Roger Ebert Home

Interview with Warren Beatty (1975)

HOLLYWOOD - Warren Beatty in sunglasses and a Mercedes sports convertible provides a presence that is not a million miles removed from the image of George, the libidinous hairdresser he plays in "Shampoo." And that is perhaps part of the reason for the film's enormous success (it is now being projected as one of the 20 top-grossing movies of all time, and in the Chicago area alone has played to more than half a million people). Beatty the person has inflamed the imaginations of the readers of movie fan magazines for so long that Beatty the actor can bring a conviction to George's desperate bedroom escapades that few other actors could approach without unseemly narcissism.

On this sunny May afternoon in beautiful downtown Burbank, that fact was not lost on the waitress who came to take Beatty's order at his favorite hot dog stand. She regarded him with heightened...attention. Beatty pushed the sunglasses up into his mane of black hair, scrutinized the menu, and ordered with the ingenuity of a Jack Nicholson trying to obtain chicken salad without the sandwich in "Five Easy Pieces."

"The Burbank Dog is the one with chili and cheese," he mused. "That was great the last time I was here, about just the Burbank Dog but hold the cheese?"

"That would be the Chili Dog," the waitress said.

"Yeah, but without the, come to think of it, I'll have the chili dog with the cheese."

"The Burbank Dog," the waitress said.

"That's the one," Beatty said.

At 37, Beatty is in the enviable position of being able to have almost any role he desires, a position he underlines by his readiness to discuss the roles he has turned down, only to see them subsequently portrayed by Robert Redford. In 1967, he was written off as a has-been in a notorious Rex Reed piece for Esquire, only to have "Bonnie and Clyde" open before Reed's ink had dried.

That was a film he starred in, produced, helped to write, and defended from Jack Warner in a legendary scene during which he went down on his knees in the mogul's office. Warner's strategy for the picture, after the initial reviews were negative, was to dump it into a string of Texas drive-ins. It can now be seen as a watershed film, a film that dramatically separates the newer Hollywood of more personal, venturesome, original films from the moribund Hollywood of the earlier 1960s.

"Bonnie and Clyde" eventually had more playdates than any other film in Warner Bros. history, and now "Shampoo" seems about to set a similar record for Columbia. Both films had the uncanny ability to attract quite mixed audiences: those who came for the entertaining surfaces, and those moved by deeper levels of meaning. "Shampoo," for example, has been described in some quarters as a "riotous bedroom farce" and in others as "an indictment of American civilization."

The movie takes place at a very particular moment in time, a moment most of us remember well and that yet seems strangely dated, as the recent past is likely to: that moment in November of 1968 when the American people elected Richard M. Nixon as their president. But the film is not directly concerned with that monumental historical error; its attention is directed, instead, to the adventures of the hairdresser George during those fateful hours. He races from home to work, from customer to assignation to house-call, from mother to daughter to best friend, on his trusty motorcycle, and tucked into the belt of his jeans is the season's most unanticipated phallic symbol, his hair blower. The election night churns and billows about him, but it can barely distract his attention from more urgent personal activities, persuasions, and, some would say, perversions.

"It's a...well, it's a movie about the intermingling of political and sexual hypocrisy," Beatty said, maneuvering his Burbank Dog out of its basket 'n' chips. "And 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. He was the prototypical American at that, hah, point in time."

And the hairdresser, George, hardly seems aware that the prototypical American is getting himself elected to the highest office in the land...

"Yeah. He's a...well, maybe if Bobby Kennedy or Gene McCarthy had been running, maybe he would have voted for them because it was the thing to do, but in general he doesn't give a damn. George and I are completely different; I'm as political as you can get, and he's disinterested. He has his little peace medal around his neck, but for him it's a piece of jewelry." And he moves through a world that is so sharply seen, by Hal Ashby's direction, that we call into question our own participation in it. As our parents now perhaps cringe at yet another re-creation of the roaring twenties or the deco thirties or Lucky Strike green going off to war, now we ask if we did indeed wear love beads and put psychedelic posters on the wall, and illuminate parties with strobe lights, and did young attorneys and stockbrokers indeed find it necessary, in 1968, to attend swinging parties costumed as hunters or trappers or leather-fringed hippies.

The movie has a great deal of sex in it; is, in fact, fascinated by sex, consumed by it, and here and there in print there have been suggestions that part of Beatty's contribution to Robert Towne's screenplay might have been autobiographical musings about his own sex life during the last 15 years, during which he has kissed a lot of girls and even made some of them cry. "Yeah," Beatty said, "I always get that sex, sex, sex crap thrown at me in the gossip columns and the garbage magazines. I've gotten to the point where I ignore it. The other day my sister calls up and she's laughing, she's got this fan magazine and on the cover it says, 'Shirley MacLaine Tells What Thrills Warren Beatty Sexually! ! !' And inside, you know what thrills me sexually?"

A dramatic pause, while Beatty makes further depravations of the dripping Burbank Dog. "Women."

The hairdresser George is also thrilled sexually by women, and indeed seems at times to make surrogate love to them via his craft. He is involved at the same time with two good friends, Julie Christie and Goldie Hawn, but that doesn't stop him from cheerfully hopping into almost all other available beds, and in "Shampoo" not a whole lot of beds are unavailable. There is also a scene, the one people tell each other about at parties, during which George, trapped at Le Bistro during a spectacularly inane political dinner, has to forcibly demur at Julie Christie's urgent suggestion that she crawl under the table and, well...

