The Prevarications of Hedonism
Shampoo, starring, co-written and produced by Warren Beatty, is a sly vanity project that plays hide and seek with Beatty’s persona, but in an interesting way. Beatty was well known in Hollywood as one of the great lotharios of his age, and his list of girlfriends included Joan Collins, Leslie Caron, Natalie Wood, Britt Ekland and Julie Christie. He was also discerning in his art and in his politics, as he generally chose his roles carefully and his political position clearly: “he was negotiating at the highest levels in the Democratic Party,” biographer John Baxter claims, “to influence the selection of a politician who could conceivably become the next Vice-president of the United States.” He was of course hugely wealthy and by the mid-seventies Hollywood royalty. When Baxter says that at the time of Shampoo Beatty was due a spectacular movie, he adds, “Hollywood was expecting it of him any day now, after his casual coasting over the past two and a half years.” Where most actors are either scurrying around looking for work, or, if established, constantly trying to maintain that position, Beatty was regally biding his time. While Gene Hackman would say around the same period that there was pressure to cash in on his success, Beatty seemed to be someone more interested in spending his cash on various travel trips and women, and pursuing his political interests. Hackman understood the anxiety involved in being only as good as your next picture: “To have to worry about whether you’re ever going to work again. I really don’t have to worry about that” he said in an interview in Film Comment, “but there is a kind of compulsion there, a kind of need to succeed, to stay at a certain level.” Not for Beatty, it seemed.
If we propose that Shampoo plays hide and seek with Beatty’s persona, it rests in hairdresser George sharing a number of Beatty characteristics without possessing Beatty’s general status. If Beatty the actor was Hollywood royalty, in Shampoo George is closer to a male courtesan, an L.A. hairdresser with power to shape a person’s hair but without much opportunity to shape his own life. Early in the film we see him coming out of a failed meeting with the bank, and tearing off his jacket throws it in the bin. Then, as if recognizing he isn’t comfortable enough for that throwaway gesture, promptly retrieves it from amongst the rubbish. Filmed in one aloof, long shot, the scene is both humorous and pathetic, but we might wonder whether the humour partly comes from the gap between Beatty the actor and George the character, and the pathos from the characterisation alone. Pauline Kael astutely noted in her New Yorker review of the film that Robert Towne-scripted films (specifically Chinatown and Shampoo) share heroes who “are hip to conventional society and they assume that they reject its dreams. But in some corner of their heads they think that maybe the old romantic dream can be made to work…they don’t ask much of life, but they are also romantic damn fools who ask just what they can’t get.” Here she was zeroing in on the pathos of the film.
This is a pathos though that is also vital to director Hal Ashby’s work, and especially in The Last Detail (which Towne scripted), Coming Home and Being There. And does it not even run through Beatty’s films at the sort of one remove the camera captures here: in Bonnie and Clyde, McCabe and Mrs Miller and The Parallax View the films end with the death of his characters? Critic Stanley Kauffmann may have believed in The New Republic that George was ‘vacuous’, but there is profound shallowness here, and we use the term rather as Oscar Wilde proposed that only shallow people don’t judge by appearances. This is a meaningful film about shallow people, set at the time of the 1968 presidential election, and the film’s skill lies in working between the humorous and the pathetic as it offers up a Beatty persona not entirely unlike the actor’s own, but from a much more ostensibly vulnerable perspective.
