'Shampoo.' Rinse. Repeat.

Judy Stone May 4, 2008

Judy Stone, longtime film critic, offered up this archival interview she conducted with Warren Beatty, which ran in the SF Chronicle’s Datebook on March 23, 1975, when Beatty was in town to promote Shampoo.

One slightly plaintive note keeps cropping up unexpectedly in all those old stories about Warren Beatty, great lover on the run: an almost bedeviling concern with truth and honesty.

"It’s not easy to separate sexual and political hypocrisy," Beatty said at a press luncheon here to promote "Shampoo." "I think there’s a good chance if we’re lying about one thing in life, we’re lying about the other. Yes, I think they’re intertwined. The Wilbur Mills situation was stimulated by our ambivalent, schizophrenic puritanical attitudes. Eventually, they become a medical problem."

Beatty, who wears an amiably foolish look as George, the irresistible and unresisting Hollywood hairdresser, does not really resemble that fellow; he is, in fact, more magnetic.

But he’s projecting the producer image at lunch, neatly dressed in a sober brown and black herringbone suit, white open-necked shirt.

He first got a reputation as a "demon promoter" on "Bonnie and Clyde" which he also produced.

When Beatty joined up for full-time work on George McGovern’s campaign, he told reporters, "The American presidency is the most important moral force in the world. If I can have a say in who fills it or doesn’t, I will."

Some critics have questioned the TV clips of Richard Nixon used in "Shampoo." Beatty replies: "To ask why Nixon’s there is such a silly question. If we had done more, those same people would say, ‘Look how heavy-handed you are.’

"They WANT to forget. He was our moral leadership and he was very appropriate. We all elected him. The American hypocrisy that produced that situation is reflected in the way that we were leading and lead our lives."

For more than five years, Beatty had tossed around the idea of doing a "compulsive Don Juan story" with Robert Towne ("Chinatown" scriptwriter.) They share credit for the "Shampoo" script.

"I didn’t want the character to be a compulsive misogynist or a latent homosexual. That’s a Victorian prism to look at it through. I wanted to make him a hairdresser from the beginning. He’s around women, touching women, wanting to make them beautiful, not to degrade them. To many women, their hairdresser is a source of the truth. He sees you when your hair is done and when it’s not done."

"‘Shampoo’ deals with promiscuous people and tries to give them sensitivity. I was a little afraid that the feminists wouldn’t like this movie, but they embraced it. They grasped that George is the blond sex object. The film begins to make some challenges to the nuclear family which we’re all doing.

"The college kids understand it. They have a greater tolerance for multiple sex. The monogamic ideal is not laughed at by these people, but they know you can have multiple sex experiences and not be depressed by the Victorian and Freudian rules that are disobeyed. Freud had no patience with promiscuity.

"Freud would not have laughed at this picture," said Beatty laughing and shaking his finger like grandpa.

On the other hand , Beatty isn’t laughing either. He says it’s tempting to quote favorable reviews that call "Shampoo" a great farce and comedy, but he doesn’t see it that way.

"It’s a cruel movie," Beatty said. "The ballast of the story is what people are FAILING to do. That’s why we put it in ’68 and focus on the day Nixon was elected. Nobody in the movie votes. The Vietnam war is on the radio and Lester changes the station to the stock market reports."

Although it’s been bruited about that Beatty wouldn’t mind running for political office, he downgraded the idea. "I don’t know that I have the stomach for it. There are two different ways of life. The public life of a politician is full of necessary compromises. That’s what it’s all about ¬ compromises that you know are not exactly right. In movies, you can do more of what you think is exactly right."

Meanwhile he is having a difficult time winding up the research ¬ which he loves doing ¬ on the new film in which he’ll star and produce. It’s on the life of John Reed, the romantic revolutionary journalist who wrote "Insurgent Mexico" and "Ten Days That Shook the World" about the Russian revolution.

Why Reed?

Beatty answered, "I hate to articulate these things but there is something about the way he passed up a personal life for a political life— he began as a poet and writer and he became compromised. He couldn’t cope with the bureaucracies of communism. He touches me."