News and Commentary – Shampoo: Holding a Mirror to the Left

A semester of seventies films offered with its tenth entry a (modest) respite from the usual darkness and despair, with the sex-comedy Shampoo (1975).  Of course, everything is relative—it’s still the seventies out there, and we surely don’t get the ending we were rooting for, leaving George (Warren Beatty) as diminished, desolate and despairing as Harry Caul was at the end of The Conversation.  But it is really funny along the way, and audiences at the time had bonus entertainment trying to distinguish between character George and actor Beatty.  They are each associated with insatiable, almost compulsive love-making (George beds four women within twenty-four hours); both once went steady with Julie Christie (Jackie in the movie); George wields the world’s most phallic hairdryer and fields phone calls in the middle of sexual encounters (the latter a Beatty legend). 

But Shampoo ought not to be underestimated—it has something to say.  Described by producer/star/co-writer Beatty as a film “about nice myopic people going to hell in a handcar and not noticing,” Shampoo, shot in the wasteland that was 1975, traces that mid-decade malaise the annus horribilis of 1968, and to the election of Nixon.  Set on election eve, day, and the morning after, the movie was co-written by Robert Towne – one of the most celebrated writers of the New Hollywood – and directed by Hal Ashby, another seventies notable.  Occasionally over-ruled by his producer-star, Ashby nevertheless found ways to successfully navigate the thin spaces that peeked between the forceful personalities of his colleagues that crowded the set. The director’s touch can also be seen in the sparing-but-essential use of Paul Simon’s minimalist score, and the impossibly good period music heard at Sammy’s party.   

“Nobody understood that it was about politics,” Beatty would later note with disappointment. Those politics were poured most particularly into two key party scenes, one Republican and one (implicitly) Democratic, scenes that were both written by Beatty.  And what distinguishes Beatty’s film from many other liberal-leaning productions is that although it is certainly critical of Nixon’s America, Shampoo is more interested in holding up a mirror to the American left, whose choices, the film argues, are what really left us with President Nixon.  (Keep in mind, Nixon won by a razor-thin margin in 1968). 

Certainly, with its portrayal of the Republican election-eve gathering Shampoo takes its shots at the conservative establishment; especially for its hypocrisy—an important theme for Beatty and for the seventies film in general (shades of Jane Fonda’s bitter indictment of “goddamn hypocrite squares” in Klute).  But it is the free-spirited young people at the second party that are the true targets of Beatty’s disapproval.  “We set it on election night because the point is . . . Nixon never really misled us – he was an open book,” Beatty explained to Roger Ebert.  How then, did he get elected?  Shampoo argues that it was not due to the votes cast by his supporters – one might as well blame a lion for eating a zebra – but because of the votes not cast by his opponents: the shrugging indifference of those who should have opposed Nixon.  Let’s hope in 2023 no one has to make a movie about the terrible consequences of choices made by the irresponsible left on 2016.

Shampoo - Nixon

Nixon is Only One Smiling 


Shampoo -- Table

Whatever Julie Christie is Doing Under the Table, Nixon and Reagan Approve


Shampoo - Jill

George, Confronted by Jill (Goldie Hawn), Tries to Come to Grips with His Life 


George with Lester

George with Lester (Jack Warden) – “Maybe Nixon will be Better”


George, Alone

Forget it, George, Its the Seventies Film