Shampoo, page 2
by Chuck Kleinhans

from Jump Cut, no. 26, December 1981, pp. 12-18
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1981, 2005

[Go to page one of essay]

Meaning and Context

In a capsule review of SHAMPOO Don Druker described the film as follows:

"A brilliant collaboration involving actor-writer Warren Beatty, co-author Robert Towne, director Hal Ashby, and co-stars Julie Christie, Goldie Hawn, Lee Grant, and Jack Warden. Genuinely funny (in a terrifying, puzzling, tragic way) this tale of sexual/political hypocrisy in Beverly Hills (circa 1968) raises the inescapable issue of the Nixon era: how can we explain away our responsibility for the moral debacle of the last seven years when our private acts mirror our public postures so unerringly? Highly recommended." [19]

Similarly, Warren Beatty said,

"It's a movie about the intermingling of political and sexual hypocrisy … We set it on election night because the point is, you see, that Nixon never really misled us — he was an open book. We knew all along about Nixon, we saw through him, and still he was elected." [20]

These are fair summaries of the film's meaning. The micro-society of its characters exists in the macro-society of the United States. None of them can reject what they live. Felicia has a clear, though limited, view of it, but she is not about to opt out. Everyone gains, everyone ascends, except George.

To some extent fully understanding the political theme of the film relies on projecting oneself back to 1968, to having lived through Nixon's landslide election. Even more importantly, understanding the politics depends on remembering the events before the election: the Tet offensive (turning point in the Vietnam war), the largest surge of the anti-war movement, the spring intensity of the student movement (particularly at Columbia), Lyndon Johnson's withdrawal from the election, the May '68 events in France and Italy, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the failure of the Gene McCarthy movement, another long, hot summer of ghetto rebellions, the Chicago Democratic convention and its police riot. Mid-'68 was also a moment when people had to decide which side they were on. And it was also a moment when the opposition movement was not strong enough to genuinely challenge the system.

Ashby, Towne, and Beatty present two parts of this American moment. We see the finale of electoral politics showing the Nixon supporters (Lester and the Republican rich) and those who reject or ignore him but who don't oppose him (George, Jackie, Jill, Felicia, Johnny, and the crowd at the continuous party estate). We also see the characters' personal and sexual situation. With everyone ascending and winning in the micro-world of the screen action, except George, and with the triumph of Nixon-Agnew on the national level, the hypocrisy theme emerges. What kind of a triumph is this? To a post-Agnew, post-Watergate, post-Nixon audience, the point is inescapable.

At the banquet ironic bits of campaign rhetoric underline the message. (Agnew on a TV monitor: "Exactly what can a President do to affect the moral tone of the country?") The next morning Lester confronts George:

"Lester: I just wish I knew what the hell I was living for.

Nixon (on TV, as a teenager held up a sign, 'Bring Us Together'): … and that will be the great objective of this administration …

Lester: Maybe Nixon will be better. What's the difference? They're all a bunch of jerks."

In short, Nixon was the president these people deserved.

The Personal Is Political

SHAMPOO'S comic satire rests on the presentation and Interpenetration of the realms of production and reproduction, public and personal, work and leisure, normally kept apart in capitalist society. The beauty shop in SHAMPOO has a dual aspect. It functions as a site of production, a business, and the place where George labors as a skilled craft worker. At the same time, for the customers it serves as a site of reproduction, a place where, they become conventionally attractive so they can carry out their social roles as women. The shop is an extension of the home, a place of consumption. In fact, George visits Felicia and Lester's house to comb out her hair — business — but encounters daughter Lorna and then Felicia, both of whom entice him into lovemaking — pleasure. The same thing happens when George goes to Jackie's to do her hair. In capitalist terms, as phrased in petit-bourgeois ideology with a hint of Puritanism in the service of primitive capitalist accumulation, George's mistake in life is "mixing business with pleasure." Lester repeats the error. By bringing his mistress (pleasure) into the Republican banquet (business), he precipitates a crisis when mistress asserts pleasure in the face of Nixonian business:

"Roth: Aren't you hungry, Miss Shawn?

