Criterion Blu-Ray Review: Hal Ashby’s (but really Warren Beatty’s) ‘Shampoo’

Shampoo is a movie of many times, all at once. Made at the worst moments of Watergate, but set on the eve of Nixon’s election, and even a prediction of the future, Hal Ashby’s 1975 classic is a look at a specific corner of the world collapsing onto itself. Warren Beatty‘s George Roundy is, like the country he lives in, always going somewhere but never ending up anywhere outside his comfort zone and that freewheeling outlook is about to catch up with him.

shampoo cover

Shampoo is set in mostly one 24-hour period, on the night Nixon is elected president in November 1968. George is a hairdresser in Beverly Hills whose resume reads “I do Barbara Rush.” Of course, he’s doing much more than just a TV star’s hair. He’s also doing Felicia (Lee Grant), the wife of the wealthy Lester (Jack Warden); Jill (Goldie Hawn), who is supposed to be his girlfriend; and Jackie (Julie Christie), his ex-girlfriend and Lester’s current mistress. George has dreams of opening his own beauty parlor, but he cannot help but get in his own way. Even when he makes the right decision, it takes him too long to reach it.

Although political change is in the air, the characters do not seem to care, even when they are watching the election returns. This is a film about sexual and gender politics, exploring what everyone really wants from each other. In that sense, perhaps George is the only one in the film facing reality. It is everyone else trying to think of themselves as somehow above natural desires. And that’s probably why George ends up all alone at the end.

Ashby directed Shampoo, and it’s hard to see anyone else putting this bleak, unsentimental view of Los Angeles on the screen. Laszlo Kovacs’ uncompromising cinematography adds to the cloistered, claustrophobic feeling you get watching this movie. This is not about the outside world. It’s not even about Los Angeles as a whole. It’s about this tiny little corner of Beverly Hills, where George zooms around everyday on his motorcycle. Ashby made the mode of transportation that felt so freeing in Easy Rider (also shot by Kovacs) like a mobile prison.

However, Ashby was just one of the three main egos clashing on the set of Shampoo every day. This was Beatty’s baby, as he both produced it and conceived of the idea. Robert Towne, coming off his Oscar-winning screenplay for Chinatown, co-wrote Shampoo and also had very definite ideas on how he saw the movie. According to Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel by Nick Dawson (excerpted here), Ashby did at least get the ambiguous ending he wanted, at least planting a glimmer of hope that George might not be a complete lost cause.

The Blu-Ray

shampoo julie christie

Criterion has really ramped up its Sony/Columbia releases lately, and Shampoo is another one of them. Sometimes the releases can be stacked, like last month’s A Raisin In The Sun, but others can be on the slim side. Unfortunately, despite Shampoo’s importance in American cinema, this release is on the very slim side. It’s a major disappointment, especially since Shampoo is a title that might even interest those who do not regularly buy Criterion discs. It’s possible that Beatty did not want anything on it that would diminish his own role in the film, so rather than upset him, they went with the bare minimum. Here’s what we get:

  • Mark Harris and Frank Rich – This is a half-hour discussion between critics Mark Harris and Frank Rich. The two cover the topics one would expect, but it is not really an eye-opening discussion. They explain why the film is great, how it was groundbreaking for 1975, how some of it has aged poorly, etc. At least they mention Towne and Ashby’s roles.
  • The Southbank Show – This is a 12-minute excerpt from Beatty’s 1998 appearance on The Southbank Show to promote Bullworth. Surprisingly, there is more about Bonnie and Clyde in this than Shampoo, making it an even more disappointing feature.
  • “First As Farce” – Rich also provides a very short essay on the film in the insert.

It’s hard to understate how disappointing this slate of extras is. If Beatty wanted to exert so much control over the release, why didn’t he at least record a new interview? Wouldn’t Lee Grant want to talk about her Oscar-winning role? (She just recorded a new interview for Criterion’s just-announced In The Heat Of The Night release.) Was Goldie Hawn unavailable? Perhaps Beatty just did not want people to hear stories of on-set ego clashes and the difficult process of making the film.

Lack of extras aside, Shampoo looks marvelous on the Blu-ray and Criterion really did an incredible job finally bringing this classic to high definition. Fans of Shampoo have to get this, and anyone who has never seen it before is in for quite an eye-opening treat.

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