GREY MATTERS: Vidal Sassoon: In the Salon, In the Movies, In Life

GREY MATTERS: Vidal Sassoon: In the Salon, In the Movies, In Life

Vidal Sassoon did nothing less in his astonishing life than co-engineering the design and mindset of desire and freedom in fashion, cinema, and feminism—in ways that echo to this day.

nullIn the mid-60s, his radical, Bauhaus-inspired cuts for Twiggy and Terrence Stamp in Joseph Losey’s Modesty Blaise defined a Mod brand of cool reemerging again today in everyone from Karen O to Ladytron to Lady Gaga; the pixie cut he crafted for Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby made that film all the more effective and is now being rediscovered by Michelle Williams, Ginnifer Goodwin, and Mia Wasikowska, among others; the feathered cut he crafted for Farrah Fawcett in Charlies’s Angels gave the 70s Sexual Revolution a go-to style that, when shortened, also worked for men.

By creating “wash and wear haircuts” that freed women from the tyranny of elaborate post-war styling, Sassoon caused a side effect that was his greatest effect. Women of the early 60s who got Sassoon cuts were no longer spending a huge portion of their discretionary earnings and spare time on the salon, and so, simply in terms of dollars, cents, and time, feminism became that much more logistically possible.

And so I feel as if this amazing history is in danger of being lost when I realize that when people think of Sassoon, they think of superior hair products. In fairness, though, he also created that industry.

Me, I first “met” Sassoon entirely by accident of need.

When Lizzie E. came up to me at high school’s end and asked how I was going to support myself until my band got signed, I was like,  “I have no idea.” When she asked if I wanted to go to beauty school, I said,  “Sure. Why not?”

But beauty school was lame, all boring rudimentary cuts, color, curling iron work, and such. Until The Twins showed up.

The Twins: two impossibly suave young Latino men in Armani suits with hair like Al Pacino in Serpico. They may have had names, but I never learned them. They didn’t talk much. They cut.

The Twins had been to Vidal Sassoon Academy. This was the late 70s. Everyone knew all about Vidal: he was a living media presence in the process of creating that idea, too. Think Tim Gunn but younger, ludicrously cool in his Pierre Cardin suits, and also a mensch.

nullAnyway, at school, students lined up daily as the Twins executed precise Sassoon-style versions of a Ziggy cut, a Bryan Ferry asymmetrical, a pixie, and the Master’s other contribution, the bob.

Everyone came out of a Twin session changed. Happier. More confident. More cool and more themselves at the same time.

I wanted a Twins cut! But I was also only 17 and seething with a crippling sense of how little I deserved such fine things, in part a side effect of the bipolar disorder percolating in my head.

So I just watched.

All very nice, but this is a film blog! Yes, but film and fashion are always absolutely intertwined.  

To explore what I mean by that, you have to ask, and also know: What is a haircut about? You. If you’re in the Marines, for example, it’s about erasing your identity with a buzz cut ten thousand other women and men have, so as to become an interchangeable part of a unit.

A haircut is also code. It’s Audrey Hepburn's hair in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), signaling in streaked hair-color semaphore that she’s a very new sort of girl, an idea and look Gloria Steinem promptly appropriated and repurposed as an act of playful post modernism, whose referencing of Tiffany's was a hidden-in-plain-sight rejection of the top-down, patriarchal conservatism that institution stood for. And all while looking devastatingly chic.

This is all because of an irrefutable bottom line: hair is the most telling human visual tag after skin color. It’s the thing people remember. And that's why when profiling a perp, after race, a cop will ask what color hair, what style, how long, etc. Because everyone remembers that. It’s probably a tribal thing, engrained on a DNA level.

Until Sassoon, post-war America conservatism recognized the threats inherent in hairstyle—sexuality, individualism, personal agency—and quashed them.

