Hal Ashby’s ‘Shampoo’: The Brazen Comedy that Depicted the End of the Sixties’s Innocence

Hal Ashby had to cede much of his power to Warren Beatty, Shampoo’s writer, producer, and star. Production still photographer: Peter Sorel © A Persky-Bright/Vista Feature, Columbia Pictures (Courtesy Photofest)

By Sven Mikulec

After saying saying farewell to the nation in a televized address, Richard Nixon handed in his resignation in August, 1974, leaving the Oval Office smeared by the Watergate catastrophe and effectively causing a considerable and influential shift in the way citizens of the United States approached their government and political authority. But the change in the zeitgeist was instigated not by the end of Nixon’s presidential mandate, but rather its beginning, as Hal Ashby’s 1975 satirical comedy Shampoo cleverly suggests with a story of an ambitious but rather confused and naive hairdresser determined to make a name of himself by jumping from one client’s bed to the other. The sixties were a period of free love, unrestrained sexual activities and a considerable liberalization of societal norms, and the period’s credo and practices are the foundations of this talented womanizer’s lifestyle. Dreaming of a parlor of his own, feeling trapped by the notion of not accomplishing enough and irritated by working under someone he deemed obviously inferior ot him, hairdresser George hops around Los Angeles streets and sheets, about to learn how his libido-guided actions inevitably lead to serious consequences.

Written by esteemed screenwriter Robert Towne and high-profile actor/producer Warren Beatty, the story is set, symbolically enough, in the eve of the presidential elections that put Nixon in the White House. Seemingly disconnected to the plot, it paints a humorous picture of the society of self-obsessed, shallow, detached people preoccupied with their mirrors, petty obsessions and trivialities not even bothering to vote. By placing their comedy of confusion in front of a backdrop of Nixon’s election, the authors of this complete box office triumph cleverly make a clear comment on the end of the cultural period a lot of people still look back at with nostalgia: an end that was brought about by Nixon’s rise to power and a cultural transformation that was finalized with his resignation. But more than due to the political context, which, it’s safe to assume, probably flew over the heads of many spectators back in the day of its theatrical run, Shampoo was a thrilling success because of its attractive storyline, witty dialogue and exceptional cast, consisting of Beatty, Julie Christie, Goldie Hawn, Lee Grant and Jack Warden, with Carrie Fisher’s provocative debut, while the film’s profit is definitely grounded to some degree on the fact that Beatty played an irresistible womanizer whose story somewhat resembled his public image at the time. The decision to cast Julie Christie, Goldie Hawn, Lee Grant and Michelle Phillips, with all of whom he had at least a short-lived romance, further added fuel to the story he himself refused to completely shun in the promotional interviews. People swamped the theaters to catch a glimpse of what they perceived to be the personal life of a Hollywood superstar, helping Shampoo earn more than fifteen times the amount invested.

Beatty allegedly hired Towne to write the first draft of the story while they were working together on Bonnie and Clyde (1967), but the screenwriter experienced a writer’s block that caused their relationship to suffer and motivated Beatty to write a script of his own. The two eventually joined forces and after almost eight years of rewrites agreed on the version that hit the screens. Much has been written about the main inspiration for the protagonist’s character, with Beatty himself, famous hairdresser Jay Sebring and celebrity hairstylist Gene Shacove cited as the central models. Whatever the truth is, Shampoo‘s hero is a self-centered, gullible seducer of no real importance both for the world and, sadly, for the people around him, but on the comical, finely written path of exploration he ultimately pays the price of his ways. Hal Ashby’s film works on several key levels, made with the help of legendary cinematographer László Kovács and enhanced by the tunes of the folk rock institution Paul Simon. It’s a wonderfully acted, seriously funny but somewhat awakening story of a lonely man in a sea of lonely people, a dark satire and humorous drama that stands among the best works of Hal Ashby’s thin but exceptional portfolio.

Screenwriter must-read: Robert Towne & Warren Beatty’s screenplay for Shampoo [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

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“In a way, Hal was Chauncey Gardner,” says scribe Robert Towne, who would work on several films with Ashby, including The Last Detail and Shampoo, “he had an innocence to him, a child-like quality. There was something about him that was pure.” By 1975, three Towne scripts— Chinatown, The Last Detail and Shampoo—became hits, and set the defining tone— ironic, sexy, often tragic—for Hollywood’s second Golden Age. —Water & Power: The Worlds Of Robert Towne



The following is an excerpt from the book Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel by Nick Dawson. Needless to say, a very highly recommended read. The book is available from Amazon.