There is a telling comment a friend of Beatty’s makes where the person says “I have heard people say that Warren wouldn’t cross the street to help you. I think that is a bit extreme. You see, he was always in such a hurry that he couldn’t stop to consider the problems of others – unless they affected him, too.” It is a comment that helps sum up the tone of a film about a man who wants to be everywhere simultaneously, wants to be there for others but always pleasing himself, and wants to get on but always seems to be running on the spot. A key scene for Peter Lev in his book Conflicting Visions comes when the various characters are at a hippie party and George disappears with one lover Jackie (Julie Christie) only for his girlfriend, Jill (Goldie Haw), and Jackie’s lover, Lester (Jack Warden), to catch them in the act. George goes after Jill to explain himself, fails, and then goes back to attend to Jackie, who takes off in the car without him. As Lev says “perpetual motion, no sustained purpose. Perhaps this description could be extended from the character of George to the young hedonists of the sixties.” Extended also perhaps in another direction to incorporate Kael’s comments, and which will also allow us to differentiate aspects of Beatty’s persona from Nicholson’s, and why Nicholson in the role (who did after all take the leading parts in the two previous Towne scripts, The Last Detail and Chinatown) would have captured beautifully the sexual appetite, but might have missed out on the sort of prevaricating hedonism Beatty pins down so well. Nicholson is an actor who can, in David Thomson’s words in Movies of the Sixties, “be a droll sexual rascal, as knowing as he is familiar and as likely to eat up a woman as a camera. As a movie lover he goes all the way in terms of emotional commitment.” Beatty, on the other hand, is someone as Towne noted, mentioned in Thomson’s Warren Beatty and Desert Eyes, who “represent[s] a peculiar problem as an actor because he is a man deeply embarrassed by acting.”
Yet this embarrassment actually works in Shampoo’s favour, as George never quite seems committed even to the very activity that made him a hairdresser in the first place: the pursuit of women. When Towne says “once you’re in a woman’s hair you’re halfway there”, and an actual top LA hairdresser notes “it’s women who seduce their hairdressers not the other way round”, this ease of seduction and at the same time the feeling one isn’t quite responsible for the seducing, plays much better into Beatty’s persona than Nicholson’s. If it is true as actress Judy Carne believed in Baxter’s biography that “she did not know of any woman who had met him who had not been attracted to him”, then while this could indicate an astonishing prowess, it equally suggests that there was little challenge involved in Beatty’s seductions. The lack of effort required could be close to affectlessness. Nicholson looks like a man who wants to win a woman; Beatty someone who is more inclined to accept their advances.
The very shallowness Kauffmann sees is just as readily a problematic worth exploring: that of the great looking man who never quite feels responsible for his own existence. He is the flipside of Lester, the man whom he’s basically multiply cuckolding. Not only has George bedded his wife, Lester’s mistress Jackie is still clearly in love with George, and he even sleeps with Lester’s teenage daughter. Yet George’s false consciousness resides in believing that prowess can be the same thing as power. By the end of the film he arrives at a sense of impotence as Lester, aware of what George has been doing behind his back, lectures him about the way he lives after Lester decides a couple of his heavies needn’t beat him, and impotent again when Jackie ends up going off with the older man. It’s not even as if George shouldn’t have seen the sense of humiliation and failure coming. In one scene at a Republican party gathering George is literally left standing as he turns to talk to Lester and the man has already moved on. George may be a tall, good looking bloke whom few women would fail to notice, but he is of no interest to Lester who assumes George is gay. It is why George has been able to escort Jackie to the party as she can pretend for the purposes of this upmarket event to be George’s lover rather than actually Lester’s mistress, and so Lester can go with his wife (Lee Grant) while Jackie still gets to attend the party.
Superficially George would seem to have the most power here if power is being desired, and knowing what others do not know. There are three women at the event in love with him (Lester’s wife, Jackie, and also his own girlfriend Jill, who’s attending with a film director), and he knows what other characters do not know: Jill doesn’t know about his affair with Lester’s wife; Lester’s wife doesn’t know Jill, who is there with another man, is George’s girlfriend, But of course it is useful to have emotional power over others, but the flipside of power through knowledge is powerlessness through secrecy. George may have information that others do not have, but the exposure of this knowledge would lead to a complete debilitation of that power.
