Written by Robert Towne & Warren Beatty
Directed by Hal Ashby
By the time February 1975 rolled around, Nixon had been a former president for six months. The aftermath of the Watergate scandal was the death of much of the optimism of the 1960s, a nation splintered and mistrustful of people in power. The United States was driven to a Constitutional crisis with the Supreme Court being defied by then-President Nixon. Some people wanted to move on, get to the next thing, and forget about the wounds. Others wanted to perform an autopsy of the past decade, trying to figure out how we went from the hippie movement of the late 1960s to a ravaged industrial hellscape of the mid-1970s.
George Roundy is a successful Beverly Hills hairdresser taking full advantage of the swinging sixties free love moment. He’s sleeping with pretty much every client despite having a model girlfriend, Jill, who is wholly devoted to him. Instead of continuing to rent a chair in a salon, George wants funding to start his own operation, but the banks don’t take him seriously. On Election Night 1968, George is at a party that puts him in the middle of Jill, Jackie (a former lover), and Felicia (a current tryst). This becomes the moment where the seductive hairdresser finds himself overloaded and breaking down.
I was curious as to why this film was set on this particular series of days. As I listened carefully, I started to notice incidental audio that hinted at the larger purpose of the picture. Throughout the radio and television signals a significant change in the United States’ political future. There are reports about the Vietnam War in the background with characters in the foreground completely unaware and caught up in sexual predicaments of their own making. Nixon’s win goes nearly unnoticed by people at the election night party and the next morning as his acceptance speech plays on the television. Only once does a character acknowledge it, Lester (Jack Warden), who wonders aloud if Nixon will turn out to be something good for the country. This was written with complete hindsight and meant for the audience to reflect on their willful obliviousness.
Right now, there is a rumbling of war about to spill over in the United States with the assassination of an Iranian general, Qasem Soleimani. If you go to Twitter at the moment, as I type this, the top trending topics are composed entirely of NFL discussion. On the metaphorical eve of a war that will make the 2000s/2010s look like child’s play, the general public could care less. This apathy is often attributed to the aftermath of Watergate, people like to say it was the moment America was driven to not care and not trust. Ashby and his writers argue that our culture became too comfortable, and thus we were always destined to have a Nixon, to experience the schism still rippling through our society today.
The Vietnam War fatigued Americans in all aspects, physically, spiritually, emotionally. You see that in the characters of Shampoo. They are white and wealthy; therefore, the conflicts on the other side of the globe are akin to fairy tales, something that is easily ignored. I imagine Shampoo had to be quite an uncomfortable viewing for the people of Hollywood. It directly condemns the hedonism that existed unchecked, the rare contemplation of the feelings of both parties. George laments at the end that all he hears from the women in the salon every day is that men have treated them like garbage, and then he turns around and does it to them again. When George finally makes a move to remedy his situation, he finds the woman he says he wants to be with is going off into a relationship of convenience. George burnt that bridge, and she has to make sure she’s taken care of.
Shampoo is a biting satire and condemnation of a lazy culture disguised as a raunchy sex comedy. Ashby sees the privileged as taking all the wrong lessons from the Left-wing movements of the 1960s. They latched on to the sex and weed because it was personally satiating but abandoned the hard work of fighting for labor and economic equality. They already had their fortunes and certainly didn’t plan on sharing that wealth with anyone. George is left with nothing, his years of bedding every woman that came into his purview amounted to everyone leaving him. He stands isolated, watching other people drive off into the future, themselves compromised for the sake of security. This is the headstone on the grave of the 1960s.