Jackie: Not for rubber chicken, no.

Roth: Maybe I can get you something.

Jackie: Oh, that's very sweet of you. Mr. Roth. You must be very important.

Roth: Well, whatever I am. I think I can get you whatever you'd like.

Jackie: Whatever I like.

Roth: Whatever you like.

Jackie: Most of all (gestures toward George, beside her) d like to suck his cock (crawls under table in front of George)."

In portraying the relation of production and reproduction, SHAMPOO presents an interesting set of oedipal situations.

(a) the friendly father

  • Norman vs. George over the shop.

Norman is trying to teach George how to be a small businessman (nickel and dime the customers, be punctual, etc.) while George chaffs at the constraints of production on his leisure.

(b) the hostile father

  • Banker vs. George over $ to start business.

George doesn't understand the terms or manners of getting a bank loan. Frustrated, rejected, humiliated by the banker's middle-class cool, he can only respond with "you asshole!"

(c) the rival father

  • Lester vs. George over $ to start business.

Lester at first refuses George the money (which Felicia tried to arrange) on business grounds, but softens to "we'll see" when he needs George's help to get Jackie to the banquet.

When the oedipal structure enters the world of business, it forms the nexus of power and sex, personal and political, business and pleasure, production and reproduction. Significantly, in each of these three oedipal situations, George is basically powerless. He can gain power only in the private realm, directly by deceiving women and thereby indirectly by tricking Lester.

In a crucial article on ideological film analysis, Charles Eckert shows how the Hollywood film can deal with problems that have their source in class conflict, but by reducing them to an existential level. He shows how in MARKED WOMAN ethical and regional differences are expressed as dilemmas which stand for displaced class conflicts. [21] A similar operation takes place in SHAMPOO. However, the interpenetration of love and money is more complete in the later film: the oedipal love situations are doubled by the oedipal business situations.

Someone might object that taken to such a degree of generalization, the oedipal situation begins to lose meaning as a critical concept. In terms of strict Freudian analysis, certainly. But we might try to rewrite the basic oedipal situation in social terms.

Power vs. Lack of Power in pursuit of Desired Object.

In its comic form the power differential (based on any number of aspects-class, race, wealth, sex, sexual identity, age, etc.) is overcome by a fantasy triumph (for example. George cuckolds Lester) which thus presents an alternative set of values (youth, cleverness, sexuality, etc.) This set of alternatives can take on a particularly acute set of political values, as for example in Beaumarchais' 18th century comedies, The Barber of Seville and Figaro's Marriage, both of which were seen as political dramas taking a clear class stand for the rising bourgeoisie and against the aristocracy. SHAMPOO is not so optimistic, nor so obvious in its class politics. George "wins" in the sexual arena at the start only to lose in both the sexual and power realms by the end.

Kiss Oedipus Goodbye

If we assume the present social reality of a given culture will tend to be the basis for the fantasy and imaginative life of individuals in that culture, then we could also assume that a culture's art would use, repeat, and vary the patterns of social life. Such an assumption is at the center of Marxist and feminist analyses of film, however much variety (and antagonism) we find among individual critics and however much writers may want to distance themselves from disastrously simplistic reflections theories ("film reflects life"). As I've argued, the comic oedipal situation in film can and should be understood as connected to social relations. In other words, understanding this structure helps us make connections between art and historical, material life. That is, after all, not such a peculiar path of investigation for a Marxist. But at the same time such structural analysis has been viewed skeptically at best by many Marxist culture critics and is ignored by most of them.

