“The time of Shampoo,” Pauline Kael wrote in a rave review of Hal Ashby’s 1975 sex comedy, “is so close to us that at moments we forget its pastness, and then we’re stung by the consciousness of how much has changed.” And how little, from where we stand now. Looking back at Shampoo (whose 25th anniversary Columbia Pictures is celebrating with a new 35mm print), itself a look back at the rise of Nixon and the death rattle of the counterculture of the late ’60s, one sees not the end of an era but number one in the succession of “me” decades that closed out the 20th century and — with all due respect to recent events in Seattle — show few signs of waning in the 21st.
Co-written by Robert Towne and Warren Beatty in the first flush of the actor’s career behind the camera, Shampoo aspired to catch a nasty political moment (Nixon and Agnew’s rise to power) and hitch it to a nasty social moment (the wilting of the counterculture into panicked pleasure-seeking). The action takes place on the eve and day of the 1968 election, in Hollywood, where randy hairdresser George Roundy (Beatty) roars around town on his motorbike with his hair dryer phallically tucked into his belt, coiffing and bedding Hollywood royals and bit players without prejudice. Wherever he goes, televisions blast Nixon and Agnew, a pair of nattering nabobs if ever there were. Not that George is paying attention: He is the most vaporous of Democrats, the most apolitical of pseudo-hippies, a man so rudderless and so overwhelmed by choices that he can never say no — or yes. As pure sex farce, Shampoo is stylish and light on its feet, juiced by Beatty’s hilariously agitated, oddly moving performance, and by Jack Warden’s terrific turn as the two-timing tycoon who ends up cuckolded by his wife, his mistress and his daughter, all of whom topple over like ninepins before George — and manipulate the hell out of him. But the movie’s social analysis is glib and facile, implying on the one hand that Nixon won only because the left went bankrupt, and on the other that the sexual revolution was as bad for America as was Nixon himself.
That’s reductive to say the least, but it may look like a logical conclusion if the corner of America you’re describing is Los Angeles, or that corner of Los Angeles that spawned limo liberals and wealthy potheads without any sustaining ideology. In one way or another, all of George’s lovers — Lee Grant as the Hollywood wife he’s screwing while he does her hair, a touchingly moon-faced Carrie Fisher as her enraged daughter, Goldie Hawn as his current squeeze, Julie Christie as the former girlfriend he still loves — are kept women and remain so, which is about how it was in haute L.A. circa 1968. Meanwhile the world outside was reeling from several political earthquakes, among them the women’s movement, whose members would have made short work of George’s timorously self-serving claim — at a point in the movie when just about all is lost — that he may not be capable of loving women, but “Nobody’s gonna tell me I don’t like ’em.” That is the particular vanity of the Don Juan whose path is strewn with the crushed egos of those he has betrayed, and by rights the line should be dripping with irony. Beatty delivers it straight enough to make you wonder whether George is not merely being explained, but vindicated.
As a study in hedonism, Shampoo is amusingly dated. The movie’s compulsive Beverly Hills bed-hoppers pale before the Valley porn freaks depicted in Paul Thomas
Anderson’s Boogie Nights, which is set around the time Shampoo was made. Notwithstanding the famous scene in which Christie gives Beatty head under a dinner table (the actor still refuses to say whether George’s amorous adventures were based on his own, but either way he must have felt as if he were reciting his memoirs), the heaving and moaning in Shampoo is more notable for the frequency of its occurrence, amped with an occasional guest appearance by a bare bum, than for any pioneering commentary on the freed-up sexual mores of its time.
The shifts in the American sociopolitical landscape that Kael observed between the period when Shampoo was set and when the movie was made have, with hindsight, proved far less momentous than the sea change that took place in filmmaking over those seven years. Shampoo is one relatively minor player in a slew of trenchant political movies — minor because, lacking even the robust paranoia of The Parallax View (in which Beatty later starred) or Chinatown (which Towne wrote), its bracing iconoclasm slides into a fatigued cynicism, or mere disillusionment. Since then, Towne, a gifted writer who slumped into hacking for the studios, has let the disappointment overwhelm him. Beatty, on the other hand, has bloomed. With Bulworth, he has shown himself as idealistic about both sex and politics (and, now, race) as he was jaded about both in the mid-’70s. It took until he reached his 60s, but Beatty has at last arrived, an actor-director-producer with verve enough to whip 20th Century Fox into releasing one of the more politically subversive movies of the last 30 years, and vision enough to know he shouldn’t run for office.
There is a breed of first movie — sweet,
gentle, more often than not a love story — that makes the rounds of the independent film festivals, buttering up young audiences and saggy old critics alike. If all goes well, as it did for Smiling Fish and Goat on Fire at the 1999 Toronto Film Festival, the movie lands a big godfather like Martin Scorsese and a small distributor like Stratosphere Entertainment, and if all goes better yet, careers are born.
This is a rare and friendly outcome in Hollywood’s habitually unfriendly environment, which is why I feel like a creep for not having kinder things to say about Smiling Fish, whose title breathes a fresh, idiosyncratic promise on which the movie never delivers. It’s directed by Kevin Jordan, who co-wrote the screenplay with his friends Derick and Steven Martini, and I’ll wager none of them has hit 30 yet, for Smiling Fish is about finding the right girl and the right mentor and the right life — all those things that seem colossal when you’re wading through your 20s. The job of the filmmakers is to make those things feel colossal to moviegoers of all ages, and that takes imagination, wisdom and a compelling attention to the gap between what people say, and what they do, and how they feel.
The Martini brothers, who are handsome and winsome, play two brothers who are handsome and winsome (one is responsible, the other a naughty boy who smiles too much), and whose linguistic currency runs to “So,
asshole . . . ” “Yes, dick?,” a little of which goes a long way. Both have hysterical girlfriends who are all wrong for them, and it takes an old black filmmaker (played by veteran actor Bill Henderson) to escort them to the right ones — a mail carrier and single mother (nicely underplayed by Christa Miller) to wise up the bad boy, and a luscious Italian animal wrangler (whose accent is so ludicrously overcooked by Rosemarie Addeo that she sounds as if her mouth is full of moths) to loosen up the straight man. The strange occupations function merely as whimsy, and the developing relationships drown in the movie’s real purpose, which is to convince us that the handsome, winsome siblings are also full of self-deprecating charm. Point taken, over and over, but the movie cries out for id and mess and inner life. The best I can say for Smiling Fish is that it’s capable and pleasant, which ought to sound a warning note louder than if I’d said it was awful. Pleasant is not filmmaking — it’s public relations, and it can get to be a habit when everyone is thanking you for making them feel all gooey inside.
Shampoo screens September 1-7 at the Nuart. Cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs will introduce the film and lead a Q&A on opening night.
SHAMPOO | Directed by HAL ASHBY | Written by ROBERT TOWNE and WARREN BEATTY | Produced by BEATTY | Released by Columbia Pictures
At the Nuart
SMILING FISH AND GOAT ON FIRE | Directed by KEVIN JORDAN | Written by JORDAN, DERICK MARTINI and STEVEN MARTINI | Produced by MARTINI,
JORDAN and MARTINI | Released by Stratosphere Entertainment | At Laemmle’s Monica, Sunset 5