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More Than Soap Bubbles

The 25th anniversary screening of a new print of 'Shampoo' offers another chance to marvel at the film's incisive social observations.

August 31, 2000|BILL DESOWITZ | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Shampoo," which could be thought of as the original "Sex and the City," returns for its 25th anniversary at a most opportune time, as we grapple with who we are and where we're going in the new millennium. But whereas the hit HBO series may have all the questions about promiscuous sex, the landmark film comedy from 1975 (screening for a week at the Nuart beginning Friday in a sparkling new print) still has most of the answers about relationships.

"Shampoo," an inspired collaboration between screenwriter Robert Towne, actor-producer and co-writer Warren Beatty and director Hal Ashby, is all about "settling up and settling down," as the eloquent Towne describes it today. And while it turned out to be one of the most incisive films of the decade, capturing a tumultuous era with poignant accuracy, "Shampoo" has lost none of its edge or heart. In fact, there's an overriding sense of melancholy about the empty lives and wasted opportunities that may touch us more profoundly today now that we have greater distance and perspective on the tragic ramifications.

On the eve of Richard Nixon's '68 presidential victory, the party comes to a crashing halt and the hangover begins. Beatty, at his sweetest and inarticulate best, plays a successful Beverly Hills hairdresser who has a wonderful way with women. Once he sees them and runs his fingers through their hair, he can't help making them look beautiful and then bedding them. He's more Pygmalion than Don Juan, but, regardless, the ladies are seduced by his talent and attentiveness. However, at 37, Beatty is desperate for a change. He has no intention of settling down, but he has one dream: to own his own shop. Trouble is, he has no head for business, so that's where his intertwining connections come in. Lee Grant, his latest mistress, who's filled with middle-aged boredom, suggests he talk to her husband, Jack Warden, a wealthy businessman who's sleeping with Beatty's ex-girlfriend, Julie Christie, who's best friends with Beatty's current girlfriend, Goldie Hawn, a neurotic with an itch to start nesting.

This farcical roundelay comes to a head at a couple of parties on election night when everyone figures out who's sleeping with whom, and Beatty, in particular, is forced to confront his own mortality the following day.

In its time, "Shampoo" was hailed for more than the boldness of its sex and language: "It is an unsparing picture, but not unsympathetic--'Shampoo' lets us in on the pain, and the numbness, of its protagonist," wrote Charles Champlin in The Times. " 'Shampoo' is light and impudent, yet, like the comedies that live on, it's a bigger picture in retrospect," wrote Pauline Kael.

"I think it's a really good representation of a time and a place that seemed to pass so quickly yet felt like it had 20 years of historic events crammed in it," Towne suggests, referring to Vietnam and Watergate. "And it's very well observed and not really exaggerated at all. It seems like L.A. to me. You run into yourself almost without trying."

All the characters are unable to communicate or to share intimacy in any way except sexually--most of all, Beatty's libidinous hairdresser, who has trouble gathering thoughts or finishing sentences, much like the actor in real life. Yet he's gentle, naive, intuitive and physical--a real dreamer, like all the characters Beatty has played throughout his career. But this character seems the most personal. And the other actors play off Beatty so well, especially Christie, Beatty's real-life girlfriend at the time, who was never sexier or more beguiling, and Hawn, who was never more endearing or fragile.

One of the remarkable things about "Shampoo" is the way you are constantly surprised by everyone. For instance, when Beatty asks Christie if she originally left him because he couldn't settle down, she replies that it was because he was too happy all the time. And never in your wildest dreams would you figure that Hawn and Warden would be the ones to make the wisest use of their information. All in all, these are people who have the capacity to make you care for them despite their flaws.

What truly distinguishes "Shampoo" from, say, Robert Altman's "Nashville" of the same year, is the benevolent treatment of the characters. You really get the impression that Ashby is less misanthropic than Altman. "Hal was a very good choice to direct this movie," Towne adds. "He brings a nonjudgmental generosity and affection for the characters. There's not a Puritanical eye."

For Towne, the model for the film was Jean Renoir's masterful "Rules of the Game," which explores a forgotten time and place where everyone is compelling and complex. There are two scenes that Towne is particularly fond of: the climactic confrontation between Beatty and Hawn in which he tries to explain his getting excited about women getting excited about themselves ("I can't help it. I feel like I'm gonna live forever") and the following scene in which he enlightens Warden on the nature of women.

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