With stay-at-home orders leaving people unable to go to their regular barbers or salons, some people have been taking extreme steps while in quarantine. Peruse social media and you’ll see various lockdown moods: some take this time to try out bangs, colorful hair, a shaved head, taking kitchen scissors to their ends, or deciding to just let their manes and facial hair grow wild.
But before you do anything you might regret, and curse yourself with a botched dye job or the painful process of growing out a bad haircut, there are other ways to keep you entertained. You may not be able to get to the hair salon or the movie theater anytime soon, but the Criterion Channel has you covered on both fronts in one of their short and feature pairings for April 21: “Hair Pieces.” Mike Leigh’s short film, The Short and Curlies (1987), is screened alongside Hal Ashby’s Shampoo (1975). These two films about hairstylists and their customers are set in radically different contexts — Leigh’s is in working-class Britain and Ashby’s is in flashy Beverly Hills. However, both feature plenty of voluminous hair, and capture the social energy of salons through gossip between customers, or small talk with stylists as they cut your hair, which some love (and others may dread).
Personally, when I get haircuts I’m inclined to let the stylist do most of the talking. Even if you aren’t in the mood to say much yourself, The Short and Curlies provides plenty of (often one-sided) conversation to ensure that there’s never a silent moment. The scenes are short vignettes of only a minute or two each, but these moments are stuffed with endless chatter. In one plot thread, talkative hairdresser Betty (Alison Steadman) prattles on with her customer, Joy (Sylvestra Le Touzel), during frequent salon visits. When not at the salon, Joy works in a pharmacy where Clive (David Thewlis) often stops by to chat and woo her with his attempts at witticisms. Betty’s stream-of-consciousness commentary continues at home, as she yammers on and on about gossip, romances, or mysterious itches to her quiet daughter, Charlene (Wendy Nottingham).
Small talk is the thread that links each snippet to the next. The conversations may be surface-level, and the topics of discussion seemingly insignificant, but the dialogue, alongside scenes of hairstyling or romantic fumbling, takes on a sense of intimacy and care. Betty tenderly styles Joy’s hair in high ponytails or tight curls, experimenting with new looks, while excitedly inquiring about the boy she’s seeing. Clive tries desperately to get Joy to laugh with one of his dumb jokes, and Betty is equally eager to impress as she tests out elaborate hairstyles on Joy. Each interaction is so awkward, yet endearing, that we laugh at unfunny jokes or smile at hairstyles that aren’t quite our taste.
With Shampoo, we move from a quaint small-town hairdresser to a bougie salon filled with glamorous clientele. Written by Robert Towne and Warren Beatty, and featuring a original score from Paul Simon, this satirical comedy captures a place of free-flowing libidinal energy where there is far more play than work. It’s set on election night in 1968, on the eve of Richard Nixon’s ultimate ascent to commander-in-chief, and the protagonist is a womanizing hairstylist, George Roundy (a big-haired Warren Beatty). George spends far more time dashing out of the salon to pursue his flings than he does actually giving haircuts, which perhaps explains the bankers’ reluctance to grant him a loan to open his own salon.
His colleagues, in business and pleasure, form a complex network: he has a girlfriend, Jill (Goldie Hawn), but also maintains a relationship with his ex-girlfriend, Jackie (Julie Christie). George woos Lester (Jack Warden), the husband of one of his mistresses, Felicia (Lee Grant), as a potential investor for his salon, but Lester’s mistress also happens to be Jackie. Saying it’s complicated is an understatement, and managing all his salon customers and sexual companions is a true feat — with George acknowledging that “I got a lotta heads,” as he talks with a loan officer.
There is a certain vulnerability we feel when we find ourselves in a salon chair, letting the stylist see us at our worst, with our wet hair and smock, and giving them our full trust to help transform us for the better. In an intimate scene, George cuts Jackie’s hair in her bathroom, just after Jackie has expressed her feelings of isolation, since the jealous Lester forbids her from seeing other people. When he shows off the finished product with a hand mirror, she kisses him and calls him a “genius.” The haircut served as a powerful moment of feeling understood — it restored her confidence and sense of connection with the world. As George explains to Lester, all he ever hears from his clients is their desire to be listened to. He becomes a sounding board for all their relationship frustrations, as his clients debate whether to stay with oppressive partners in the same breath as they debate which hair color to try.
Yet for all the tenderness these films extend to the practice of hairdressing, we also see numerous moments that have a distinct lack of care. All Jill wants is for George to do her hair, which he fails to do, and he continually cheats on her and misleads her. Clive throws clothes in Joy’s face after sex, and Betty prods Charlene about why she does not have a boyfriend, as Charlene sits quietly, unable to get a word in. The playful soundtracks and charisma of the actors give both films a sense of charm, yet there is a darkness that undercuts the sheen. Charlene constantly suffers in silence, unable to match her mother’s exuberance or meet her standards, and these films show it is possible to still be lonely in a loud and crowded room — to look great but still feel terrible.
As we find ourselves at home wondering how long we can wait before our next haircut, and whether we can easily manage to cut our own bangs, we might be missing our regular barbers and salons for all the familiar faces, the artful work they provide, and having someone other than our friends and housemates to talk to. Oddly enough, despite all the scenes of socialization inside and outside the salon, both of these “hair pieces” end with moments of isolation. In Shampoo’s tragic final shot, George stands alone, the fool on the hill, after being rejected by Jackie, and watches her drive off and return to Lester. In the last vignette of The Short and Curlies, Betty carries on an animated conversation with Joy, moving offscreen as the camera lingers on Charlene’s expression of silent rage and desperation.
After making their cuts, and making lots of small talk, these two films hold a mirror up to their respective communities to let us take a look at all the tangles left behind. It can be hard for these characters to navigate entangled relationships, or to express themselves in words, so they do it through hair. It might be some time before we get to return to our usual stylists and get someone else to talk to and help us craft the perfect look to express our personalities. In the meantime, we may just have to settle for some beautiful messes of our own creation, and hope that whatever damage is done will grow out eventually.