Marxist analyses of specific popular films tend to stay close to traditional plot, character, theme analysis — the kind of watered-down aristotelianism that dominates the high school teaching of narrative literature. It aims at finding the open or hidden meaning of a film in order to then judge it on a scale of political usefulness. To examine structure disrupts such procedures, and in this way structural analysis poses a decisive problem for many Marxist culture critics. 1 want to make it clear that I'm not claiming that my presentation of oedipal structures in SHAMPOO is exhaustive. It is literally and figuratively schematic and static and could hardly satisfy requirements for extended textual analysis (though it could be elaborated on another occasion). However, in its simplicity it still forms a sizable monkey wrench to throw into mechanical Marxist criticism. Just for openers, it shows that Marxist critics must link class with an understanding of sexual politics, for the comic oedipal structure is clearly a patriarchal one, not universal but actively present in different class societies. It also shows there is a level and kind of textual activity which takes place "below" the film's surface and the viewer's consciousness.

Considering comic oedipal structures lets us see not only repeated patterns, but also changes on those patterns — variations which themselves are revealing. The structure centers its power in the rivalry of men — a rivalry which embodies power, competition and aggression and which plays out the scenario of sexual control. For indeed, it is in the relations of men and in the changing tensions of that relation that the structure establishes the basis for audience recognition. We could think of that obligatory sequence in wild animal documentaries where males pair off to fight for territory and for possession of a female while she sits on the sidelines in apparent disinterest. And we see all around us ample evidence that it is precisely in antagonistic relations with other men that heterosexual men invest much of their energy. The truth is in the fight, not in the prize. [22]

Father vs. Son as rivals for Woman/Possession.

Women stay figuratively on the sidelines, empowered at best to aid, abet, encourage: cheerleaders. But when we shift the dramatic point of view to the woman, the structure takes on a new resonance. For example, the third part of LUCIA (Cuba, Humberto Solás, 1959) presents a standard marital farce situation set in the first stages of socialism. Once married, male chauvinist hubby becomes insanely jealous when an attractive young man from Havana arrives to teach Lucia literacy. While the film does not totally shift dramatic point of view to Lucia, it privileges her desire for independence through the validation of a chorus-like community and witty didactic refrains from Guantanamera, the improvisation-based national song. Lucia walks out of the possessive relation with her husband and into the supportive community of women in her work brigade. DAISIES (Czech, Vera Chytilova, 1966) provides another example. Two young women, complaining that there's no place for them in society, proceed to have a zany series of adventures which feature putting men on and ridiculing their pretensions while the film visually underlines the events with visuals such as the pair spearing, roasting, and eating phallic sausages. Another irreverent pair of women in CELINE AND JULIE GO BOATING (France, 1974, Jacques Rivette) demolish men and male authority in whacky escapades. [23]

By shifting the dramatic viewpoint to the women we obtain a different perspective on the comic oedipal situation, one which mocks and satirizes the importance usually given the male power struggle itself. The Soviet comedy BED AND SOFA (USSR, 1927. Abram Room) portrays a ménage à trois in which a wife transfers her affections and body from husband to husband's buddy. Later, finding herself pregnant, she realizes she wants neither man, takes control of her destiny by walking out on the guys, and sets off on her own as a single mother-to-be. [24] Sometimes the only way out of a double bind is the door. Today filmmakers and other artists concerned with breaking from the dominant ideology must consider radically critiquing the oedipal structure and leaving it behind.

Images and captions:

1. George on his motorcycle: In SHAMPOO, transportation transition sequences serve to develop plot and character. Today this tends to be the exception because transportation transitions are so common in television thematic series and made-for-TV movies where they generally serve as cheap filler, shots easily edited to different length for padding out or shortening the narration as needed to get to the-newt commercial break. They often serve as outdoor establishing sequences (we are in L.A., or N.Y. or Paris, etc.), which can be stock shots or inexpensive extreme long shots with a moving vehicle (often a landscape or cityscape, often combined with a zoom and modest pan), shot with inexpensive stand-ins for the stirs. They are also popular because they can be easily intercut with vehicle interior sequences which, being a standard studio set up, are fairly easy and inexpensive. The vehicles in SHAMPOO reinforce the characters. George drives a Triumph motorcycle, Lester a Rolls Royce, Jackie a Mercedes sedan, Felicia, a black Cadillac, Johnny a red Porche, and a Mustang is parked outside of Jill's place. The cars reveal statue and hint at personality traits. In the hands of some directors, cars embody personality, as in those great stylists of hyperbole, Russ Meyer and Douglas Sirk.