Hal had a temperament that I guess was almost Buddha-like in some ways. He literally made you think better in his presence. It wasn’t always so much what he said, but he had such a calming influence, and particularly with two people like Warren and I were, who were prone to be volatile. Robert Towne

Warren treated him like any other member of the crew. But Hal had to stay around; it was like his bargain with the devil because it was going to be a big hit.Lee Grant

The Last Detail consolidated Ashby’s growing friendship with Jack Nicholson, and he became part of the actor’s inner circle, going with him to Lakers’ games, and hanging out at his house on Mulholland Drive. He got to know Nicholson’s new girlfriend, Anjelica Huston, and many of his friends, including record producer Lou Adler, writer Rudy Wurlitzer, and, most notably, Warren Beatty. One night in the fall of 1973, Beatty told Ashby about Shampoo, a project he and Robert Towne had been working on six or seven years earlier about the exploits of a womanizing hairdresser in Beverly Hills. Both Towne and Beatty had written versions, and they had fallen out over whose ideas were better, but Beatty was now keen to resurrect the project and make it his next film. At Beatty’s invitation, Ashby read both scripts and concluded that a combination of the two could produce a very good film. He was savvy enough to know that working with stars like Nicholson and Beatty could only raise his profile and help his career. “Warren was a giant star,” says Jerome Hellman, who would later make Coming Home with Ashby, “and Hal looked up to and cherished his friendship with Warren. I think for him to do Shampoo was like a validation, because complicated as Hal was, and as quixotic as he was, he didn’t want to fail, he wanted to be on the A-list.”

Despite resistance from Towne, who inexplicably felt that Ashby did not sufficiently respect his scripts, Beatty brought in Ashby to direct Shampoo. Beatty had found a home for the film at Columbia, which recognized Beatty as a star who could deliver the megabit it desperately needed. The next step was to put together a shooting script combining Beatty’s and Towne’s screenplays. The two men had huge respect for each other, but their relationship resembled a volatile marriage, fraught with jealousy and suspicion. When Ashby and Beatty first went to work on Shampoo‘s script, Ashby wrote a note to his secretary, saying, “I’m going to be working with Warren for next few days. Taking no phone calls… Don’t tell [Robert Towne] I’m working with Warren—(Don’t tell anyone I’m working with Warren).” After a few days alone with Beatty in his suite at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, during which they constructed what Ashby called “a long rough composite kind of script,” Ashby brought in Towne to hone and pare down what they had collated together.

In the intensive ten-day period it took to write Shampoo, the demons of Beatty and Towne’s friendship emerged as they wrestled for control and Ashby played referee. Towne says the writing sessions were fueled by “adrenaline and rage,” with the pair most often referring to each other as “motherfucker” and Towne shouting at Beatty, “You cunt… You’re just being a cunt… That’s more cunt stuff.” “We had a very volatile time, I remember,” says Towne, “and Hal was in the middle, and thank God he was. We’d talk about it, and then I’d go into the next room and write ferociously and come out. We were all a little thrown by the surprising quality of the work, and the speed. Beatty also ultimately felt extremely positive about the results of the claustrophobic writing session, calling it “the most creative 10 days of my life, probably.”

In its first drafts, written in the late 1960s, Shampoo had a contemporary setting, but during the rewrites it became a period film set on the eve of the 1968 presidential election. Bridging several genres, it was a sex comedy that drew inspiration from Thomas Wycherly’s play The Country Wife (1675) and (apparently) Beatty’s own bed-hopping antics, but it was also a thoughtful backward look at America’s recent history.

Ashby was to get $125,000 plus 7.5 percent of net profits for directing and was given a budget of $4.5 million (of which $2 million was “above the line,” i.e., for the marquee actors’ salaries). Beatty, who invested $1 million of his own money in the film, had initially considered directing but decided to take the role of “creative producer” instead. The initial implications of this were that he had already brought on board Christie and Hawn as well as Carrie Fisher, the seventeen-year-old daughter of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher. Fisher was playing Lorna, the sexually precocious daughter of Felicia Karpf, one of George’s many client-lovers.

