dir. Hal Ashby
Opens Fri Nov 24 at the Grand Illusion.

WARREN BEATTY is a tricky bastard. Of those rare icons of the '60s and '70s who still cling to leading-man credibility well past retirement age (Redford, Newman, Nicholson, Eastwood, and Hoffman among them), Beatty's reputation among viewers is the most radically polarized, the most regularly dismissed, and, I'm here to testify, the least understood. Want to be laughed out of a room of movie devotees? Step up and declare your devotion to the oeuvre of Warren Beatty. I guarantee someone will mention Ishtar within 30 seconds, and then say something about promiscuity, Madonna, or the presidential race shortly thereafter. Someone else might, in defense, pledge fealty to Bonnie and Clyde, or even condone Bulworth. Few, however, will recognize Beatty's transformation from James Dean-lite studio pretty boy of the late 1950s (Splendor in the Grass, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone) into art house avatar (1965's Mickey One was the first American film to acknowledge Godard's influence in a definitive way), McGovernik conspiracy nut (The Parallax View), and commie sympathizer at the dawn of Reagan (Reds).

Here's one thing I've learned in the many years I've spent making the case for Warren Beatty as great man of the cinema to my non-believing friends: There are only two Beatty films to be unequivocally recommended. The first is McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), Robert Altman's bleak, brilliant, deconstructed Western. The other is Shampoo (1975), easily one of the five greatest American films of the well-vaunted '70s. Co-written by Beatty and Robert Towne, Shampoo begins as a bedroom farce in the manner of Ophuls' La Ronde, but plays out as a resounding taps to America's libertine adolescence, played to the tune of the Beach Boys' "Wouldn't It Be Nice." Much as Altman's M*A*S*H cloaked its Vietnam travesty in Korean War retro, Shampoo pretended to be a film about 1968 when in fact it was a mid-'70s post-mortem, surveying the carnage wrought by the cynicism and delusion that allowed Richard Nixon to be elected not once, but twice.

As the farcical elements take on their mordant shape, the film reveals its true French precursor: Renoir's Rules of the Game, the savage vivisection of class that swears even before it begins that it is intended "as entertainment, not social commentary." In much that same way, Shampoo pooh-poohs the heavy hand of satire in favor of what looks like a frivolous romp with a silly title and a sad ending. It may be a film about the American class system, the failure of the left, and the death of hope, but it's also about fabulous (for then) hairdos, flowing scarves, and Julie Christie's perfect ass.

The film takes place on Election Day (though nobody seems to be voting). Beatty plays George Roundy, the most sought-after hairdresser in L.A. Riding around the canyon on his Triumph, wearing no helmet but his colossal hair, George is a gorgeous dim bulb, the epitome of late-'60s SoCal louche grooviness. He wants nothing more than to open his own salon and spends all his time having sex with amazing women--among them his model girlfriend, Jill (Goldie Hawn), and his married client, Felicia (Lee Grant). Felicia's tycoon husband, Lester (the inestimably great Jack Warden), is having an affair with Jackie (Julie Christie), George's ex and Jill's best friend. When Felicia suggests Lester invest in George's shop, Lester makes George bring Jackie to an election night party, also attended by Felicia and Jill. The party ends in a dizzying calamity of drunken recrimination, fellatio, and Republican victory. Later, at another party (a decadent psychedelic freakout, replete with Beatles music), George realizes that Jackie is his one true love, and everything really falls apart.

Aside from being Beatty's crowning achievement (he also produced it), Shampoo is also the classic torchbearer for everything people can't stand about the guy: vanity, bedroom braggadocio, image über alles. The fact is, it's precisely those elements (thrown in at Beatty's expense, not to his aggrandizement) that enable Shampoo to see through the vainglorious frailties of the American psyche. Trading on garish elements of the Beatty persona and sacrificing the famous Beatty ego, Beatty's George ultimately cuts a pathetic, not heroic, figure at the center of the film. On the surface, he seems to have it all, but in the end he's the one who's left behind.

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