A salon visit—and you sometimes needed multiple ones per week—meant enduring having your hair chemically burned with harsh, primitive perm, bleach and color concoctions, then soaked in gum, methylparaben, gelatin, cornstarch-based based adherents, before being wrapped in scalp-tearing curlers. The client was then stuck under burning hot driers for hours on end before having the hair—now decimated tissue resembling burnt wire—tortured into halo-like shapes held together by industrial-strength lacquers.

nullAt this time, the ‘50s and early 60s, nobody looked at hair and thought: Bone structure! Bauhaus! Geometry!

Nobody asked: How can I enhance the way this woman naturally is, instead of warping her into something she’ll never be?

Sassoon did.

Sassoon, who was born in 1928 into such dire poverty that his single mother was forced to send him to a Jewish orphanage, who later joined the Israeli Defense Forces to fight in the 1948 Arab Israeli War, who then, at his mum’s insistence, got in the hair trade, ran a regular salon for a while until he just had it with things as they were, the sheer cruel, ugly oldness of it all.

He threw out the hair driers, the perms, the chemicals, everything but his trusty sheers.

Word spread like wildfire. Some madman was cutting hair based on bone structure, and geometry, and then letting women just leave the salon! No setting! No lacquer. Just beautiful, healthy, shiny hair. Hair he encouraged women to run their fingers through.

nullHollywood came calling: their new, post-war Chinese sex symbol in the making, Nancy Kwan, needed a look. Vidal created a luscious, cascading bob for Kwan for The World of Suzie Wong (1960). The Beats appropriated it, every present-day hipster girl has had one at least once, and actors like Tilda Swinton, Cate Blanchett and Charlize Theron look especially good with one.

But Sassoon’s eureka moment came in 1964. It was the five-point cut. It was a radical, Bauhaus-inspired design that practically screamed the end of an era and the start of something new.

Craig Teper’s recent gold standard documentary, Vidal Sassoon: The Movie, gets inside the mind of a man who’s known pretty much every way a person can live, and from that experience came a well of empathy that fueled designs that could have been cold or detached or, god forbid, ‘arty’ (and so dismissed.) He could think of hair as a fine artist, as a businessman or, as we’ll see, a method actor. In the film, Sassoon tells his greatest hits in an alternately incarnational/imperious/impish vocal style that’s another pleasure.

nullThere’s the tale of Rosemary’s Baby (1968), where Roman Polanski desperately needed his hero to have a visual signifier of motherhood in crisis that would capitalize on both the rush and anxiety accompanying the first wave of feminism.

He called Vidal. The cut Sassoon delivered for Mia Farrow was short, but feminine. Angular, but not overtly weird. The effect was a triumph of style-based foreshadowing: the idea that this woman would give birth to Satan’s child was totally believable to men—just look at her haircut! American women, ironically enough, wanted to look like Rosemary, and they all flocked to Sassoon-trained stylists.

If I have one complaint with the film, it’s that it’s too humble. Another incredibly important cut, the one worn by Sassoon client Jane Fonda in Alan J. Pakula’s boundary-breaking Klute, is a study in, shall we say, influence. That cut is the missing link between the geometry of the 60s and the flow of the 70s, eventually migrating to the heads of Suzie Quatro and Joan Jett and a good many of the lesbian bars my friend Lizzie E. would hang at.

But his greatest achievement will always be a side effect of the wasted time and money his cuts returned to women. The quarterly perm, the monthly color retouch, the monthly cut, the once, twice, thrice roller/set/comb-out/styling sessions. All of them replaced with one haircut every two or so months.

Without that boon, feminism would have been incalculably harder to pull off.  Or as Vogue’s creative director Grace Coddington, a one-time model who enjoyed the original five-point cut, has said, "He changed the way everyone looked at hair . . . and it liberated everyone."

Me, I never got my hair cut by The Twins. But my band did get a record deal, and the guy who cut my hair was, by incredible good luck, the haircutter for Bryan Ferry, once and future king for all things cool beyond measure.

And, of course, that haircutter trained at Sassoon’s.


Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, identity politics, music and tragedy. Magazines and newspapers that have his articles include Detroit Metro Times,, Icon Magazine, International Musician and Recording World, Lacanian Ink, MusicFilmWeb, New York Post, The Perfect Sound, Salon, Smart Money Magazine, Teeth of the Divine, Venuszine, and Time Out/New York.