Ashby began casting the remaining roles by bringing in his friend Lee Grant to play needy Beverly Hills housewife Felicia. Shampoo was his first Los Angeles-based film as director, so he entertained himself by coming up with the people who, for him, personified the city and, particularly, Hollywood. For the role of Lester Karpf, Felicia’s businessman husband whom George both cuckolds and lobbies to invest in his salon, Ashby shortlisted agent and producer Freddie Fields, director Gene Saks, and Columbia head honcho David Begelman, before opting for Broadway actor Jack Warden. He cast producer Tony Bill as Johnny Pope, the film director who is chasing Jill, after considering Paramount boss Robert Evans, director Richard Donner, and a then unknown Harrison Ford for the role. He also gave bit parts to two other producers. Brad Dexter and William Castle, the latter the man behind Homicidal, the film that had nearly launched Joan Marshall (as Jean Arless) to stardom. Marshall herself appeared in one of the beauty salon scenes, as did Kathleen Miller, who played Anjanette, the client who is memorably introduced when George is blow-drying her hair, her head nestling suggestively in his groin. “I did Shampoo while I was living with Hal,” says Miller. “I wanted to do the part Goldie did, but they wanted stars. I guess I pushed Hal too much, it wasn’t fair of me. When I did Shampoo I felt everyone thought I got it because of Hal.”

As Ashby began to assemble his crew, it became clear that Beatty regarded Ashby as his director more than the director. Ashby wanted Haskell Wexler as his director of photography, but Beatty vetoed this idea because of Wexler’s reputation for being difficult to work with. Ashby’s favored production designer, Michael Haller, didn’t make the cut either. Beatty instead brought in Laszlo Kovacs and Richard Sylbert as cinematographer and production designer because he had worked with them before and knew their abilities. In fact, with the exception of Bob Jones, whose editorial brilliance Ashby refused to give up, the entire crew of Shampoo was made up of “Warren’s people.”

“Warren is the kind of person who, once he makes up his mind to do something is hysterically committed to it,” said Towne. “He’s like a sergeant blowing his whistle and going over the top and leading the troops into the machine guns.” When filming commenced on March 11, 1974, Beatty converted his dressing room into a makeshift apartment so that he could spend eighteen hours a day working on the film without ever going home.

The shoot, scheduled for a tight fifty-eight days, was tough on everyone. Goldie Hawn was unhappy with the simplistic personality of her character, Jill, and Julie Christie agreed with her that they probably should have swapped roles. And though Christie and Beatty’s breakup a year earlier had been amicable, the closely autobiographical nature of their story line strained their working relationship; once he reportedly made her wait all day to do a scene, then made her do thirty-eight takes, stopping only when he was happy with it.

Beatty also alienated Lee Grant by telling her she had the wrong expression on her face. “Well, I got a migraine and went home for two days,” Grant recalls, “and when I came back I told… Hal Ashby that I couldn’t work like that and I had to quit.” Ashby’s response was just to say OK, as he didn’t want to force Grant to stay on the film. “He never got exercised about it,” Grant says. “I felt like he was on my side.” Just as she was walking out, Beatty conceded that he might have been wrong.

Grant’s feelings were shared by many on the set as Beatty had an alienating obsession with getting the film done to his specifications. “I was not happy with Warren,” remembers Goldie Hawn. “He was so uncomfortable during the whole movie, he looked so troubled, always frowning—he was running the whole show.”

Beatty’s need to be in control was particularly problematic for Ashby. Speaking at an American Film Institute seminar just months after completing Shampoo, Ashby’s uncertain, stumbling account of working with Beatty hinted at just how frustrated he became: “It wasn’t as difficult—many times it wasn’t easy—it was very difficult because I was working with an actor who was the producer of the film and we spent a little bit of time trying to differentiate between that, never with much success—you really can’t because you’re talking about a lot of things when you’re doing a film. I really believe that films are a communal endeavor. I’m the director of the film; I know I’m the director of the film. I know that when I say, ‘Turn it on, turn it off,’ that that’s when they’re going to turn it on and turn it off.”

Ashby faced a repeat of Arthur Penn’s struggles on Bonnie and Clyde—on which Beatty had also been a “creative producer”—as he dealt with Beatty’s compulsion to make the movie his way. “I had been with the project for many years and had specific ideas about what I wanted to do,” Beatty says. “I liked to be free to come up with foolish ideas and see that they were foolish afterwards.” Talking about Ashby’s later collaboration with Jerry Hellman on Coming Home, Beatty admits that Hellman was a better producer for Ashby: “He was less intrusive than I am. Well, I’m not intrusive, I’m active.”

