Peter Biskind's new book, Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America, is an enjoyably salacious tale of the intersection between star power, the death of the 60s and auteurship. During the editing of Reds (1981), Beatty's team took to calling him Masturbeatty due to his obsessive-compulsive tendencies that resulted in an estimated 3 million feet of film (which shifted even Stanley Kubrick to Ed Wood's one-take side of the production curve). He made Gene Hackman do over 80 takes for one line, and then required his editors to consider the nuances of each delivery to divine the best interpretation. Editing took about a year and a half. That is to say, Beatty wasn't fond of the accidental and liked to be in complete control, which sums up his personal relations, as well:
"Two people cannot both live for one person[.] Warren didn't want me to act. He wanted me to be with him all the time[.] When Barbara Walters asked him about all the women in his life, he said, 'Well, they always broke up with me, I never broke up with them.' While I was watching the interview, I was holding m stomach laughing so hard [I fell] on the floor. That certainly is the strategy that works for some men. But you can't go with a hundred different women and a hundred different women reject you, over and over again, when you're such a wonderful person." -- Michelle Phillips
Probably the most notorious Lothario of the 60s and 70s, Beatty's line of sexual conquests rivals his spools of film footage (Biskind estimates over 12,000, not including hand- and/or blowjobs). Like his politics, his sexual preferences were rather staid, but the power trip wasn't all that far off from what Pasolini depicted in Salò. He'd point, and one of his handlers would fetch. "Masturbeatty" is right -- who needs one's own hand when others are willing to do it for you? And like most cads, he was possessive of the women (at least the ones who stayed with him for more than 5 minutes), narcissistically requiring a level of devotion that he never expected of himself ('serial monogamy' was his euphemism for it). He was the embodiment of what many feminists defined as "free love," another excuse for male domination.
"Even the promiscuous feel pain." -- Warren Beatty
Thus, Shampoo's George Roundy, who exploits his job as a hairdresser to bed as many women in Beverly Hills as humanly possible, was his response to feminist critics, an auteurist critique/apologia of his own proclivities. Hal Ashby is the director, but by all accounts his was a for-hire position with producer/star/co-writer Beatty being control, and who pretty much willed the film into existence. The script began as a Robert Towne project, but it was Beatty who added the political critique as, I suspect, a way of distancing himself from the character of George. Unlike the star, who had recently spent a year and half in a failed attempt to get George McGovern elected president, George is apolitical and single (or simple) mindedly devoted to one thing, getting laid. In keeping with the tendency of the most overrated decade in American cinema, Shampoo begins as a well-worn genre structure -- in this case, the screwball comedy -- and begins to sag under the weight of all the ideological allegory being dumped into it. The result is that it sacrifices genre expectations (laughs) for lugubrious self-importance. But, just like Taxi Driver and Apocalypse Now, what a fascinating mess it is. (I sometimes think Kindergarten Cop is one of the last films created in the spirit of the 70s, with its beginning as a light-hearted comedy about Schwarzenegger as a cop going undercover in a kindergarten and ending in a bloodbath at the school.)
George loves sex so much that he can't stop himself from fucking Felicia (Lee Grant), the wife of Lester (Jack Warden), a potential investor for a hair salon that he's trying to open. Likewise, he can't stop fucking Lester's mistress, Jackie (Julie Christie), nor can he resist an offer from Lester's daughter, Lorna (Carrie Fisher). Lester doesn't suspect anything, because he assumes all male hairdressers are gay. The only woman who appears to have a job is George's young actress girlfriend, Jill (Goldie Hawn), which hardly helps his counter-argument to feminism. Of the four actresses, he had just gotten over a long-term relationship with Christie (although they continued to have intermittent sex), screwed Hawn on occasion, and offered to end 17-year old Fisher's virginity repeatedly during the shoot. So, there's a lot of Beatty in this role. Rather than just let the film be a frothy sex romp with a series of comedic mishaps, he had to prove just how serious he was. George had to end up miserable (just like all the major protagonists in the decade), realizing what he'd sacrificed for his hedonism. For the same reason, the televisions are always on to remind the viewer that the story is set in '68, as Nixon (who was ending his career due to the Watergate Scandal as the film was being made) is becoming the president. They're all playing as the country burns.
Beatty learned his craft under some of the more politically controversial figures in the film business -- Elia Kazan being the most infamous. What's interesting about Shampoo is the defensive posturing as critique that Kazan practiced in attempting to justify the naming of names during the Hollywood blacklisting days. As Beatty said of his mentor, everyone was a victim. Yeah, okay, but some of these victims were able to continue making movies while others could not. Similarly, when George decides that Jackie is more than a means to an end -- is his one true love -- only to realize it's too late, he's shown to be a victim of sexual liberation. Against feminist charges of misogyny, George is the pawn of aggressive wealthy women, as one who fucks only for pleasure, not to get something else out of it (money or cultural capital). However, by focusing audience identification on George, making the tragic-comedic arc about him, the film tends to ignore the effects this vacuous milieu has on the women in his life. Jackie, who's supposed to be a free spirit (much like Christie was claimed to be), finally gives up on George to go off with the just separated Lester, who's been paying her way as his mistress. We're left to feel bad for George, but at least he's his own man, whereas her choice is reduced to which philanderer promises more financial security. So as to lessen any sympathies the audience might have for Jill's suffering, she's given -- using a classic conceit for the third wheel in romantic comedies -- another love interest. Undeterred, we can get back to George's misery and, by extension, Beatty's.