Prowess is one thing but power can be something else altogether as George can sleep his way round L.A. but he must do so surreptitiously, and while the sex gives him prowess, the surreptitiousness leads to the debilitation that is so often the end result of being dishonest. By the film’s conclusion, George can do no more than own up, as he admits to Jill that he’s constantly been sleeping with others behind her back, and apologetic to Lester as he hopes the heavies won’t give him the beating Lester finally feels George is too inept to receive. Playing like a halfway house both historically and emotionally to Carnal Knowledge (which came out in 1971) and American Gigolo (released in 1980), with the literal impotence of the womanizer in Mike Nichols’ film, and the legal impotence of the framed gigolo in Schrader’s, Shampoo is basically a moral comedy fascinated by the problematic of the shallow. It looks at the way prowess is not the same as power, and the false consciousness involved when a character believes it happens to be.
This doesn’t mean the film sides with Lester, with economic power over sexual prowess, and the film is clear enough in showing that Lester is finally much more of a whore than George. As his wife says, Lester’s not really helping anybody; he is “just twisting arms here raising for money for a lot of son of a bitches who are out for themselves” as he sucks up to Republican cronies. George merely enjoys bedding women: he isn’t really out to get what he can. Though he’d like Lester to offer backing so that he can open up his own hairdressing salon, he doesn’t do much to pursue it, and Lester wonders near the end of the film, as he questions George, whether since he has slept with both his wife and his mistress, if he had anything against him. George certainly proves the opposite of ingratiating. Even when Lester wonders whether his wife and mistress have anything against him, George doesn’t assuage Lester’s ego: he supposes that they probably do have a reason to be annoyed.
Central to the film’s exploration of the shallow is that characters are a combination of being in denial and dishonest, so they don’t so much explore their feelings as play with those of others. At one moment early in the film as Jackie and Jill talk, Jill mentions how at two in the morning George woke her up and decided to do her hair and make her the most beautiful girl around, well aware that Jackie is George’s former partner. Jackie replies by saying that George is wonderful, but unreliable and now, being with Lester, she can wake up in the morning knowing that the rent’s been paid. The first half of her comment about waking up in the morning suggests she’s going to talk about emotional reliability, while the second half makes it clear it’s the money she wants from Lester more than his love. When George and Lester talk, George says Lester should hear how women converse: all they talk about his how men have screwed them over. Given a chance why shouldn’t they screw a man over in turn?
As the film explores the problem of power and prowess, it is as though it wanted to utilise Beatty not especially for a smug examination of his star appeal and milieu as Kauffmann proposes when saying “this picture apparently began as a project to show Beatty not as a romantic idol but as a fantastic fornicator, and everything else was added on sententiously to expedite that idea.” If the film counts it does so because it explores the means by which characters accumulate power and prowess but do so without adding meaning and context to their lives. In such an approach power and prowess are limited resources that people need to fight over, but in the process of doing so it removes from them the sort of power that has little to do with resources that are finite, but energy that is infinite. It is like the difference between a person taking the car and walking: the former uses up limited energy; the latter tries to create it. In Shampoo the characters seem to be reaching states of emotional entropy as they cannot generate energy and meaning in the situations they find themselves. Lester may have financial resources, Beatty sexual satisfaction, and Christie the looks to make any man want to pay her rent, but do any of them have the wherewithal to create fresh energy in their lives?
It is from such a perspective that one can see the film is less a Beatty vanity project, and more an attempt to understand power, prowess and what it takes to generate energy in our existence. It is true that the film ends with Beatty realising he’s lost the love of his life and still working in someone else’s hairdressing salon, but that is the conclusion of its story, with its own immediate sadness. But the film also taps into a broader and deeper sadness concerning the nature of pursuing power, sex and money in a city where they are givens of existence. By the end of the film George might want more from life – like his own salon and money enough to be with the woman who loves him – but at the same time the film seems to muse over the problem of energy going off in various useless directions. Beatty might not have had to worry too much about the problems the story raises, but the theme would surely have talked to him very directly indeed.