I rented this movie because I had never seen it and knew that it was a 70s sex farce, full of wonderful 70s detail. I expected it to be sort of fun and light and fluffy—I did NOT have any idea that this is as GENIUS as it is.
This was directed by Hal Ashby [Harold and Maude, Being There, The Last Detail] from a script by Robert Towne [Chinatown and… Last Woman on Earth!] and Warren Beatty, and has music by Paul Simon. One also notices the names Luana Anders, of The Killing Kind and Howard Hesseman, of WKRP and Tarantulas: Deadly Cargo in the credits. It unfolds over the course of one 24-hour period in 1968 when Nixon was elected to office, an event that the movie places quite prominently throughout the movie.
Warren Beatty plays George, a Southern California hairdresser who seems to take a personal interest in his work. There are some reports that he is based on Jon Peters, the studly hairdresser who ended up partners in love and producing [terrible movies] with Barbra Streisand, and became one of Hollywood’s most successful producers. He does women’s hair in a particularly sensual way [see below], and fucks them all, and they all end up desperate for his affection. George doesn’t mind, his only trouble is juggling between them. George makes the women beautiful, then preys upon their narcissism. Except that this makes him sound a little more conscious of what he’s doing and somewhat nefarious, when actually he’s fairly oblivious to the dark side of the way he’s treating women. He will become more and more aware over the course of the movie.
The basic plot is that George wants to open his own salon. He is living with Goldie Hawn, an aspiring actress, and seeing both Lee Grant and Julie Christie, one of whom is married to Lester, and one of whom is Lester’s mistress. I wish I could report to you which was which, but the two women are made up to look almost identical, which I assume was quite purposeful, only it took me until close to the end of the movie before I could sort out who was who. George will end up making a deal to go into business with Lester, which will become complicated by his various previous entanglements.
The movie is VERY carefully-written and slyly funny. George’s feeling for the women in his life is exemplified in this exchange with Goldie Hawn. She says “I read in Cosmopolitan that if you don’t have a baby by 30 you’ll have a Mongolian idiot [HA!]. But maybe you don’t want children. You don’t like to be around them,” to which George responds “I’m around you. I like you, don’t I?” Which of course implies that Goldie herself is a child, at least in George’s mind. The movie is an excellent example of a script expertly taking a critical distance on a character, describing him sympathetically while remaining very clear-headed about who he really is and all of the problems he has. It is also hilariously funny, in a very dry way, but without ever asking for laughs. Comparing this to more recent comedies, it becomes obvious how used we’ve become to them tonally announcing to us when they’re trying to be funny. This film just continues confidently on, and if you laugh, great [if you watch it a second time, as I did recently, you will be more clued in to the off-kilter sense of humor here and the whole thing will be more funny].
The movie becomes about George slowly waking up to what he really wants in life and the limitations of his blithe attitude toward others, but without ever becoming preachy or too schematic. Another whole area is the simultaneously sad and comic way in which the women in his life are willing to degrade themselves in order to get some of his attention, which is handled in such a way that it draws attention to the place of women in 70s culture, rather than the psychological defects of the women themselves. For example, check out Goldie’s heartbreaking refusal to take a movie role she could really use because it takes her away from George—who obviously doesn’t give a shit about her. Then watch how coldly he blows her off and doesn’t bother to listen to her when she shows up at the salon. This movie would make an interesting companion piece with The Honeymoon Killers in their careful tonal balance between mocking desperate women and feeling for their plight.
What else? A VERY young Carrie Fisher shows up for a brief scene, which she makes the most of by delivering a very sweet performance as the somewhat evil daughter of Lee Grant. I can’t manage to get through this review without cracking that the ‘good’ hairdo George does for Julie Christie makes her look like Zardoz [below]. Jack Warden, who plays Lester, is delightfully genial and clueless throughout, and gives a great performance in one scene in which she’s supposed to be stoned. He captures the whole aspect of an older square who suddenly finds himself on drugs, but without all the mugging and pratfalls we’ve come to expect from similar scenes—even when he’s walking straight into a wall.
Having seen Black Shampoo, the blaxploitation movie obviously meant as a knock-off of this one, it was interesting to see what here was appropriated for that movie. Obviously the whole highly-sexed hairdresser character [there devoid of any of the ironic distance this film is awash in], and certain particulars. For example, it becomes clear that the scene with the two horny daughters in Black Shampoo was based on the Carrie Fisher portion of this movie. Other details correspond, and it’s interesting to see what the rather lurid surface details that Black Shampoo appropriated, while remaining oblivious to any of the intelligence or level of satire this film is awash in.
SPOILERS > > >
Please don’t read this if you haven’t watched the film, because it truly is a great film and you should really be surprised by the ending. Okay, go away now. One thing that is both meticulously planned for and yet comes as a somewhat of a surprise was the film’s abrupt turn into tragedy at the end. George finally realizes that Julie Christie is the woman he loves, and he asks her to marry him. But she has just hours before agreed to run away with Lester, who is leaving his wife. One of the cruel ironies is that it was George himself who, just a few hours earlier, told Lester that Julie Christie really likes him, which he didn’t know. It all comes crashing down, with Christie wishing she could be with George, but ultimately deciding to run off with Lester, presumably because she knows that George wouldn’t stay faithful for long, and probably would only be behind the idea of marrying her for five to ten minutes anyway. George stares after her in heartbreak and disbelief …and that’s it!
This delicate maneuver holds up because of the mixture of admiration and animosity we’ve built up for George over the course of the film, both finding him funny and likeable, while at the same time being a little appalled at the cavalier way in which he’s treating people and the depths of his narcissism in general. You want to see him get his comeuppance, and think he deserves it. That it’s so deep, conflicted and delicious at the same time is part of what makes this film great.
< < < SPOILERS END
Not much more to say. It's a real pleasure to watch a movie in which every element is rockin' to 11 and all for your pleasure. This is a hilarious comedy that is also very deep and emotionally affecting. I adore this movie. And one other thing: I watched this movie during a period where I was finding it SO hard to stay awake for the ends of movies, and though I was hella tired by the end, I WAS RIVETED. First frame to last. And that says somethin' right there.
YES! Save it for a night when you want something GOOD but still fun and energetic. But please, if you've never seen it, PLEASE watch this.
BLACK SHAMPOO: Did you know that there is a blaxploitation movie based on this? Yup. It's not that great [and contains a scene of unforgivable homophobia], but if you really love this movie it might be amusing.