Thursday, November 10, 2011

Shampoo (1975)

The Tragedy of a Dildo, in Three Acts

directed by Hal Ashby
starring Warren Beatty, Julie Christie,
Goldie Hawn, Jack Warden, Lee Grant

"You think George is a fairy?" 
"Well. I don't know for sure. He's a hairdresser."

Of course, that's the crux of Shampoo's comedy: the Beverly Hills hairdresser who's only the most put-upon pussy magnet in existence — no hunter but a mere fawn too accommodating to bolt from the crosshairs, using a scythe of finely honed flakiness to hack his way through the jungle of outstretched hands pawing at his jeans.

Beatty and co-writer Robert Towne (Chinatown, The Last Detail) lit their Don Juan stogie with a spark from The Country Wife, a Restoration-era romp about a man trusted to be alone with all the wives of the village since he was thought to be impotent. Here, "impotence" is translated as "suspected to be gay because he makes his living in a field dominated by mincing queens." Naturally, that's a nudge-and-a-wink to a mid-'70s public all too familiar with tales of pussyhound Warren Beatty's Tinseltown exploits. Irony-wise, it's the central conceit meant to keep us chuckling with delight as that rascal George flits from Lee Grant's married rich-cunt to shit-for-brains model Goldie Hawn to Grant's bitter Lolita of a daughter (Princess Leia!) and back to old flame Julie Christie, all under the nose of a town too busy smoothing its moustache and checking its toupee in the mirror to notice. 

Shampoo's no wacky bedroom farce from the bell-bottomed-'n-shag-carpeted '70s, though. Beatty, being the politically committed granddaddy-to-today's-Clooneys-and-Penns that he is, was no more interested in providing sitcom yuks than he was in allowing us a glimpse of Julie Christie's tits. He and Towne set the story in 1968, on the eve of Richard Nixon's election to high office — and with a film made six years later, when the evening news was regularly peeling back the jowls of Tricky Dick's White House to show the maggots gnawing on the rancid, mottled corpus underneath, you'd better believe there's Intended Political Allegory in these here hills. Election Day '68, in Shampoo's eyes, was The Shot That Killed the Sixties — less a blast from a bolt-action rifle than the splash of a '67 Olds plummeting off a bridge at Chappaquiddick, the tattered carcass of an era to be laid at the feet of the "Silent Majority" Nixon voters who pumped it full of buckshot — sure — but thrown in the faces of the peaceniks and politicians-for-change who were too busy injecting sexual and emotional hypocrisy into the culture at large to bother stopping the hunters.

If all that sounds like a tall order for a movie about a manwhore who motorbikes around town with a blow dryer holstered on his hip, then rest assured: Shampoo definitely fumbles the delivery. Of ultimately minimal value are the Spiro Agnew cameos during moments of sexual largesse or the blonde chippie in a brightly-colored Nixon-Agnew hat. (Would one have seen such a thing on the streets of Beverly Hills at the height of the "Love Generation"?) Besides, Towne and Beatty shoot easy sympathy for the Buffalo Springfield crowd in the foot with the fact that the sole likeable character happens to be Lester Karp, the Nixon-voting (and almost ritually cuckolded) businessman played by Jack Warden. So forget politics. Just enjoy Beatty himself, the Olivier of playing who-me? innocent like no other actor of his era. His George Roundy is the cad you hate not to love, sweetly dumb in the lingering mist of a childlike naïveté, the bumbling fool (Beatty's forte, as in Bonnie and Clyde, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Ishtar, Bulworth), yet somehow still getting away with things nice boys don't even think about.

If I've said nothing about the film's director, Hal Ashby (whose work I tend to love), it's because George Roundy is clearly Beatty's ultimate auteur statement, his most plainly personal character. Beatty essentially co-directed the film, but a viewer with zero knowledge of that, or of his career-long penchant for smacking foreheads with directors over creative control, could glean that fairly easily. Those of us who consider ourselves familiar with the Beatty legend look for a little piece of it in all of his performances. Beatty is — was — a star, first and foremost. We wouldn't want him to disappear behind peculiar accents or the mustache of a railroad baron from 1896 anymore than he'd be able to. We want to sit back and grin during a scene with him and Julie Christie, as we wonder if a lovers' quarrel in his trailer that morning led her to tear into him with a bit more intensity than the script called for. All the characters he's chosen to inhabit — as well as the ways in which he's chosen to inhabit them — have been either a winking embrace or a chuckling repudiation of his image as The Guy Who's Banged Every Starlet in Hollywood. And Shampoo manages to be both.