On set, Ashby was as quiet and gentle as he had been on previous films. “Hal was a very sweet and softspoken person,” says Peter Sorel, the still photographer on Shampoo, “never raised his voice even when a highpowered screenwriter and our star/producer were rather louder about their directorial input. I thought he was a man of infinite patience.” Beatty called Ashby “the nicest, kindest man,” but that very kindness, which in the past had been an asset, here became a weakness.”

In the first few days, when Beatty asked what a shot was going to look like, Ashby said, “Hey, come look through the camera.” “It won’t embarrass you?” Beatty asked. “What’s going to embarrass me?” said Ashby. Though Ashby didn’t see this as any different from when he had let Nicholson do the same, Beatty took it as an invitation to infringe on Ashby’s turf. As shooting progressed, a pattern emerged: Beatty would get his takes first (eight or ten, on average), and when he was happy, he’d ask Ashby whether he wanted the actors to go again. And then Towne, who had his own power struggle with Beatty, would put his oar in too. The film was a collaboration between three very creative minds, but Beatty admits, “Robert and I were not in total agreement, and Hal and I were not in total agreement.”

“We’d get three different directions,” says Goldie Hawn, “one from the director, one from Bob, and one from Warren. There were times when we’d say, ‘Guys, get together, can one person give me a note?’ So it became difficult.” When Beatty talked about Shampoo in interviews, he always presented himself as “the filmmaker”; in his eyes, Ashby was just another crew member. Beatty and Towne often went off on their own to discuss scenes, then came back to tell Ashby how they wanted things done. Though he was isolated when he wasn’t needed, when Ashby was shooting a scene, he was given literally no space, as Towne would crouch next to the camera on one side while Beatty leaned over his shoulder on the other.

If either wasn’t satisfied with a take, the actors would go again. Once, in a state of desperation, Ashby went to production designer Richard Sylbert and told him, “I can’t take it anymore. These guys won’t let me alone.” “He hated it,” Sylbert recalled, “because we’d have meetings, and we’d go, ‘All right, Hal, this is what we’re gonna do.’ We beat the shit out of him, had him boxed in… They’d make him reshoot, do takes he didn’t want to do, coverage he felt he didn’t need. But generally he was smart enough to just go with the flow. He was the best person they could have hired, because Ashby’s feelings about people were very good. He was a sweetheart of a man, and a wonderful director. To do that movie, you couldn’t be mean, you couldn’t do an Altman.”

Ashby, with his ingrained dislike of producers, found himself being bulldozed by his producer but could not haul him off the set this time because he was also the film’s star. He was all about collective creativity, but the deal had always been that everybody knew that he was the head of the collective. “Hal was like an office boy on that,” says Haskell Wexler, who visited Ashby on the set, “and he wasn’t used to being that way. Warren chewed Hal up and spit him out.” When Haskell’s son, Jeff, saw Ashby near the end of the shoot, he remembers him as “not being there at all” and Beatty doing most of the directing. “This is not fun,” Ashby told him. “He was in exile on that film,” Jeff says, “but a self-imposed exile.”

For Ashby, the world of the film wasn’t much more hospitable than that of the set, and he struggled to feel sympathy for Towne’s shallow and self-absorbed characters. He described Beatty’s alter ego, George, as “a lame” and had nothing in common with the moneyed, idle, and apathetic Felicia and Lester Karpf. Even so, he fought the tendency to portray them as caricatures: “They’re not people I spend time with, but they’re people I’ve looked at and felt badly for. So I spent a lot of time being very kind to those people. The other way’s easy. To make fun of people is easy. Life isn’t that easy.”

Ashby saw an opportunity in Shampoo to underline the characters’ social and moral corruption by showing how it was reflected in American politics. He had his assistants find television footage of Nixon’s speeches and those of his vice president, Spiro Agnew, and picked out the most ironic clips he could find. Though the film is set on election day, politics are barely discussed, and no one is seen voting, so what is said by politicians on televisions in the background provides the core of the film’s political thrust. In one scene, Nixon talks in his first speech as president about “bringing the country together.” At the same moment, Lester says to George, “Maybe Nixon will be better. What’s the difference? They’re all a bunch of jerks.” He then adds, “You can lose it all, you know, no matter who you are.”