[EDITOR'S NOTE: In a yearly feature titled "Oscars Revisited," Press Play takes a look back at the Academy Awards race from earlier eras. Our inaugural series focuses on the five Best Picture nominees from calendar year 1981: Reds, Atlantic City, On Golden Pond, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Chariots of Fire.]
Of the five films nominated for Best Picture of 1981, On Golden Pond is greeted with the most derision – dismissed as the Academy falling for cheap sentiment as an excuse to honor their own. Raiders of the Lost Ark set the template for the modern blockbuster, its popularity and influence so immediate that recognition could not be denied it. Atlantic City had an almost European attitude toward character and sexuality while providing a wonderful showcase for Burt Lancaster. Reds was a mix of sweeping historical romance and vanity project. And the winner, Chariots of Fire, had just the right combination of underdog scrappiness and rarefied air of repressed British passion that wins over voters. But what about On Golden Pond?

nullAt the time of the Academy Awards, the film's box office take was closing in on $80 million. It was obviously hitting a chord with audiences, but the critical response was mixed at best. The positive notices seemed to be written under duress. The rest of the mixed-to-negative reviews rang of hardened resistance to being moved at the sight of two old geezers puttering about and saying the damnedest things. (I know one critic who at the time referred to the movie as On Golden Shower.) Some critics and younger film buffs scoffed at a movie they perceived as appealing to middlebrow tastes – i.e., conservative older moviegoers who probably say things like, “Why don’t they make more movies like that?” On Golden Pond was one of the first big Reagan-era dramas, the anti-Ordinary People. The pairing of Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda bridged opposing ends of Hollywood’s political spectrum – the brassy liberal and the stern all-American traditionalist. And the sight of Hanoi Jane making nice with her dad now seems like one of the first examples of what turned out to be a major trope in 1980s American cinema, the sight of '60s kids reconciling with their parents.

Seen today, the film version of Ernest Thompson’s Broadway hit looks shockingly small-scale, quaint even. If it weren’t for the star power, it might not have been a hit. Seeing Hepburn and Fonda portray Ethel and Norman Thayer stirs all kinds of emotions. We are at once watching the characters and the actors. The simplicity of the story is crucial to us connecting with the Thayer family. A more complex story would be pointless. Fonda was 76 years old and Hepburn was 74 years old at the time of filming. They no longer had to get into character. They were the characters.

nullIf you didn’t know the movie was based on a play it wasn't hard to figure out, and not just because the story takes place in and around one location. Thompson’s dialogue has, at times, an overly-written cleverness. Unlike the worst of Neil Simon, where characters talk in two-liners, Ethel and Norman speak to each other in quips. What keeps their exchanges from being intolerable is that we feel as if they’ve been talking like this for their entire lives.

The story’s structure is at times quite rickety, but it is also curiously comforting. The opening scene sets the tone perfectly as the Thayers arrive at their summer home and Ethel quickly gets out of the car and calls for Norman to listen to the loons. It’s a classic Kate moment as she says, “The looons, the looons.” (Norman claims he can’t hear anything.) The opening scenes have a stagy busyness that only pros like Hepburn and Fonda can keep from being grating. (The bit where Norman calls the operator so they can call him is quite funny.) The opening passages show the Thayers puttering around, taking their boat to town to pick up supplies, making small talk with Charlie the mailman (William Lanteau). These scenes are finely executed but feel frankly quite twee. Then, Norman has an episode where he can’t remember the route of the road in the woods he’s taken thousands of times to town. He momentarily lets his guard down and tells Ethel he’s scared. Ethel comforts him by saying, “Listen to me, mister, you’re my knight in shining armor.” Up to this point Hepburn has spoken in her trademark New England braying bellow. (Seeing and hearing her again made me realize just how astonishing Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of Hepburn was in The Aviator.) But when she comforts Norman she lowers her voice, almost whispering. It’s a great piece of acting that only someone as experienced as Hepburn could make look easy. The scene hooks us and we’re on Norman and Ethel’s side for the rest of the movie.