Then again, to paraphrase Nixon himself (via Oliver Stone): when you look at George Roundy, you see what you'd like to be; when you look at Lester Karp, you see what you are. And if you're standing in Lester's wingtips, then, of course George is a fairy — that's what people say about guys like him, isn't it? Obscenely self-assured pretty boys with the audacity — the arrogance — to sample the wares of multiple needy, neurotic women rather than chain themselves to a relationship with just one? Men who, by dint of the massive balls they've cultivated, actually live out the fantasies that the socially inept and supremely unconfident jerk themselves to sleep with every night? Men who women seem to just throw it at? And when they do, it's usually right after having their dinners paid for by one of those hommes sans game who poses as the ultimate nice guy — right? — the type who thinks that keeping his car radio tuned to the smooth-R&B station and professing disdain for the Neanderthal ways of the rest of the male species will somehow provide that magical St.-Paul-on-the-Road-to-Damascus moment for some skank-in-a-bar who's spent the last four years' worth of Friday nights getting her cervix batter-rammed by bad boys who choke and don't call back.

As if devoting one's time and energy to bedding various women — not to mention, all the messy intimacy with female genitalia contained therein — were somehow undeniable proof that what said "player" really craves is another man; never mind that. A guy like George Roundy is too smooth to be straight — please, God, let him be gay! After all, with guys like George on the market, life for the Lester Karps of the world means being stuck in line with a dozen other schlubs cradling ground chuck past its sell-by date — lucky if they get a moment's worth of eye contact from the checkout girl — while George breezes out with all the filet mignon in the place. And half of it probably jumped off the butcher's block and flung itself into his cart — that son-of-a-bitch.

So, George has what the Oprah set would term "commitment issues." Well, as they say, one is often a product of one's environment. And take a look at George's environment: why would he settle down with any of these women, or grant them a sliver more consideration than he gives to the necessity of financial statements when applying for a bank loan? Lee Grant's Felicia is so unblinkingly self-centered in the face of propriety, such a turban-headed savage along the Western shores of dignity, that she fucks George mere minutes after he's dipped his wick in her teenage (underaged?) daughter. Said daughter (Carrie Fisher — absolutely no tape on the breasts here, Mister Lucas) oozes so much slime-green resentment for her that she drags Mommy's plaything into her pen, then blithely tosses it back — still covered in her saliva and teeth-marks. Goldie Hawn's Jill is such a whining, approval-craving ninny — cowering and crying for George at every little bump in the night ("I thought I heard shots!") — that mild-mannered George blatantly compares her to a child during one of those when-are-we-having-kids conversations that every guy dreads. (And even then, she's too dumb to be at least mildly offended.) When their climactic confrontation finally occurs, Jill's been so willfully blind that you're rooting for George to just up and dick-slap her with the truth, ready to jump up and cheer with pumped fist at his infamous "Let's face it... I fucked 'em all" speech, as if it were Elliott taking off on his bike in E.T. 

Even the woman for whom he feels something closest to the L-word — Julie Christie's Jackie — scarcely bothers to hide the fact that she rents her snatch to the highest bidder, that she's with Lester for his money, that she's fully aware of his marriage to "that cunt" Felicia and cares not a whit about diving under the table to blow George — in full view of Lester, in full view of Felicia — during the returns-watching function that serves as the film's centerpiece. In the middle of this crazed, Caligula-esque circus of me, George's "I don't fuck anybody for money, I do it for fun" rings out like the clarion call of sanity — the lone dinghy of true innocence in waters not nearly as pure as professional Sixties idealists would have you believe. It also sounds like the cold, unadorned truth. Say what you will about your local manwhore — at least he fucks for the sheer human pleasure of sliding off another pair of panties grown clammy with the dew of excitement (part of nature's programming, anyway), not for money or social status or career advancement or a good table at Spago's.

"Maybe it means I don't love 'em...
nobody's gonna tell me I don't like 'em very much..."

George is a guy who spends all his time around women — certainly, he must like them, right? Except that, in the real world, the biggest misogynists tend to be those who "score" the most, not (as is commonly assumed) bitter nerds with their dicks indefinitely stationed in Palm Springs. Anyone who's ever spent ten minutes of "conversation" time with your friendly neighborhood suburban jock can attest to this — get him alone, away from the future Playmates he's taken for granted since puberty, and "Love, Tenderness and Respect" ain't the name of the tune he sings. Of course, it might have something to do with the fact that getting a higher degree of "action" entails being around more women. And being around more women entails a greater awareness of the vagaries of the fairer sex — i.e., looming insecurities, the unceasing need for validation, the constant head games, the shallow assessments of what constitutes a good time, the shallow assessments of other people (especially, other women), the tantrum-throwing when she hasn't gotten her way, endless prattling about the most trifling minutiae of her daily existence.

Or, even less charitably: the more success one has getting into women's salty little panties, the more one realizes what great aphrodisiacs things like money and status really are. (How the fuck else could Jabba the Huts like Biggie Smalls or personality-free dorks like Tiger Woods actually get laid?) And once one tends to chance upon this gradual dawning of the consciousness, one tends to note one's increased resentment and overall lack of respect for the pretty little things one gets into bed — even at the height of one's carnal success, even as one fields whispered declarations involving the L-word, even (well, especially) as she hobbles out of your apartment with a dislodged uterus, wearing your fingerprints around her throat like a Girl Scout merit badge. (Or so I've heard.)

