An Honor To Be Nominated: Shampoo

THE CONTENDERShampoo (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.

An Honor To Be Nominated: Tootsie

THE CONTENDER: Tootsie (1982)

Number of Nominations: 10 – Picture, Actor (Dustin Hoffman), Supporting Actress (Teri Garr and Jessica Lange), Director (Sydney Pollack), Original Screenplay (Larry Gelbart, Murray Schisgal & Don McGuire), Cinematography (Owen Roizman), Sound (Arthur Piantadosi, Les Fresholtz, Dick Alexander & Les Lazarowitz), Original Song (“It Might Be You,” music by Dave Grusin, lyrics by Alan & Marilyn Bergman), Film Editing (Fredric Steinkamp & William Steinkamp)

Number of Wins: 1 (Supporting Actress, Jessica Lange)

It’s a commonly held belief that when it comes to the Academy Awards, comedies get no respect. There’s an element of truth to that. Comedic actors are rarely recognized for their performances, at least in comedies. The best way for a comedian to nab an Oscar is to get serious, as in the cases of Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, and Mo’Nique. There are a handful of examples of actors winning for a comedy, Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda leaps to mind, but these are rare.

When it comes to Best Picture, comedies are infrequently nominated and almost never win. The last comedies to win were The Artist in 2012 and Shakespeare In Love back in 1999. Neither of those movies are exactly what you’d consider typical contemporary comedies. Prior to them, comedy winners included Annie Hall, The Sting, Tom Jones, The Apartment, You Can’t Take It With You, and It Happened One Night. You might be able to make a case for a couple others but not many.

The Academy seems to think that making comedies is easy. After all, they’re fun, right? They look like everyone was having fun. So making them is a lot simpler than recreating World War II or showing someone suffering from a debilitating disease. The reality is that making a great comedy is extraordinarily difficult. Every single element has to work in perfect harmony, from the script to the performances to the direction to the cinematography to the editing. If just one thing is out of sync, the whole operation falls apart.

In 1982, the Academy momentarily recognized how much work went into crafting a great contemporary comedy and honored Tootsie with 10 nominations. If you haven’t seen the movie in a while, that may seem excessive. But rewatching it again recently, it struck me as entirely appropriate. Tootsie is indeed a great comedy, one of the best of its decade, and it more than holds up over 30 years later.

The movie was a passion project for Dustin Hoffman and he spent several years developing the script with playwright Murray Schisgal and Larry Gelbart, among other, uncredited writers. The attention to detail pays off. The movie could easily have been an unbelievable, cross-dressing farce. But the characters are so richly developed that the movie strikes a chord. You never for one second question Hoffman’s decision as difficult actor Michael Dorsey to put on a dress and audition for a role on a soap opera as Dorothy Michaels.

Both of Hoffman’s performances are relaxed, engaging, and hilarious. The movie cannily plays off the star’s own reputation as an intense, difficult method actor. Tootsie features him at his warmest and most sympathetic. Hoffman takes what could have been a broad caricature and creates a wholly relatable human being.

The film’s supporting cast is no less perfect. Stalwart character actor Dabney Coleman has one of his juiciest roles as the lecherous TV director. Bill Murray graciously removed his name from the opening credits and advertising so audiences wouldn’t expect a Bill Murray movie along the lines of Stripes. But his appearance is crucial. Hoffman needs a foil that’s his equal and the two of them have an easy rapport that immediately conveys the characters’ history.

Perhaps the movie’s shrewdest casting was director Sydney Pollack’s appearance as Michael’s agent. Hoffman had to persuade Pollack into taking on the role. In fact, Dabney Coleman was originally cast in the part. But Pollack turned out to be the right choice. His incredulous reaction upon meeting Dorothy Michaels for the first time is worth the price of admission.

In particular, Tootsie was a tremendous vindication for Jessica Lange. She’d made her film debut in Dino De Laurentiis’ disastrous 1976 remake of King Kong. After that debacle, she found it almost impossible to find work. She subsequently made only a few film appearances until returning with a vengeance in 1982 with acclaimed performances in both Tootsie and Frances, eventually winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

Her win was not without controversy. After all, her role in Tootsie was the leading lady. It was widely assumed she was promoted in the Supporting Actress category so she wouldn’t be competing with her own work in Frances for Best Actress. Sure enough, she was nominated in both categories, much to the annoyance of costar Teri Garr. When both women were nominated for Best Supporting Actress, Garr resigned herself to the fact that she would probably lose to Lange, especially since it was widely (and correctly) assumed that the Best Actress race already belonged to Meryl Streep for Sophie’s Choice.

Sydney Pollack would go on to win Best Picture and Director a few years later for Out Of Africa, an interminable slog of a movie which is nevertheless exactly the kind of prestigious, sweeping epic the Academy loves to throw Oscars at. Tootsie is a far superior movie but despite its many nominations, it never had much of a shot. It’s funny, it’s contemporary, and it makes it all look easy. That isn’t the kind of movie that wins awards. But it is the kind of movie that has a legacy far beyond its initial run.

Tootsie is available on Blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.