2. Jill and George sitting in bed: Jill stares vacantly at the television, changing channels with the remote control, while George talks. This is a fairly contemporary gesture for actors: the TV stare usually accompanied by diffuse blue-green waist-high lighting. The TV point of view shot is an increasingly common one in the past 25 years of American film. Here it is used alone, without the reverse shot showing what is on TV, continuing the film's dichotomy of public events vs. private lives, often expressed with TV sets with no one watching.

3. Jackie and George standing next to each other in the parking garage: After running into each other at Lester's office, Jackie and George talk in the garage. Although this production still does not resemble a shot in the film, it displays Jackie's initial hairstyle which George says makes her look like a hooker. The film uses period hairstyles, circa 1968, which are coded as dated by 1975 when the film was released. Jackie's streaked hair, falling in curls below the shoulder, is redone by George in a uniform blonde to fall straight to the shoulder and curl under, a more "classic" style with connotations of maturity, restraint, expensive taste. These connotations are reinforced by the contrast with the initial style 's connotations — flashy, sexy, pointedly artificial — echoed in her clothing and jewelry.

I've heard an apocryphal story that the film was shown on first release to a large convention of hair stylists who warmly appreciated it. For such an audience the plot and character significance of hairstyle would be more actively part of the film experience. George's hair is styled to have a slightly windblown, disheveled look with loose curls and locks, as if he were distracted, busy, and without time to get all the details in order: a metaphor far his life.

4. Close up of Lorna, Felicia and Lester's daughter, in a tennis outfit: Felicia and Lester's daughter, Lorna (Carrie Fisher), tells George that she's never been inside a beauty shop. The extent of her rebellion against her parents can be judged by her Lacoste tennis wear, which she wears on the family court while playing with a hired professional partner.

5. George's beauty shop: Felicia fingers her wet hair in the foreground at the beauty shop while George talks with Jill, who has dropped in for an urgent personal discussion. This production still does not match any shot in the film, although it reproduces figuratively the dramatic situation found in this sequence. George is between two women. Jill assumes that Felicia is only a customer. Felicia suspects that any woman who feels free to call George away from work must be a rival.

6. Medium shot of George, Jill, and Felicia: Arriving at the Republican banquet, Jill in wool bouclé and Jackie in a fur discover that they and Felicia all have the same basic hairstyle — not surprising since they all have the same hairstylist. Still, it's embarrassing under the circumstances, though this is not explicitly brought out.

7. Felicia, Lester, Jackie, and George standing together at the Republican banquet: Felicia and Jackie, wife and mistress, meet and face off with Felicia at a disadvantage in her liter girl sailor suit up against Jackie's sequined black sheath. Jackie wins the round by turning her back on Felicia, revealing a back cut open down to the bottom of her spine.

8. Close up of Lester and Felicia: At the election party, Felicia announces her divorce by asking Lester if he likes Jackie, adding that he'd better, because Jackie's going to be very expensive (when Lester adds in Felicia's divorce settlement).

9. Men sitting around Julie Christie: The film uses the prostitution metaphor but doesn't reflect on how its makers could be seen as pimping off Julie Christie although they are quite aware of the film's commodity nature and how their jobs serve the end of making money. What is not said, what goes without saying, is ideological. Here is an excerpt for an interview with screenwriter Robert Towne from American Film (1:3, Dec. 1975, p. 44):
What is behind the moment in the party scene when Julie Christie goes under the table?
Towne: At this point — probably $30 million of film rental.
It's a large success, isn't it?
Towne: I'm told it’s the biggest financial success Columbia Pictures has ever had.


1. Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, tr. Richard Miller (NY: Hill & Wang, 1975), p. 47.

2. Ann Darr, "Dear Oedipus," in We Become New: Poems by Contemporary American Women, ed. Lucille Iverson and Kathryn Ruby (NY: Bantam, 1975), p. 147.

3. Analysis of this structure was first presented by Ludwig Jeckels, "Zur Psycholgie der Komodie," Imago, 12 (1926). 328-335. Charles Mauron elaborates on it in Des Metaphores obsedantes cm mythe personnel (Paris: Corti, 1962) and Psychocritique du genre comique (Paris: Corti, 1964). Mauron also points out the common good son/bad son variant which is prevalent in comedy. Non-comic versions of the oedipal structure appear in melodrama, tragedy, and modernist dramatic narratives.

4. Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (NY: Atheneum, 1970), pp. 163-186.

5. In some works, particularly Roman comedy, the rivalry is over the father's money. When possessions form the third element, the rivalry often appears between a master/father and a servant/son. The substitution of woman/possession makes it clear that females are objects of exchange in the structure.

6. Sigmund Freud, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, tr. James Strachey (NY: Norton, 1960), p. 110. The use of "men" is quite accurate here.

7. Freud, Jokes, p. 110.

8. Freud, Jokes, p. 110.

9. Freud, Jokes, p. 110. Freud explains that the joke depends on a simile, an allusion, and an omission, and elaborates:

"One [male) marries in order to protect oneself against the temptations of sensuality, but it turns out nevertheless that marriage does not allow the satisfaction of needs that are somewhat stronger than usual. In just the sane way, one takes an umbrella with one to protect oneself from the rain and nevertheless gets wet in the rain. In both cases one must look around for a stronger protection: in the latter case one must take a public vehicle, and in the former a woman who is accessible in return for money … One does not venture to declare aloud and openly that marriage is not an arrangement calculated to satisfy a man's sexuality …. The strength of this joke lies in the fact that nevertheless — in all kinds of roundabout ways — it has declared it." (p. 111)

10. For Freud, the goal of the psychic activity as expressed in the concept of the pleasure principle is to reduce tension, avoid pain, and find pleasure. At the same time, the reality principle intervenes and shapes the pleasure principle:

"the search for satisfaction does not take the most direct routes but instead makes detours and postpones the attainment of its goal according to the conditions imposed by the outside world."

(J. Laplanche and J.-B. Pontalis, The Language of Psycho-Analysis, tr. Donald Nicholson-Smith. London: Hogarth, 1973, p. 379)

11. George participates in the deceit and hypocrisy but seems to be pardoned, or at least less venial, because his motivations involve the immediate libidinal pleasure of making love with a willing woman, and because he loses in the end while others win. The others' motives seem "worse" in the film's moral universe: revenge, money, career advancement, insecurity, boredom, etc. These motives could be connected to the characters' class positions, though the film does not provide much evidence for so doing. Such an interpretation would probably justify George's deceit and hedonism as more "honest" and "natural," (workers are children?) and suppress the sexual politics involved,

12. Robert Towne, quoted in "Movies: Robert Towne — script, scalpel, action. Oscar," by Gene Siskel, Chicago Tribune, May 9, 1976, Section 6, p. 6

13. Robert Towne, quoted in "'Shampoo' ending you didn't see," by Gene Siskel, Chicago Tribune, May 9, 1976, section 6, p. 2. Towne explains another conclusion he wrote.

