There was never a more perfect time for Shampoo to come out than the end of Richard Nixon’s time in America. But the dangers in what was set to come were a warning that Hal Ashby may have also tried to say we were also too late to listen to. This is a film all about how America was set to change as the times were moving forward, but we don’t exactly know if it’s the case that they would end up turning out for the better. But it’s weird enough how this film seems to have gone from being one of the hottest films of its own era to fading from that glory, which is a shame because like the rest of Ashby’s 1970’s oeuvre, it’s never anything less than impressive. It’s the sort of film that I’m amazed was even made in its own era, especially right after Richard Nixon’s era had ended in America, when people were unaware or outright unready for what was set to come in the years under his ruling. It’s a film that mixes together that raunchiness with scathing political commentary, and it’s rather stunning how much it still manages to bite after so long. If there’s anything that really does need to be said, you can watch a film like this as being proof that it’s the sort of film that only Hal Ashby could have made – and it sums up everything that made his films so wonderful.
Starting off fittingly with a sex scene set to “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” by the Beach Boys, Shampoo tells the story of George Roundy (Warren Beatty), a Beverly Hills-based hairstylist who wishes to start up a hair salon of his own. Because of his noted enthusiasm behind his job, he is often able to meet up and have sex together with numerous women, including his current girlfriend, Jill Haynes (Goldie Hawn). Set on Election Day in 1968, when Richard Nixon had just won the presidency, Shampoo isn’t any ordinary sex comedy but it’s also one that still feels incredibly damning, especially in its portrayal of sexual morals amidst what would turn out to be a defining moment for America. There’s a clear sense of moral decay in the American way, because of the all-too perfect setting of Election Day, but what Ashby addresses is the matter in which only what goes on at present becomes even more damning. There’s a new revolution about to start, but how Ashby presents it in Shampoo also calls for another look at where America is headed.
Everything about Shampoo feels like it’s made with the perfect way to reach its own audiences regarding the political climate. It’s not a film that only limits the political context to a mere backdrop but intersperses the nature of the climate with the sexual tensions between its own characters. Shampoo is a film all about sexual politics, but it’s also a film all about how a previous generation has failed a newer wave. It feels like the perfect film about how the failures of one generation would come to shape how people act, but the background of sexual politics in Shampoo only ever feels too on-the-nose in the best possible way. This is a film all about how people are longing to find liberation in an environment that only ever seemed to have failed them, and the aftereffects. While sexual freedom is the defining aspect of Shampoo, the way in which it also ties into the political climate of the day makes for a biting satire all around.
One thing that does catch me about Shampoo is just simply wondering whom everyone here would have been voting for, or if they even voted at all. But it also has a lot more to say about how politicians from the past fail the citizens of the present, a case being made clear from the neediness of Beatty’s character of George Roundy. He still relies greatly upon his relationships not only with his current girlfriend, but also with his ex-girlfriend – with whom they had the most meaningful time together. But in a typical sex comedy, it’d be easy enough to recognize Warren Beatty as embodying the Don Juan archetype and yet what comes forth is another tragedy inbound. There’s a tragedy coming forth in the fact that the sexual politics of the past would also go on to alienate Roundy all the more, because it also conflicts with how the Republican party akin to what Richard Nixon would have set up has envisioned for America’s future. It feels like a perfect breakdown of the romanticized persona that Beatty had been known for, calling for another revolution to start somewhere.
It’s also where you can see everything starts to fall apart, because this is a time where all that one cared about was having sex and looking good. Clearly, there’s no sense of preparation for what Richard Nixon had in store for America, because it only ever seemed secondary to what Roundy had in mind and it was also a situation he could easily have gotten himself out of. Perhaps it was something that you can see as sexy, but it was also where a revolution was about to start and Nixon was only set to block everything off. That’s where one can only beg the question, if you think you’re happy with blissful ignorance – what does that set in motion for your own future? It’s not something that simply limits itself to being about sex, if there’s anything else that makes Shampoo all too perfect. During his glory days, Hal Ashby was truly among America’s finest filmmakers and Shampoo further keeps that legacy intact. It’s quite scary to think about how much of this could still be applicable now.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Columbia Pictures.
Directed by Hal Ashby
Screenplay by Robert Towne, Warren Beatty
Produced by Warren Beatty
Starring Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, Goldie Hawn, Lee Grant, Jack Warden, Tony Bill, Carrie Fisher
Release Date: February 11, 1975
Running Time: 110 minutes