A few months after the film wrapped, Nixon resigned in the wake of Watergate. Beatty admitted to an interviewer, “The Nixon-Agnew scenes get much larger laughs than I had intended, because of what has happened since. I didn’t really plan it that way.” Ashby, however, had planned it that way. The Nixon jibes were just a continuation of what he had done in The Landlord and Harold and Maude and also The Last Detail, in which a hippie incredulously asks Mulhall what he could possibly like about Nixon. For Ashby, Nixon’s resignation only confirmed what he had known all along. In Ashby ‘s rare off-hours, he looked to distract himself from his frustrations on set. Though he was seemingly still with Kathleen Miller during the making of the film, Deanna Benatovich remembers: “He would come by my place in Malibu sometimes and spend the night. When I asked him if we were getting back together I must have scared him and he stopped coming by. Hal didn’t sleep very much and would frequently be up all night watching movies. He used to joke that they were paying him so much that he was being paid to watch movies and even make love to me.”

Ashby also found that having allies around him raised his spirits, and he welcomed visits from Bob Jones, Haskell and Jeff Wexler, and Tom Blackwell, his friend from the Laguna days who was now a successful artist in New York. Blackwell, who had maintained sporadic contact with Ashby over the years, saw him on a trip to the West Coast with his wife, Linda, and wrote afterward about his relief: “I always go through paranoid trips where I think you don’t want to see me, but then when I do see you, it’s the same old Hal. It’s really funny too, because when I knew you in Laguna you were still struggling to get somewhere and I was just a kid trying to be an artist. Deadly serious, of course, but nowhere. I guess the thing that sticks is that we both hung on and made it in our own way, we’re both still growing and it didn’t ruin us as people. I guess I’ve known so many people who copped out and settled for less than what they could do, and it means a lot to see what you’re doing. The Last Detail was a hell of a movie.

Blackwell was not the only person to think The Last Detail was a hell of a movie; the awards season, which took place during the Shampoo shoot, confirmed just how highly regarded the film was. Nicholson won Best Actor awards from the National Society of Film Critics and the New York Film Critics Circle as well as at the Cannes Film Festival and the British Academy Awards, where Towne also won. Randy Quaid and Nicholson were nominated at the Golden Globes but both lost, and Quaid, Nicholson, and Towne all came away empty-handed at the Oscars. This was a particular disappointment to Nicholson, who said, “I like the idea of winning at Cannes with The Last Detail, but not getting our own Academy Award hurt real bad. I did it in that movie, that was my best role. How often does one like that come along?”

Because Ashby believed that film was a communal art, he’d never had his Best Editing Oscar for In the Heat of the Night engraved with his name, feeling everyone involved in the film had actually won it. He was galled when Nicholson was snubbed by the Academy so righted the wrong by giving his dear friend his own Oscar, which Ashby felt he truly deserved.

Despite what transpired on set, at the end of the Shampoo shoot Beatty was singing Ashby’s praises, highlighting his intelligence and sensitivity as a director. Speaking today, Beatty says that Ashby’s direction was the reason his performance in the film was so good, and his admiration for Ashby is clear: “The word that comes to mind with Hal is ‘modest.’ His attitude was modest, his way of shooting was modest. Whenever Hal ventured himself on a choice in making the movie, I always felt he was right. Hal was never a person to speak crazily. I don’t remember ever feeling that Hal was wrong about much of anything. He wouldn’t speak until he knew what he thought, and then he would say it in the most encouraging way. I would call him a strong director—he wanted to put actors on the screen, not put himself on the screen. He had a great sense of humor, had great subtlety, and got the best out of people.”

Shampoo wrapped on June 12, and Ashby, keen to get away from the film for a while, started thinking about his next project. His agent, Mike Medavoy, had two possible projects for him to direct: North Dallas Forty, a hard-boiled drama about the high-octane lives of professional American football players, at Paramount, and an adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s Caves of Steel, at Columbia. Actress Ellen Burstyn, whose stock was high after the huge success of The Exorcist (1973), contacted Ashby about directing Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), a script by a first-time writer called Robert Getchell. Burstyn later told Ashby, “I was torn between you and Marty Scorsese, and finally decided on Marty because of a certain hard edge in Mean Streets (1973) that I thought would balance a certain softness in the Alice script.” Ashby was announced as the director of North Dallas Forty but pulled out of the deal (the film, directed by Ted Kotcheff, was released in 1979), and soon after Michael Butler called to tell him that the offer to direct Hair was still on the table.

