“I go into that shop and they’re so great-looking. I do their hair. They feel and smell great. I’d be on the street at a stoplight, or go into an elevator. There’s a beautiful girl. I don’t know. That’s it. It makes my day. It makes me feel like I’m gonna live forever.”
The most devastating moment in Shampoo comes when Warren Beatty sticks up for a “whore.” She’s not a whore. Or, really, as Beatty will say, everybody’s a whore. Who can judge and why say such things while, of all people, Richard Nixon is speaking on the television? Beatty issues his soft-hearted argument both gallantly and humanely while having no idea how destructive his defense will wind up at that moment. He’s just upset and visibly hurt (you can see it in his eyes – eyes full of a “why did you have to say that? Why did you have to go there?”) when the woman he actually loves, Jackie (Julie Christie), is deemed a nothing, just a pretty receptacle for sperm. He’s also defending himself – a bed-hopping Beverly Hills hairdresser and, really, the whole human race in this rotten cynical world. We’re all whores.
As Nixon yammers away on the tube, Beatty tells Jack Warden’s well-connected tycoon Lester that Jackie’s not just fucking him for his money; she likes him, soothing both Lester’s ego and existential quandary while defending Jackie’s honor. But his gallantry, as the Dick speaking (lying) on TV about an open administration will result in terrible consequences for Beatty’s George Roundy. Right there. In one scene. And with one nice comment: He’s losing his future with Jackie as Nixon wins the presidency. That’s dark as hell for obvious reasons, a major historical turning point (Nixon) but beyond that, there’s a feeling that George has stepped right into the abyss and that the world is not going to get easier for him. 1968 is nearly over. 1969 will be a tough year for America and for Los Angeles (and, if we are to believe one of the three real life character’s George is based on – Jay Sebring – it’s especially tough for a beloved hairdresser). The 1970s are right around the corner –Inherent Vice Los Angeles – and George’s dread fills the room, only, he’s not entirely in touch with it yet. It’s brewing under that beautiful white shirt. Beatty, with a comic timing and unique depth all his own, that open-mouthed, open-eyed confusion, both sharply observant and oblivious, the gift of a great seducer where anyone can open up to him – is brilliant conveying all of these complexities, simply by listening and reacting:
Lester: I don’t know anything anymore. But you never know. One minute, you’re here, the next… I just wish I knew what the hell I was living for.
(Nixon speaking on the television: A teenager held up the sign, “Bring Us Together” and that will be the great objective of this administration at the outset. To bring the American people together. This will be an open administration.)
Lester: You can lose it all, no matter who you are. Why have it all? Market went down points last week. Goddamn Lyndon Johnson! Maybe Nixon will be better. What’s the difference? They’re all a bunch of jerks. I don’t know what to do with you. I don’t know what’s right or wrong. At least you do what you want. But me? Shit.
George: What about Jackie?
Lester: Never mind. She’s a whore. I go over, have drinks, get my gun off. I’m through with her. She’s a whore.
George: You could call everybody a whore. She really likes you. It’s not just the bread.
Lester: You think so?
George: Yes, I do.
It’s such a genuine, complex moment of sad sweetness on George’s part – his disturbance at Lester’s coarse language and cynicism – that the scene focuses a lot of what he’s been running away from (and towards), often comically, throughout the movie. A bad life. An ugly life. A wasted life. He runs towards women and beauty and hair (he really is an artist, knowing exactly how to frame a face with the right cut and color), and his ambition is to set up his own salon (if he could only get a bank loan). But is that going to actually happen? We get the feeling no, it’s not. He wants to be happy. He says everyone’s “great.” But he’s not happy, making this exchange with Jackie, a depressive, probably an alcoholic, extra touching:
Jackie: Do you know why I used to get so angry with you?
George: I wouldn’t settle down?
Jackie: Because you’re always so happy about everything.
George: I was?
Jackie: I found it rather unrealistic.