"The way 'Shampoo' would have ended — if we had shot the extra scene, was with a jump forward in time six years to 1974. In the scene Julie and Goldie Hawn are having lunch at Mildred Pierce's, the same restaurant they were in at the beginning of the picture. Only now Julie is married to Jack Warden and is having the same complaints as Lee Grant's character had. And Goldie is now a kept woman like Julie had been. We showed all that in a couple of sentences of dialog. Then, all of a sudden, there's the sound of a motorcycle and George drives up with a 20-year-old blonde. He goes into the restaurant to pick up an order, and while he's inside Julie and Goldie go over to the girl on the motorcycle and ask her how George is doing. She says [in repetition of the film's most oft-repeated line],'Oh, George is great.' And then she adds, 'He's going to open his own [hairdressing] shop soon.' That ending would have showed more of the feeling we were after, that George had recovered from the Julie Christie incident, that he was still trying to open his own shop, and that most likely he wasn't going to live a terribly successful life."

14. R.D. Laing remarks in The Politics of Experience (NY: Ballantine, 1968), p. 49:

"The metapsychology of Freud, Federn, Rapaport, Hartman, Kris, has no constructs for any social system generated by more than one person at a time. Within its own framework it has no concepts of social collectivities of experience shared or unshared between persons. This theory has no category of 'you,' as there is in the work of Feuerbach, Buber, Parsons. It has no way of expressing the meeting of an 'I' with 'an other,' and the impact of one person on another. It has no concept of 'me' except as objectified as 'the ego.'"

15. Ed Buscombe, "Psychoanalysis and the Cinema," BFI Education Department mimeo paper, c. 1976, pp. 1-2. A similar point was made by Alan Lovell in Screen, 10:2 (Mar./Apr. 69) and responded to by Wood in the following issue. In the U.S., Joan Mellen provides many examples of positing the critic's personal preferences as gauges for character evaluation in her study of male star roles, Big Bad Wolves. Julia Lesage critiqued this problem in reviewing Mellen's Women and Their Sexuality in the New Film (JUMP CUT, no. 1 (Nay/June '74).

16. Evan Pattack, "Responses to THE PEDESTRIAN: Walking to the Sounds of Different Drummers," JUMP CUT, no. 7 (May-July '75), 24-26. Kleinhans, "EVEL KNIEVEL and THE LAST AMERICAN HERO: Contemporary Working Class Film Heroes," JUMP CUT, no. 2 (July-Aug. '74), 11-14.

17. Sigmund Freud, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, tr. Alan Tyson, ed. James Strachey (NY: Norton, 1960), pp. 112-113.

18. For example, Claire Johnston,"Towards a Feminist Film Practice: Some Theses," Edinburgh 76 Magazine, p. 50.

"The central question which psychoanalysis has raised for film theory in general and for feminist film theory in particular, is what kind of reader the film text constructs, the positioning of the subject in relation to patriarchal ideology."

And Edward Branigan, "Subjectively under Siege — From Fellini's 8-1/2 to Oshima's THE MAN WHO LEFT HIS WILL ON FILM," Screen, 19:1 (Spring 1978) 39.

"Just as it constructs inconsistent characters, the text [Oshima's film] constructs an inconsistent spectator."

19. Don Drucker, Chicago Reader, 1975, passim.

20. Beatty, interview with Roger Ebert, "What Really Thrills Warren Beatty," Chicago Sun-Times, Midwest Magazine, June 29, 1975, p. 6.

21. Charles Eckert, "The Anatomy of a Proletarian Film: Warner's MARKED WOMAN," Film Quarterly, 27:2 (Winter 73-74), 11-24.

22. Perhaps not in the gender of the prize, either. For an extended psychoanalytic discussion of the formation of men's oedipal relations: Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender (Berkeley: U of California Press, 1978). French feminist Monique Wittig asks of the incest taboo, what if it isn't a question of the son desiring the mother and the daughter desiring the father, but the son desiring the father and the daughter desiring the mother?

23. An extensive analysis of the film: Julia Lesage, "CELINE AND JULIE GO BOATING: Subversive Fantasy," JUMP CUT, no. 24/25, 36-43.

24. The heroine isn't totally free from patriarchy: she is discouraged from having an abortion. The film's politics thus match state policy at the time.