"I've been attending a lot of advance screenings we've been holding for various groups," Beatty said. "Film classes and so on, and the student reaction has been the best. The audience response seems to differ depending on the general age level; it seems like Victorianism, or puritanism, or whatdaya want to call it, begins to take its toll around my age, which is 37.

"The younger audiences seem to have a little more sympathy for the character, maybe because promiscuity is something they deal with in a more open way. I think on the campuses today, probably because of the Pill, there's less screwing around than there used to be in my day, because everyone isn't so desperately deprived, and so they feel freer to experiment and to get into more stable relationships.

"But, anyway, people react to George and his problems in different ways. Some incredibly bourgeois people even approve of the end of the movie, because they think Julie Christie has made the right decision by sticking to this rich guy who can provide for her, instead of trusting George, who really does love her...after his fashion. I'd say I disagree with them, but I wouldn't say they were wrong; the movie is a mixture of styles and purposes, and people react to it in different ways. I don't demand that they be moved by the plight of poor George, but I do expect them, though, to be a little churned up by the movie.

"And I suppose, yeah, my own image - huh - might have something to do with the way people see George. I ignore all that crap about my sex life, but a couple of months ago People magazine printed an article I'm not ignoring, about how I was trying to make some girl photographer on a movie set, and when she wouldn't put out I not only fired her but humiliated her in front of the crew and made her cry. That was a flat-out lie, and I got the editor to admit it was wrong, but still they wouldn't print a retraction. They wanted me to write a letter and then they'd put on an editor's note, or some such crap. I'm gonna sue."

The initial critical reaction to "Shampoo" has been a lot more positive than to "Bonnie and Clyde," Beatty said: "In a new kind of movie, if you defy the styles that the audience is accustomed to, sometimes you get a mixed reaction until people realize it's OK to feel ambiguous toward the character. In 'Bonnie and Clyde,' the characters were criminals, and yet there were times when you really liked them. And we mixed humor and violence in a new way in that film. A lot of the reviews said you couldn't mix them at all. But then all of a sudden 'comic violence' - or whatever you want to call it - became the big thing in movies like 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.' That was a movie I could have been in, and turned down.

"Now with 'McCabe and Mrs. Miller,' which I feel is a very good Western, Robert Altman, the director, did something else that was new. In a narrative sense, we're accustomed to being told in the first reel what the movie is going to be about. But Altman used his first reel just to establish the atmosphere. Maybe he should have thrown in a subtitle saying, Don't worry, you're not supposed to hear every word or understand much, yet.

"Another thing audiences complained about with that movie was that they were missing the dialog. Altman kept saying they weren't supposed to hear every word, that there was a lot of background dialog to establish the mood, and so on. But the audiences were right about some of the dialog, and I think what happened was that Altman was sabotaged by his sound equipment, which was actually too good.

"See, what happens is, sound mixing facilities out here have been perfected to such a degree that you can make your sound track a masterpiece, and then 85 per cent of the theaters in the country aren't equipped with sound equipment good enough to do justice to it." Beatty has prepared two separate soundtracks for "Shampoo," one for houses with better sound systems and the other for the rest of the theaters. The sound tracks won't differ in their use of the outspoken dialog and background atmosphere to make sure audiences don't miss anything. That should be useful, since "Shampoo" is such a big hit it will eventually play at every run-down popcorn palace in the land, including those with sound systems that apparently route the dialog through subterranean storage vaults. If it does, it will possibly join another new Beatty film on the lists of the summer's monster hits: Mike Nichols' "Fortune," co-starring Jack Nicholson, which is just going into release. For Beatty, two films in release at the same time represents almost a frenzy of work; he made "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" in 1971 and Richard Brooks' "Dollars" in 1972 and then made no films at all until last year's thriller about an assassination conspiracy, Alan Pakula's "The Parallax View." Two years between films is an eternity for a major star; Karen Black, by comparison, has been in seven movies since 1973.

"I've never been too crazy about making movies all of the time," Beatty said. "There are other things in life. I took out a big chunk of two years to work on the McGovern campaign, for example. And then I turn down a lot of parts. I turned down 'The Way We Were,' I turned down 'The Sting'..."I think if you check around you'll probably find that I've been what they call 'financible' longer than anyone around, except for Marlon and Paul, and I'm a lot younger than they are.

There's been a 15-year period during which I've been able to do pretty much what I've wanted to do.

"Now with Jack Nicholson, who I think is one of the greatest, the reason he's working so much, in my opinion, is that he spent so many years not doing the kinds of films he wanted to do and now that he's made it, he loves the work. It was great working with him on 'Fortune,' where we play two idiots who attempt to take advantage of the heiress to a sanitary napkin fortune. It is, as we say...light. I think it'll work.

"There's one thing about comedy: You sure know if you've failed. I mean, a dramatic picture, sometimes you save it with a good scene or a good performance but if it's a comedy and the people don't laugh, you've had it. I don't know if you can call 'Shampoo' a comedy. There are a lot of laughs in it, but...if it is, it's an awfully sad comedy."

He shook his head in remembrance and reflection, and finished his Burbank Dog, which it has certainly taken him an awfully long time to eat in this article. Was he surprised, I asked, that "Shampoo" was such a big hit?

"Yeah, I was," he said, "because you never think in terms of success but in terms of, will it be interesting? And I thought it might be, you know, with this story of this desperate guy racing around trying to keep all these women happy while the country was going to hell. The focal point of the last decade was the day when Nixon was elected and America came face-to-face with its own hypocrisy. Yeah, I thought that would make a good movie."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

Latest blog posts

Latest reviews

It Lives Inside
The Origin of Evil
The Storms of Jeremy Thomas
My Sailor, My Love


comments powered by Disqus