Things fell quickly into place, and by early July a deal was set up through Peter Bart to make the film at Paramount, with Colin Higgins and Michael Haller signed as screenwriter and production designer, respectively. As Bob Jones was busy editing Shampoo, Ashby decided to go to England with Butler to work on ideas for Hair. But he wasn’t leaving just Shampoo behind; he was also leaving Kathleen Miller.

Ashby’s relationship with Miller had become increasingly strained, in part because of the disparity between their careers; while Ashby was directing high-profile films (in which he gave her walk-on parts), she was working only occasionally, on television shows like Kojak and Cannon, and would sporadically put her energies into a novel or a screenplay, with even less success. She was fast approaching thirty and had no illusions that Ashby was going to marry her. When he flew off to England for a few months, both knew it was the end of the relationship.

Owing to the continuing success of the stage version of Hair, Butler was a rich man, and his newly acquired wealth allowed him to play at being the country gentleman. He had bought Warfield Hall, in the Berkshire village of Warfield, a sizable manor house near enough to London that its fifteen bedrooms were regularly occupied by people from “the scene” but distant enough to give its occupants a break from the bustle of the city. Butler was an active polo player, and enjoyed trips to London, but spent much of the summer with Ashby just relaxing and talking.

“I really loved Hal—I thought he was a terrific guy,” says Butler. “I considered him a very close friend; I liked spending time with him, liked being with him in any way possible. We just hung out together. I found him very calm. A very kind individual, very warm, very interesting. He would describe to me his philosophy about how he did things. Yes, he was quiet, but he was very easy with me in terms of talking.” Over the course of a placid summer, Ashby and Butler smoked dope and discussed their vision of Hair, agreeing that it should retain as much of the philosophy and feel of the original as possible.

However, not long after his return to Los Angeles, Ashby had a change of heart about Hair. “All I know is that I was up at my home in Montecido,” says Butler, “and I got a call from Peter Bart that Hal had pulled out of the film. I took off like a shot and came down to LA because this was a terrible blow. I actually got busted on my trip coming down for smoking a joint and so I wound up spending some time in jail.” After their summer together, Butler felt betrayed when Ashby abandoned the project and disappointed that he had not found out from Ashby himself. He suspected that Ashby was “worried sick about the scope of the film project. Hal’s movies had always been small pictures. By that, I mean small situations involving few people. Almost any musical, but particularly Hair, involves large casts. It’s more like directing an army.”

In the fall of 1974, Ashby worked with Bob Jones on the editing of Shampoo. He was disappointed that the music he had planned to include—Jefferson Airplane, the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield—was not in the film. Initially, Shampoo had been full of songs from 1968, but through a combination of Beatty’s dislike of Ashby’s musical choices and Columbia’s budgetary restraints, most tracks were cut.

Ultimately, it was Paul Simon who composed the film’s haunting, wispily ethereal score—approximately three minutes of music spread thinly over the duration of the film. “Christ, I’ve never done a picture before where I didn’t bring the theme in till reel five, almost halfway through the film,” said Ashby. “It was only used four or five times. All we wanted was just the suggestion of a theme. In other words, what I think we were doing was going anti-score.

Everyone who knew Ashby knew that he was an avid music lover, and not a likely advocate of “anti-score,” and that this was yet another example of Beatty’s control over Shampoo. The film wasn’t edited to Ashby’s wishes either, as Beatty explains: “We had some small disagreements on the final editing of the movie. I was very happy with the final result, but in general I think Hal was more inclined to go for a more relaxed pace.”

Ashby, however, looked to the future and focused on positives. Since his return to Los Angeles, he had been dating actress Dyan Cannon, and, in a strangely fortunate turn of events, his former agent, Mike Medavoy, had become the head of West Coast production at United Artists (UA). Earlier that year, Medavoy had set up a two-picture development deal for Ashby at Universal, and he now put together a similar deal at UA. The only project specified in Ashby’s UA agreement was Beyond the Mountain (a.k.a. Zebulon), a Western written by Jack Nicholson’s friend Rudy Wurlitzer. Originally written for Sam Peckinpah (for whom Wurlitzer had previously penned the 1973 Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid), it intrigued Ashby because it showed the Indians’ perspective and eschewed the stereotype of the West as an arena for the symbolic battle between good and evil. Ashby once told Wurlitzer, “I’ve never regretted saying ‘no’ to anything—it always led to something better.” Sadly for Wurlitzer, Ashby also passed on Beyond the Mountain when it failed to fill UA with sufficient confidence. But saying no did indeed lead to something better.

