Directed by Hal Ashby
Shampoo is a comedy set on election eve 1968, right before Richard Nixon’s inauguration, but the politics are only ever seen in the background. The story is really about the frustrations, sexuality and aspirations of a hairstylist named George (Warren Beatty) who sleeps around with several women and tries to raise money to start his own shop.
George has a girlfriend named Jill (Goldie Hawn), but he also carries on an affair with his ex-girlfriend Jackie (Julie Christie) as well as Jackie’s current boyfriend Lester’s current wife Felicia. It’s a strange love triangle, and the entanglement becomes more complicated when Felicia helps convince Lester to fund George’s shop.
George is tasked with attending a benefit dinner with Lester’s mistress, again with Lester unaware that George has been sleeping with her, while Lester himself attends with his wife. To make things more complicated, Jill is there as well.
In one conversation maybe halfway into the film, Jill correctly points out how George is always running around and yet going nowhere. In a separate conversation, with Lester, George admits to becoming a hairstylist because it made sleeping with women that much easier. He doesn’t seem to value women as anything other than sexual gratification, and he makes this clear to Lester. George helps his clients look more beautiful but he only ever seems to hear them complain, or at least this is all he’s willing to hear. George eventually decides that he loves Jackie and wants to be with her. He says he can picture himself at 50 with Jackie but not with Jill. He finally knows what he wants, but then Jill and Lester witness George sleeping with Jackie. This ends his relationship with Jill, and it inspires Lester to decide what he wants, which ends up being Jackie.
The following morning George tries to tell Jackie that he wants to marry her, but she says Lester has made the same proposition. George stands alone atop a hill while Jackie and Lester drive away.
There is a thematic connection between George’s character arc and the Nixon presidency. This film was released in 1975, after Nixon was forced out of office, so all the images of the former President on television feels like a direct commentary on the end result of that presidency.
I’ll focus on George for now, though, because in a lot of ways it feels like not much happens in this story. We just follow George and watch as his plans unravel even as they were hardly put in place to start with. It never feels like George is assured to get Lester’s money. First, because we know George will probably be found out for sleeping with Lester’s wife and mistress and second, because Lester doesn’t seem all that invested in George’s business. He’s already convinced George will con him, and he makes this clear when he says he doesn’t deal with business that have mostly cash transactions. Lester assumes George is gay, because of his profession, and it’s these assumptions that George uses to his advantage. He’s kind of sneaky and very able to slide on up to people without ever wanting to be close to them. He’s just attracted to women because the opportunity presents itself, and maybe it’s because of these many options that he never experiences any real yearning for anyone, at least not until Jackie.
And why does George love Jackie? We can assume he did once before, when they used to go out, but he doesn’t seem committed to Jill in the moment, so we can probably picture him acting similarly towards Jackie when they were together. Does George see something in Lester that compels him to move on Jackie? George, like Lester, is having an affair, and maybe he can see his own behavior mired back onto him but through a distorted lens. He doesn’t want to be Lester when he’s that age… or maybe he does. Either way, Lester has forced George to act. It’s possible that he sees that Lester’s only appeal is his money, and George wants some of that money, like Jackie. But he wants that money so he can pivot as he gets older, when his hairstyling charms might not be enough to keep women around.
I really have no idea. I had a hard time trying to grasp this film. It’s a comedy, but it always feels like the message was more important than the humor. George’s character is a funny character on his own, but very quickly you can see his insecurities, contradictions, flaws and eventually a painful longing that we didn’t know he had at the beginning. His desire to get his own shop at the start of the film, feels like the result of petty frustrations with his boss (played by Paul Simon), a reaction to the people around him more than anything he’s come up with on his own. By the end his longing feels somewhat honest, but I still can’t help but think it’s a reaction to Lester who is hardly a stand up guy. George’s goals are formulated by the company he keeps. Though he did some soul searching and dug into why he is the way he is, confessing his affairs to Jill, his new behavior seems like the next step in the evolution of people pleasing, afraid to get to the heart of the issue and simply telling people what he thinks they want to hear. It’s not about him growing up, it’s about him getting the people around him off his back.
So George just always feels incomplete. There is some purposeful juxtaposition with Richard Nixon’s election the same morning as George watching the woman he loves leave his life for good (probably). But we know how Nixon’s presidency turned out which makes us not look at his election as a reason to celebrate. So why look at George’s situation as a reason to mourn? He’ll go back to the hairstylist and find a new list of women and everything will go on as it was.