It is unrealistic. She’s right. And you like her even more that she states it. You sense that these two were a good balance for one another (they’re also in similar, where-do-we-go-from-here turning points in life, hustling to get by among the rich and powerful). But it’s also naively touching, his need to be happy, if that is indeed even true – who doesn’t want to be happy? It’s not an idiotic thing to want, it’s just impossible. And he’s in the service industry. All day he makes women happy. Not just stopping to look at their faces and knowing the right angle of cut for their shape, but also sleeping with them, all of them, giving them pleasure (and pleasing himself) and listening to their complaints, often with understanding and empathy (you see this with his interactions with the woman holding a less glamorous position at work – she shampoos hair and probably helps stock towels – he actually listens to her, moved by her life). As George tells Lester: “Ever listen to women talk? I do till it’s running out my ears. They only talk about one thing: How some guy fucked them over. That’s all that’s on their minds. That’s all I ever hear about… They know we’re always trying to nail them. They don’t like it. They like it and they don’t like it.”
That all of this can happen within a 24-hour-period on Election Day 1968, Shampoo (directed by Hal Ashby and written by Robert Towne and Warren Beatty) shows just how complex and smart this movie is, while being stylish, sexy, funny and self-aware (I don’t have to point out that some of this had to be personal to Beatty’s own sexual infamy). The picture was also released in 1975, so the ironies were not lost on audiences watching the Nixon presidency about to commence as characters stumble around rooms, seemingly unaware of his visage glowing from television sets or smiling from posters. Everyone’s already burned out or too self-involved.
There’s a literary feel to the film, like a quick run through of Candide with our hairdresser hero moving through all classes and types and escapades, or John Updike hooking Rabbit Redux to the Apollo 11 moon landing (and Beatty himself, recently discussing in Vanity Fair, a real life encounter with Edie Sedgwick in which a planned seduction turned into a chaste night watching Neil Armstrong together on the TV). It’s also reflective of Los Angeles notably the way other great L.A. movies suffused with humor, melancholy and randomness are (The Long Goodbye, Cisco Pike, Inherent Vice, The Big Lebowski) where the rambling lives of our protagonists often feel like the sprawl of the city itself: its mismatched architecture, beautifully historic and palatial and then, ugly, strip mall plain; its woodsy, winding creature-filled canyons and intricate freeways; those L.A. blocks, sparkling and perfect on one, and then five blocks down, dumpy and depressing. Los Angeles is schizophrenic and, as Beatty navigates through this moody landscape on his motorcycle (a ride of freedom, escape and attitude – he’s confident enough with his own hair and beauty that he knows he’ll look roguishly mussed riding that thing), he’s always heading somewhere, but for what? And, in the end, where? He’s in a panic and not just because another woman wants him – his entire life is in panic.
Everyone’s getting older too. Goldie Hawn’s beleaguered girlfriend Jill yells at George, “Grow up!” while George tells Lester, “I’m not anti-establishment!” Jackie and George share a lovely moment to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and briefly, you feel a vital moment of “Sgt. Pepper” sex and mind expansion and young love until their lovemaking is interrupted by Lester and Jill. George is, once again, running after someone. Or he’s just running (he runs so much in this movie you don’t know where he’s going half the time). Jackie is left alone, her gorgeous back, lit by the door of an open refrigerator. It was a nice moment. Was.
It’s poignant and perfect that the movie both opens and closes with The Beach Boys’ simultaneously optimistic and forlorn “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” that Los Angeles group who started as what looked to be sun and fun kids of the abusive, exploitative Murry Wilson, and then who turned out to be a lot more complicated, darker (particularly when 1969 rolls around), sadder and, in one case, mentally troubled and genius, so spectacularly genius, more than anyone really knew at the time. As the Beach Boys and Shampoo personify – the world was already dark under all of that California sunshine, and bleaker because of all that sun – you can’t possibly live up to the Los Angeles dream because it is a dream. So, when Beatty wants to marry Jackie at the end (who knows if it would ever work out? But it’s a genuinely heartfelt, romantic proclamation. And that’s something), it’s heartbreaking:
George: I’m a fuck-up, but I’ll take care of you. I’ll make you happy. What do you think?
Jackie: It’s too late.
George: We’re not dead yet. That’s the only thing that’s too late.
Against what the Beach Boys sing, maybe they shouldn’t have waited until they were older. Who knows? With that, the song closes the movie as a sorrowful, ironically hopeful fantasy: “Maybe if we think and wish and hope and pray it might come true. Baby then there wouldn’t be a single thing we couldn’t do. We could be married. And then we’d be happy… Wouldn’t it be nice?” Well, wouldn’t it?