Thursday, November 6, 2008
We Could Be Married
The election is over now and I genuinely feel a sense of triumph and relief, but as it was occurring I was reminded that the occasion marked the fortieth anniversary of the events in SHAMPOO. Of course, the story of the film is fictional but still, the thirty-six hours the film takes place during is mostly set on Election Day 1968, the day Nixon was voted in. Watching it again, and I’ve seen this film a lot over the years, it occurred to me for the first time how the characters spend next to no time actually talking about the election specifically except for a moment near the end. I’m fairly convinced that none of the principal characters actually bother to vote. Maybe Jack Warden does, but even with him I’m not convinced. Things have obviously changed in the world. Released in 1975, SHAMPOO must have been seen on its original release as a look back over everything that had happened in the years since Nixon got in. That’s a reference point I can’t directly have, of course. Looking at it now the Los Angeles portrayed in the film is set even longer ago but it still makes me think about my time in this town. A few angles show us streets that pretty much look the same as they do now and there’s Julie Christie’s mention of “the 76 station on Little Santa Monica”, a moment I’ve always had a fondness for, but much of the town isn’t like this anymore. There certainly aren’t wild parties that “never stop” in Beverly Hills that we can just drive over to. SHAMPOO has long been a favorite of mine and a few close friends will probably know how much. I definitely didn’t live my own version of the movie this past Tuesday, but the world still managed to change even without my own drama helping the metaphor along.
The story of hairdresser George Roundy (Warren Beatty) who sleeps with women as casually as he breathes or eats or even as he says “Great” and the various elements of his life colliding during Election Day ’68, SHAMPOO has probably been slightly been hurt by being classified as a comedy, including making the list of the AFI top 100 comedies of all time and it’s probably the section it can be found in most video stores. Yes, SHAMPOO has the structure of a comedy and a certain lightness of tone. It’s not too much of a reach to imagine it being rewritten and restructured as a flat-out farce. But that’s not Beatty’s aim, or co-writer Robert Towne, or director Hal Ashby, whose approach is a sort of stylized realism where on first glance he seems to be just letting the scenes happen but if you pay close attention you latch onto how firm the hand is. He’s not the most visually strong of directors—it’s easy to imagine someone else making more of the veritable cadavers that populate the Election Night party at The Bistro, for example—but that was never Ashby’s thing. Since it’s plotted in that seventies way, it may not be immediately apparent to first-time viewers what every character’s relationship is to each other, but I’ve long thought that the script is as airtight and flawless as any other I can think of without a wasted line or moment. If it’s not immediately thought of as one of those that is studied that may be because of the invisible nature of the plotting and how the dialogue is deliberate (“George is great.” “Yeah, George is great.”), but not specifically filled with lines that are immediately quotable.
The various roles that Warren Beatty has played through his career, especially the films that he has produced, include more martyrs than I think people have realized. Here, the film isn’t about the literal death of George Roundy but there is something about the way his story turns out that makes it a sort of spiritual death. It’s impossible to know if he really does change based on what happens in the film or if he dives right back into business as usual but eventually things really will catch up with him. Goldie Hawn’s Jill continually seems worried about things on the outside like a scream heard in the canyon and musing “I feel like something terrible’s going to happen.” Somehow this doesn’t make me think of her future, but of George. Tasteless as it is to say, I almost wonder if in this fictional universe the idea is that George winds up finding himself on Cielo Drive in August 1969. Since Jay Sebring, one of the supposed inspirations for the character, really was at that location that night, maybe there’s something to that thought. He, along with many of the other characters in the film, seems filled with contradictions, which he manages to display by saying that he’s at “the epitome” of his life and “disgusted” with his life in the space of about ten seconds.
It’s one of my very favorite Beatty performances, but the entire cast nears perfection starting from the main cast of Julie Christie, Goldie Hawn, Jack Warden and Oscar winning Lee Grant. Carrie Fisher, in her film debut, immediately makes an impression and whose insistent reading of the line “I am nothing like my mother!” makes me wonder if someone was saying things about Debbie Reynolds off camera. Every single bit part feels expertly cast, right down to George Furth’s loan officer to legendary director William Castle’s cameo at The Bistro (“I think I can get you whatever you’d like.”). I always find myself intrigued by Kathleen Miller as a hair salon customer who spends her one scene rambling on to Beatty about post-natal frigidity. She has credits in a few other Hal Ashby films but I can’t find anything else about her. The music, including the brief but haunting score by Paul Simon, is dead-on. There’s the Herb Alpert heard during one tryst with Lee Grant as well as the lousy cover of “Yesterday” played by the band at the Bistro, as well as all the songs heard at the Beverly Hills party late in the film. When “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” comes on it’s heard in this aurally distant way, logical since the sound is coming from far off, that I always remember.
SHAMPOO has grown over the years for me. I’m certainly nothing like the Warren Beatty character but there’s something about its look at Los Angeles, how you can be living without paying much attention to the road you’re going down, that truly cuts deep. The events of the past few days have made me think of what I’ve done over the years and some sadness at this point of my life is mixed in with the undeniable hope that occurred. In some ways, I wonder if I’m like George Roundy at the end, staring off at what may be the great lost opportunity. And there’s the passing of Prop. 8, which also makes me think of SHAMPOO. Somehow, such a harsh, ugly message in the light of day that comes after such a night feels like something out of the world of the film. The Beach Boys are heard at the beginning and end singing “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” and it’s very clear that in spite of everything that has changed, the thought still applies. These are a series of leaps that I’m making in my own mind, but that’s what movies sometimes do.