Hal Ashby’s Shampoo is a rude awakening from the California dreaming of the Sixties

This satire-cum-sex-comedy is a funny, sly rebuke to the enduring myth of free love.

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Almost four decades before the NBC sitcom 30 Rock coined the immortal, ineluctable term “sex idiot”, Warren Beatty – a Hollywood Casanova equally well known for three gifts, two of which happened to be acting and producing – introduced us to Shampoo’s George Roundy. George is a hairdresser and mid-century himbo trapped in early-midlife limbo by his chronic inability to keep his hairdryer in its holster. He is 34 and gorgeous; a habitual seducer with the slim hipped swagger of a minor Rolling Stone and the unclean, dim-lit apartment of an itinerant bachelor. He is dating a young, platinum-blonde model, and somebody else’s slightly-less-blonde wife – and, in case this was not enough variety, he has another ash-blonde ex who has never quite recovered from the splendour of his loving.

Blondes may have more fun than brunettes, but nobody has more fun nightly than George. Shampoo, the 1975 satire-cum-sex-comedy by Hal Ashby, is a funny, sly rebuke to the enduring myth of happy, free love in the Sixties, a door slamming and headboard-rattling farce in which beautiful people bed-hop, get their hair done and then stab each other’s backs. The year is 1968, on the eve of the US election from which Richard Nixon will emerge victorious, and both George and the US are about to learn a lesson about freedom and curtailment.

In addition to appearing in Shampoo, Beatty co-authored the screenplay, leading to speculation about whether he had drawn from his own life in order to flesh out the film’s raunchier delights. Because Jill, the wide-eyed model George is dating, and Jackie, the English rose he used to date, are played by Goldie Hawn and Julie Christie – both of whom had been involved with Beatty off-screen – there are further shades of autobiography, or at least winking self-mythology. George Roundy, Beatty seemed to suggest, c’est moi.

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Whether or not the film was meant to serve as an amusing mea culpa for his womanising, Beatty’s shared history with George helps to explain why the reaction to the character’s philandering is not judgement, but a kind of offbeat tenderness. George is that rare breed of lothario whom we believe when he suggests that he is promiscuous because he loves women too much and too well, a casualty of his own emotional immaturity. (The film, it should be noted, displays admirable restraint in never making as much play on the dual meaning of the word “blow” as it might have.)

George’s dream – to open a salon where he can finally rule the roost, his prowess with a pair of scissors at last recognised as artistry rather than something done by “fairies” – is hardly extravagant or impossible. What has thwarted him is his inability to redirect the inexhaustible passion he has cultivated for the sexiest women in LA into a different kind of love: self-love, in particular the kind that manifests as self-belief.

When George is finally caught out for three- or maybe even four-timing his women, he has an epiphany of sorts, a sobering and almost spiritual realisation about why he plays the field. “I go into that shop and they’re so great lookin’, you know,” he says sweetly, falteringly, the cogs turning visibly beneath his feather-cut coiffure. “And I’m doin’ their hair and they feel great, and they smell great. Or I could be out on the street, and I could just stop at a stoplight or go into an elevator, and [there’s] a beautiful girl. It makes my day! It makes me feel like I’m gonna live forever.”

As years in LA history go, 1968 certainly might have a been a time for feeling near-immortal, the whole city burning up with what Joan Didion described as a “demented and seductive vortical tension”. George’s character is made poignant by his having been at least in part inspired by the celebrity hairdresser Jay Sebring, who ended up being a victim of the Manson Family, alongside his former girlfriend Sharon Tate. No event in the history of Los Angeles has been written about more in the context of the death of hippy living, the ushering in of something darker and more like a bad trip than the daisy-chain optimism of the previous decade.

By the last scene of Shampoo, George has lost the only woman he has ever really loved, and is standing on a hilltop looking out over LA, the city sprawling out before him as though it’s trying to get a tan. Nixon has won. The American wet dream of the 1960s has dissolved in the too-bright light of early morning. 

“Shampoo” is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video

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This article appears in the 17 March 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The system cannot hold

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