SFIFF Robert Towne has accomplished something rare: in an industry that paradoxically singles out the director of a movie as if he or she were the sole creator of what is actually a collaborative effort, he has tasted fame, received recognition, and secured his place in the history of cinema for writing scripts.
Having started his career penning B-movies like Last Woman on Earth (1960) and The Tomb of Ligeia (1964), and working as a script doctor for impressive projects such as Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Drive, He Said (1971), and The Godfather (1972), Towne truly rose to stardom with Chinatown (1974). This dark, pessimistic tale about power struggles and government corruption in Los Angeles, which garnered Towne an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, not only stands up to such noir classics as The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Big Sleep (1946), but also redefines the whole genre. In J.J. Gittes as embodied by Jack Nicholson Towne introduces his own version of a Phillip Marlowe character, tough but hopeless, into a world where crime is hard to detect and impossible to punish, even when committed in broad daylight.
Shampoo (1975) features a Towne screenplay that’s as complex and intriguing as the one he wrote for Chinatown. Yet it takes a secondary role on Towne’s résumé, despite the fact that it yielded an Academy Award nomination. Perhaps this is because Warren Beatty shares Shampoo‘s writing credit with Towne, whereas Chinatown was presented as solely Towne’s creation. (Of course, it’s an open secret today that Towne wrote a different, happy, ending for Chinatown, which director Roman Polanski replaced fortunately with a devastating one.) In any case, it’s a pleasant and unexpected surprise that the San Francisco Film Society has chosen to showcase Shampoo while presenting Towne with this year’s Kanbar Award for excellence in screenwriting.
As the critic and teacher Elaine Lennon points out in a 2005 piece for Senses of Cinema, the true complexity of Shampoo‘s script stems from the same element the film has been derided for its superficially silly comic spirit. Lennon suggests that the many influences detectable in Shampoo include ancient Greek tragedy, the restoration comedies of 17th- and early 18th-century England, and the plays of Molière. All of the above construct poignant social critiques while providing comic relief.
Indeed, Shampoo uses the sexuality that permeates its turbulent and intricately woven Beverly Hills microcosm to farcically comment on the United States of the late 1960s. George (Beatty), the restless hairdresser with a soft spot for his customers, his girlfriend Jill (Goldie Hawn), his ex-girlfriend and lover Jackie (Julie Christie), his other lover Felicia (Lee Grant), and Felicia’s husband and Jackie’s sugar daddy Lester (Jack Warden) not only share the same lovers, they share the same anxiety a feeling produced by an ever-changing, unstable society. To put it differently, their sexual misbehavior is a manifestation of the fluidity and uncertainty of their lives.
In comparing Shampoo to Chinatown, Pauline Kael perceptively wrote, "Towne’s heroes are like the heroes of hard-boiled fiction: they don’t ask much of life, but they are also romantic damn fools who just ask for what they can’t get." As Kael implies, George is the only character in the film who acts out of a desire for sheer pleasure and lives for the moment. All the others amorally float wherever the wind blows, compromising their true desires in a quest for the seemingly safe environment the peaceful period of supposed law and order that President Nixon has promised them.
Shampoo also presents some unconventional, multifaceted perspectives concerning gender issues. George is the poor innocent guy stunning rich women exploit for thrills and then promptly dump. Jill, Jackie, and Felicia are visibly weighing their options and waiting for the best offer, while Lester, although adulterous and money-grubbing, is somewhat sympathetic and humane.
Juxtaposed with the questionable career choices Towne has made over the last couple of decades, Shampoo shines like a bright gem. After 1996’s Mission: Impossible, and 2000’s Mission: Impossible II, one can’t help but wonder whether his rewrite of Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (1935) which he also will be directing marks a return to more intimate projects such as 1973’s The Last Detail, or furthers his spiralling descent into Hollywood blockbuster hell.
AN AFTERNOON WITH ROBERT TOWNE (includes a screening of Shampoo), Sat/3, 4 p.m., Sundance Kabuki