Monday, April 14, 2014

Reconsidering The New Hollywood, Part I


     The R rated movie introduced the adult, intelligent “New Hollywood” of the ‘60s and ‘70s that was subsumed by blockbusters and was reasserted by the independents of the ‘90s.  TCM recently showed Shampoo (1975) and The Stunt Man (shot in 1979, but allowed to escape in 1980 and Part II for this article), which represent that initial period, were
critically appreciated in that era, and were nominated for Oscars. 

Dexter Examines George's Hair Salon in Shampoo
     Shampoo (1975) made a fortune because it was sold as a Warren Beatty star vehicle, reflecting his reputation as Hollywood’s leading lothario.  As George, a Beverly Hills hairdresser looking to start his own salon while shuttling between a number of different women on Election Eve 1968, Beatty personifies yet another rebel that will be neutralized by the power elite.  It’s one of his few serious movies where he isn’t killed.  Instead, he has to grow up, which in this case means he has to balance commerce with his art.  Lester, an
Warden, Christie and Beatty
avuncular and somewhat shady financier played brilliantly by Jack Warden, represents both a father/mentor figure and the corruptions of power.  Lester, a Republican fundraiser, utters the throwaway line, “they’re all idiots,” while watching Nixon’s acceptance speech.  Tony Bill’s character, TV commercial director Johnny, is smart, competent and ethical (Bill became a successful film director later).  George may seem an idealized image of Beatty, but from what I’ve read he’s more akin to Lester and Johnny.

     Most of Shampoo deals with male-female relationships in which men don’t understand women.  To Lester, women are prizes to be adored and controlled, while George wants to turn them on by grooming them and reaping the rewards.  The only female character with a job is Jill, a model, played by Goldie Hawn.  This part and The Sugarland Express (1974) really demonstrated Hawn’s edginess as the counterpart-antidote to her fallback daffiness.  She wasn’t able to work both sides until The First Wives Club (1996).  
Goldie Hawn in The First Wives Club
    Lee Grant, Julie Christie, and Carrie Fisher play Lester’s wife, mistress, and daughter, respectively.  Christie’s Jackie is George’s ex and Jill’s friend.  (Christie was Beatty’s ex, but they’d also remained friends in reality).  She’s torn between George’s laissez-faire attitude that leaves most women waiting while he moves on to the next one needing his assistance and Lester’s control.  One great sight gag is that when they first meet, they have similar hairstyles courtesy of George.  Although much was made of the love scenes, they’re actually pretty tame and Hal Ashby, who directed, had the good taste to save the female actors their physical dignity.  Viewers may remember seeing more than what is actually shown; though Christie’s backless black lamé dress astonishes and could walk a runway today.  The scene that would have a tough time nowadays is when Fisher’s fifteen-year-old character propositions George and it’s implied – without showing anything – they make it.  Her mother is shocked when she tacitly understands what’s happened, but wants George anyway.  

Lee Grant in The Landlord
     Lee Grant’s career was reinvigorated by Ashby in this and wild race relations satire The Landlord (1970) after she was unfairly blacklisted for over a decade.  Her Felicia, generous, compassionate, and kittenish, is the better person than Christie’s Jackie with her dollar sign eyes.  This was the commercial height of Julie Christie’s idiosyncratic and intriguing career.  

     Authorship clouds the movie.  Beatty produced and co-wrote the script and his public/private persona dominates, but the script reflects the layered, classical construction endemic to co-writer Robert Towne’s vision.  It’s a modern version of a Restoration sex comedy, especially with the corrupt political overtones.  However, Hal Ashby’s contribution cannot be overstated.  There’s a warmth in the tone as well as a looseness to the pacing that makes it seem less plotted than it is.  He epitomized California dreamin’.  Ashby had won an Editing Oscar before he began directing and though he didn’t direct this, the timing is his.  László Kovács shot in a precise, clear style for the night scenes and in a haze the following morning, thereby going against the usual pattern of a clean visual epiphany at the end.  It’s almost as if he was playing the backbeat and it’s evidence of his mastery . . .

1 comment:

Bea said...

Shampoo has always been one of the great films of 70s American cinema. Hal Ashby was such a gifted film-maker and I was sorry to read of his sad end as chronicled in 'Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.'