywood Survivor Reward to her victory. Her competition included Ronee Blakley and Lily Tomlin, both for Nashville which may have split their votes, and Sylvia Miles and Brenda Vaccaro for Farewell, My Lovely and Once Is Not Enough, neither of which were recognized in any other categories. Not that Grant wasn’t a deserving winner. She gives a strong, funny performance in an unfortunately underwritten role. Towne and Beatty’s script simply isn’t all that interested in developing the women in George’s life. That’s the weakness that prevents Shampoo from being truly memorable.
In many ways, Warren Beatty’s insistence on controlling nearly every aspect of the films he agrees to do is what has prevented his legacy from reaching new audiences. For one thing, he is not a fast worker and in Hollywood, out of sight does often translate to out of mind. But more importantly, other filmmakers haven’t had the opportunity to collaborate with him and use his persona and talent in new and interesting ways. One of Beatty’s best roles is in Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller but it’s hard to imagine him agreeing to be in that picture if it had been made even five years later because he wasn’t the one calling the shots.
I’m sure even Hal Ashby would concede that Warren Beatty was the driving creative force behind Shampoo. And in the end, the film isn’t much more than a very interesting, intermittently entertaining time capsule, simply because the star at the center of the action fails to recognize that he is the least interesting thing about his own story.
Shampoo is available on DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.