In early 1975, Ashby and Beatty began previewing Shampoo. After a poor response from a conservative Santa Barbara audience, Beatty remembers that David Begelman and he “drove back to Los Angeles together, and he gave me a nice little pat on the knee while he was driving and said, ‘Look, they can’t all work. On to the next!’ But the next night we showed the movie in Beverly Hills and it was as good a reaction as you could ever want.” After that screening (held at the Directors Guild building), Bob Rafelson declared himself “ecstatic” and told Ashby, “You are Brilliant.” Ashby noticed at the screening that the directors’ wives, however, looked very uncomfortable. “All of them were getting up-tight,” he said. “They thought we were presenting Hollywood. It wasn’t that at all. One person said to me afterwards that his wife said, ‘I know what that asshole [Beatty] is out doing all the time.’ And we weren’t even presenting Hollywood people.”

Though Judith Crist and Pauline Kael both declared the film a masterpiece, most critics gave it only lukewarm reviews. They were troubled by its uncomfortable mix of sociopolitical satire and brazen sexuality and were disappointed that the coming together of such a starry cast and talented creative team had not produced something more impressive. The film’s mixed critical reception was illustrated in its coverage in the New York Times, where it received a very poor review from Walter Goodman but was called the best comedy of the year so far by the paper’s chief critic, Vincent Canby, just a few months later. Whatever its flaws or merits. Shampoo got people talking, and its coarse language and sexual content had audiences flocking to see it. When asked about what was behind the controversial scene in which Julie Christie ducks under a restaurant table to give Warren Beatty a blow job, Robert Towne quipped, “At this point—probably $30 million of film rental.”

Fans of the film debated just how closely Beatty’s character was based on the man playing him, but none considered possible parallels with Shampoo‘s unassuming director. George is one of Ashby’s long line of young heroes (or antiheroes) bemused by life, yet in him there is a crucial difference: the quintessential Ashby hero is a quester and a questioner who fights to find his place in the world despite the fact that he does not fit in and, indeed, because of it—but George is the opposite. He wanders through life passively accepting the status quo, always saying that everything is “great” when we know it is not. As Jill tells him, “You never stop moving, you never go anywhere.”

Towne’s constant rewriting during the Shampoo shoot had prevented him from working on an epilogue set in the present day that he and Beatty felt would provide a fitting ending to the film. An epilogue was being considered even up to the last day of dubbing, but the ironic (if unsurprising) truth was that Beatty’s and Towne’s ideas for it were completely different as the two had radically different visions of the course their characters’ lives would take. Luckily, for once Beatty’s and Towne’s failure to agree allowed Ashby to get what he wanted, which was to end the film as the script had it, with Beatty’s George on a hill, watching as Jackie, the only woman he had ever truly loved, leaves to run away with Lester. It not only appealed to Ashby’s romantic sensibility but also echoed the final scene of Harold and Maude, where the hero also looks down on the world from on high (in that case, the top of a cliff) after losing his one true love.

In short, though Shampoo was not nearly as much of a Hal Ashby film as it might have been, it at least had a Hal Ashby ending. “I prefer that kind of thing,” Ashby said. “I like to leave a little bit of an enigma there about exactly what it is because I think that’s what makes it not a totally down kind of an ending.” In both Towne’s and Beatty’s epilogues, the characters continued on the wrong paths; the way Ashby left it, his compassionate ambiguity at least allowed us to feel hope for their futures.

“Laid-back, doobie-inclined, scruffy and shooting from the hip mavericks: while many of his peers went on to much greater success in the 1970s—Steven Spielberg, Warren Beatty, Francis Ford Coppola, Dennis Hopper, George Lucas, etc.—perhaps no one director typfies the groovy, uber-chill Easy Riders and Raging Bulls generation of filmmakers more than Hal Ashby.” A short documentary on Ashby made after his death. Included in the Coming Home (1978) DVD.

“Hal Ashby personifies, better than any other director, Hollywood’s Film Renaissance of the 1970s: its moral ambivalence and political rage, its stylistic audacity and deeply human voice, its supernova of energy that could not possibly burn so brightly for very long.” —Great Director profile, Senses of Cinema

Here are some great photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Hal Ashby’s 1975 satirical comedy. Photographed by Peter Sorel © A Persky-Bright/Vista Feature, Columbia Pictures. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

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