Warren Beatty is one of the most famous movie stars who’s ever lived, but also one of the least productive. He latches on to one film that he wants to make and sticks with it until it’s done. The first of those was Bonnie & Clyde (1967), which he was desperate to make. Since then he’s usually been involved as a director as well as an actor, as with the story of John Reed in the Russian revolution in Reds, or a feature based on the Dick Tracy comic, or his recent quasi-biopic of Howard Hughes, Rules Don’t Apply.
Obviously, Shampoo was one of those movies. Beatty is the star, as well as one of the writers and one of the producers. His lead, George, was based on a real high-society hairdresser, and is a deeply ironic sex comedy set against the background of the evening of the 1968 presidential election, when Richard Nixon’s win was announced.
The film arrived in 1975, which means everyone in the audience knows what’s coming next—Watergate and Nixon’s resignation. To add to the irony, its bookended with “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” by the Beach Boys. Beatty plays a womanising hairdresser in a story about political favours, sexual favours, and aging. You watch his character go through quite a journey. He’s great in it, unsurprisingly, and there’s a superb supporting cast as well, with Carrie Fisher in one of her first roles, Goldie Hawn, Julie Christie, Lee Grant and Jack Warden.
It’s directed by Hal Ashby, and written by Robert Towne (The Last Detail, Chinatown) and Beatty. The script had been kicking around Hollywood for years, but their take went well beyond the basic sex comedy that could have been made. It’s not a typical film for Ashby, but he undoubtedly brought out the ironic aspects, and was the first master of music pop songs within a film in a appropriate way, even before Scorsese.
The film is set in L.A., although there’s little about the film industry. George’s clients are wealthy women who don’t work, with twisted sex lives. He wants to start his own salon, and turns to one of his wealthy clients, whose husband Lester (Warden) might provide the start-up money—as long as he doesn’t find out about their affair. In the meantime, Lester’s mistress just happens to be one of George’s ex-girlfriends. Lester, of course, thinks George is gay… It all ends at the local Republican Party election-night affair, where George realises he has slept with half the women there. Beatty’s own status as a famous womaniser made it the perfect role for him (he dated Christie and likely all of the others at one point as well).
The extras include a conversation on the film with critics Mark Harris and Frank Rich, a Southbank Show excerpt with Beatty, and an essay by Rich.