Not much happens during the summer. Well, not exactly. What happen are the kind of small compromises and accommodations that sometimes occur in families. The Thayers’ wayward daughter Chelsea writes and says she wants to visit for Norman’s 80th birthday. She says she’s bringing her latest boyfriend and his 13-year-old son from a previous marriage. The scene where Norman and Ethel wait for Chelsea to arrive surprises us because an unexpected tension starts to mount. Through inferences we learn that Norman and Chelsea have a friction-filled relationship that they tiptoe around; of course there’s also tension because we know real-life conflict existed between Jane Fonda and her dad. That’s what makes their first on-screen scene together so good. We sense things could explode at any moment. Henry Fonda’s admiration of his daughter’s acting registers as Norman’s distant nature as the old man tries in his own way to get along with her.

null(Watching Henry Fonda in On Golden Pond, I was struck at how son Peter Fonda’s career-capping performance in Ulee’s Gold is like the dark side of Norman Thayer; the younger Fonda is playing both his dad and Ulee Jackson.)

The middle section of the movie consists of the Thayers looking after Billy Ray (Doug McKeon), son to Bill Ray (Dabney Coleman), who is taking Chelsea to Europe for a month. Coleman’s big scene with Henry Fonda is a real gem. At first he is intimidated by Norman and comes off as almost condescending towards him. Norman senses this and refuses to give him a break. The way Bill calls Norman out on trying to push his buttons is startling to both us and Norman. Norman decides he’s good enough for his daughter. McKeon, iffy in the early scenes, eventually grows on you. He matches up nicely with Fonda as they develop a winning comic rhythm. We need to feel their affection for one another so that the sequence where their lives are danger doesn’t feel like a manipulation of the plot.

Norman, Ethel and Billy make a fun trio as we sense they’re getting right as surrogate grandparents what they got wrong as parents. There’s a feeling that tragedy could occur at any moment. It doesn’t, really. The big scene in the movie is when Norman and Billy attempt to navigate their boat through a rocky cove. They hit a rock and Norman falls overboard. The highlight of the sequence comes when Ethel goes looking for them and comes upon their boat. When she sees Norman and Billy hanging onto a rock she immediately dives into the water and swims toward them. What gives the scene a swelling emotional power is that Hepburn’s stunt is done in one unbroken shot. She really jumps into the water.

nullJane Fonda’s interactions with Hepburn and her father demonstrate her skill at being able to adapt to differing acting styles. Her scenes with Hepburn have a loose give-and-take feel. There’s a remarkable scene where mother and daughter go skinny-dipping at night. Seeing their heads poking above the water at night, we register that it is possible Jane could be the offspring of these two. Her sharp features and her quivering, clipped voice are just right. Her big scene with her father is one for the time capsule. The way her Strasberg-training acting style and his do-it-as-rehearsed strictness rub against each other beautifully illustrates the generational gap they are trying to close. The elder Fonda hated improvisation. He felt there was no need to change what was already on the page. This leads to a fleeting moment where the real world comes crashing into the movie. Chelsea tells Norman she wants to be his friend. When the camera switches to Henry Fonda’s side of the scene, Jane/Chelsea improvises a gesture and puts her hand on his arm. (You’ll miss it if you’re not looking for it.) This bit of business was not rehearsed and startled the elder Fonda. His fleeting reaction to this moment of affection is real. You see him turn, almost embarrassed by the intimacy of the moment. At the end of the movie, when Chelsea, who always refers to her father as “Norman,” calls him “Dad,” we can no longer separate the characters’ quiet acknowledgement of their love from seeing Jane and Henry finally connect with one another.

At the time of its success, On Golden Pond was mocked in some quarters as being some kind of big-screen therapy session for the Fondas. Seen today, removed from its zeitgeist moment, On Golden Pond reveals itself to be an enormously moving (if manipulative) story of familial reconciliation.

San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host of “Back at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television.