Beatty soft-pedals this aspect of womanizing in Shampoo, much as he soft-pedaled Clyde Barrow's alleged bisexuality, much as The Parallax View soft-pedaled the U.S. government's complicity with assassinations and cover-ups, much as Bulworth soft-pedaled the high untenability of the let's-all-be-socialists-and-fuck-'til-we're-all-the-same-shade-of-gray party line. Perhaps that's an outgrowth of some George Roundy-ish need to please (if not outright seduce) every audience member who comes along. Nonetheless, Beatty was nothing if not a guy who knew about women. And, however muted, indelible truths about Being a Guy are indeed carefully nestled behind Shampoo's hedges, waiting patiently for the scavenger hunt to begin.

The Second Most Important Lesson of the film: cater exclusively to a woman's vanity and the pussy's yours. She could have a husband, two boyfriends, a secret admirer and a kid on life support — doesn't matter. Your crotch might bear the scent of half the women in the town, the wall over your bed may sport an entire season's worth of scuff marks from high heels — doesn't matter. Devote every drop of your attention to making her feel like the best-looking woman in five counties, ensure that men slip on their own drool in her wake, that she's the envy of every catty little cunt in Nordstrom's — and most assuredly, the pussy's got your name tattooed on it. Looks have precious little to do with it — tellingly, not one woman in the film comments on George's appearance. If you need her badly enough, if you make her believe beyond any shadow of a doubt that she's the only girl on the planet who can make your back arch and your toes curl and your heart pound — then, you can resemble J.J. from Good Times and you'll still be churning in her gut like bad fish.

Now, for the flip side — The Most Important Lesson of Shampoo: What Goes Up Must Come Down. Every Dog Has His Day. Venture just one day past your sell-by without the sweaty hand of a steady sweetheart clutched in yours, and you're one for the trash heap. A faint memory to bring no more than the occasional reminiscence. Ultimately, the fate of the world's George Roundys is being cast aside for a safe bet, a man who offers the stability of a steady high-end salary to keep her shoe collection healthy and growing. It's being judged for your manwhoriness by the same women who used it to their advantage when it suited their needs — when they drunk-texted you at 11:25 at night for a little impromptu wall-scuffing because they needed the comfort of the ego boost and the orgasms you reliably provided.

Eventually, George will break down to Jackie: "I don't trust anybody but you." And therein lies the tricky part. The part where it all comes back to bite you on the ass. The part where it's initially fun to be the guy they want to fuck, until it's eating a path through your guts: "What if she were my wife? Or my girlfriend, who told me she was just going out for drinks with the girls?" And then, you realize that you can't trust anyone — not the carousel of women with whom you share your living room couch, not the men like a younger version of yourself, whose incessant offers your precious lady love will undoubtedly field the second you're not around.

If George/the '60s is the dumb-blonde innocent that Beatty intended him/it to be, then Shampoo winds up with a pretty dim view of such innocence. The confrontation between George and Lester — player vs. player-hater, young vs. old, The Silent Majority vs. Hippie Commie Out to Destroy Everything We've Worked For — is where George seals his own fate as surely as the film portends the pitter-patter of the Reagan Eighties dancing a two-step to Slick Rick's "Treat Her Like a Prostitute" on his welcome mat. George's utter resentment — "How do I know what they have against you? They're women, aren't they?" — comes spilling out at last. And that ingratiating quality he's used to keep so many balls in the air is precisely what delivers the death blow here: he convinces Lester that Jackie really likes him, that it's not all about the money for her. It's a brazen lie — and it becomes the golden chariot in which Lester dashes off with Jackie into a future George could never realize.

Lester doesn't even need to have George thumped by hired goons. This kid's a flake and nothing more — too non-committal to satisfy even himself, a shiny new toy, a dildo, a ring in the jewelry section at Wal-Mart to be coveted by teenage girls who don't know any better, before they grow up and develop a sense of what their hips and curves and batting eyelashes will net them out there beyond the confines of Daddy's House. At which point, they graduate from Sex as Mere Pleasurable Activity and move into Sex as Business, Pussy as Commodity. The Market. The Adult World. In which George — with his go-nowhere plans and his charming but empty little fantasies — is but a panhandler shivering in the cold, nose pressed to the glass, watching all the fat cats and their trophy wives sipping chardonnay by the fireplace inside.

And then, you're the pathetic forty year-old guy in the bar, the laughingstock with a lukewarm Stella in hand. And then, the Beach Boys is the saddest, most poignant music you've ever heard.

And then, you're alone.

©2010 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic

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