Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: With Jon Stewart’s Irresistible headed for home-viewing platforms—and with November 3 on the horizon—we’re looking back at other films about elections or political campaigns.
Released in a crowded year for American movies, alongside such cultural heavyweights as Jaws, Nashville, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, and Dog Day Afternoon, Shampoo was largely received as a raucous riff on the Don Juan-like persona of its writer-producer-star, Warren Beatty. Sporting a fabulously coiffed head of hair and a look of perpetual befuddlement, Beatty plays George Roundy, a horny hairdresser who can’t keep his hands off his Beverly Hills clientele. Given this ostensibly trivial scenario (co-written by Chinatown scribe Robert Towne), the fact that the film opens on Election Eve 1968 and ends the morning of Nixon’s first win might seem like a desperate bid for topicality. (The movie was released in February 1975, only six months after Tricky Dick resigned from office.) But far more than an opportunistic satire of ’60s sexual politics and political hypocrisy, Shampoo is a tragedy of terribly personal short-sightedness. In this respect, it’s probably a truer election movie than most.
From a gorgeously lit opening tryst that unfolds in near-total darkness (the superlative work of cinematographer László Kovács), the film’s first hour mainly observes Beatty’s George opposite an ace ensemble of feminine foils: Lee Grant as upper-crust housewife Felicia, George’s latest fling; Goldie Hawn as sweet, fresh-faced actress Jill, his current girlfriend; a commanding Julie Christie as Jackie, his frustrated former flame; even the late Carrie Fisher in a brief but memorable turn as Felicia’s spiteful younger daughter. Amidst these personal entanglements, George is also trying to get his own beauty salon going, which brings him in contact with Felicia’s financier husband Lester (Jack Warden), who also happens to be having an affair with Jackie. All this builds toward a pair of memorably staged parties with all the principal figures in attendance—the first a staid, self-serious affair with fat-cat Republican donors, the second a mansion-set bacchanal that doubles as a veritable museum exhibit of counterculture markers. (Tracks from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band echo throughout the evening.)
But despite the portentous election-day setting (not to mention a few pointed shots of Nixon in the background, on television screens, posters, and portraits), there’s not much actual political talk in Shampoo. Balancing screwball antics with convincingly shaded emotional clashes, the film is so involving on a dramatic level that it arguably doesn’t even require the political backdrop. Both Warden and Christie become more prominent as the movie unfolds, and they share a jaded pragmatism that plays well off of Beatty’s schoolboy charm, which keeps the entire affair emotionally even-keeled. And while Shampoo is replete with farcical humor (e.g. Christie’s memorable “I want to suck his cock!” during the donor dinner), it’s readily capable of shifting into a more somber register, eventually conveying the aching toll of George’s endless itinerary of mindless sexual encounters. (“You never stop moving! You never go anywhere!” Jill tells him toward the end.)
The film’s MVP, though, is probably director Hal Ashby. His long shots are masterful without being ostentatious, and fully in tune with this story of a man unable to look past his own life and libido. At its best, Shampoo demonstrates how politics slip into the disorder of daily life, and how easily time can slip away without our noticing. In the film’s magnificent final shot, George looks out into the smoggy distance of a landscape on the cusp of transformation. It’s unlikely that he registers a change in circumstance beyond his own.
Availability: Shampoo is available to stream on The Criterion Channel and to stream for free on Crackle. It can also be rented or purchased digitally from Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube, VUDU, and Microsoft.