Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Coming Clean

"Face it, they know we're always trying to nail 'em, and they don't like it. They like it, and they don't like it. It's got nothing to do with you, Lester. It just happened."

George (Warren Beatty)

George, the in–demand hairdresser in "Shampoo," which premiered 40 years ago today, was cynical. I got that when I saw it — and I was young and perhaps not quite as in tune with my cynical side as I am today when I saw it.

But it wasn't until I read Roger Ebert's review several years later that I began to understand things about the symbolic nature of "Shampoo." For example, this is Ebert's opening paragraph from 40 years ago:
"Beverly Hills, Nov. 4, 1968. In 24 hours, Nixon will be making his victory speech on television, pledging an open administration. In 40 hours, George, a hairdresser, will have negotiated the ruins of three affairs, bedded tentatively with a possible new recruit and seen the wreckage of his delusions. Shampoo never quite connects its images of national mediocrity and personal self–deception, but maybe it doesn't need to; maybe the message is that in a nation that doesn't connect, doesn't trust authenticity, what you get is a Nixon in the White House and a stranger in bed."

I guess the timing, of both the presidential election in the movie and the movie's theatrical debut is worth keeping in mind. It never occurred to me when I first saw it, but perhaps the Nixon metaphor was too tempting at the time. Nixon, after all, resigned the presidency in August 1974. I was in junior high at the time, and I knew there was a lot of anger, a genuine sense of betrayal.

So setting the story in "Shampoo" against the hopeful backdrop of the immediate aftermath of a divisive presidential campaign — for an audience that knew only too well how soon those hopes were dashed — may have been appropriate. But it counted on the viewers to know how the Nixon presidency played out because the movie only showed news footage of Nixon and Agnew — and never showed footage that seemed to foreshadow what was to come.

Ebert was disappointed in "Shampoo." I wasn't. As I will explain later, my attitude when I saw it was simply to experience whatever the filmmaker wanted me to experience. I went into it with no expectations.

I guess that was the problem with the women in "Shampoo." They had too many expectations — about life, about love, about lifemates.

At times, it seemed to me the script for "Shampoo" was written in some kind of code. The word great, for example, was thrown around in much the same way as the word awesome is today. In fact, every time a character (usually Beatty) says someone or something — or whatever — is "great," try mentally substituting the word "awesome."

It will work — grammatically, that is — every time. It might even make more sense.

Carrie Fisher, the 18–year–old daughter of Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, made her film debut in "Shampoo" as the daughter of Lee Grant and Jack Warden. Julie Christie played Warden's latest love interest — and one of Beatty's previous bed partners.

And Beatty bedded all three women — as well as Goldie Hawn, who was trying to decide whether to accept an on–location acting job in Egypt or stay in the States with Beatty — whose lack of interest should have tipped her off. But Hawn was in the grip of love — and, well, we've all been there before, right?

(There's that "self–deception" Ebert mentioned. That was the story of the women in "Shampoo;" Beatty just wanted to get financial backing to open his own salon.)

The movie "didn't quite work" for him, Ebert wrote. "Its timing wasn't confident enough to pull off its ambitious conception. It wasn't as funny as it could have been in the funny places ... It isn't as savage as it could have been in its satire ... And it's not as poignant as it could be in its moments of truth, because we can see the wheels turning. We can sense that the movie's providing obligatory scenes instead of engaging us in a series of discoveries about its characters."

Fair enough.

In a way, I guess I was disappointed in "Shampoo" as well — but not as much as Ebert. Maybe it was because I had already read some articles about it and had a pretty good idea what to expect, but, as I say, it was one of those movies that I went into with no expectations about what it should or should not be.

I just let it wash over me — so to speak.