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.

LIFE’S WORK: THE FILMS OF ROMAN POLANSKI – Chapter 3: Uniting the Fragments: Cul-de-Sac

LIFE’S WORK: THE FILMS OF ROMAN POLANSKI – Chapter 3: Uniting the Fragments: Cul-de-Sac

Uniting the Fragments: Cul-de Sac from Jose Gallegos on Vimeo.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: Press Play is devoting much of its content this week to a study of the films of Roman Polanski, whose new movie Carnage opens the New York Film Festival this Friday, September 30. We are counting down to the event by running a new video essay every day this week under the title Life’s Work: The Films of Roman Polanski. Chapter 3 of the series is a video essay by contributor Jose Gallegos entitled Uniting The Fragments: Cul-de-Sac. You can view Chapter 1 of this series, Polanski’s God, here. You can view Chapter 2 of this series, Spaces, here.]

By Jose Gallegos
Press Play Contributor

Roman Polanski” is a fragmented name, one that encompasses numerous identities and connotations. To some, “Polanski” is the child who survived the Krakow Ghetto during World War II. To others, he is the womanizer whose wife was brutally murdered by a homicidal cult. And still, to others, he is the criminal who fled to Paris while awaiting a statutory rape trial. Yet, to a select group of cinephiles, actors and filmmakers, the name “Polanski” is an adjective, one that ignores the “man’s” personal life and describes the “artist’s” prolific career, which spans nearly six decades. This career produced numerous films that exemplified the “Polanski” style; they explore the psychology of the psychotic, they blend the conventions and iconography of various genres and, oftentimes, they look towards pessimism as a means of comfort. It is Polanski’s third feature film, Cul-de-sac (1966), that best exemplifies the “Polanski” style. The film unites the various elements of a “Polanski film,” creating a self-proclaimed masterpiece.

Cul-de-sac follows three characters in a vicious triangle of torture and humiliation. There is Dickie (Lionel Stander), an American gangster who, after he and his dying partner, Albie (Jack MacGowran), are injured in a failed robbery, seeks refuge in a castle. Dickie takes the owners of the castle, George (Donald Pleasence) and Teresa (Françoise Dorléac), hostage while he waits for a call from his mysterious boss, Katelbach. As the night progresses, the power dynamics between the captives and their kidnapper begin to shift and it is unclear who has control in this absurd situation. The trio continues to torture one another until a climactic confrontation between the three results in an outburst of violence.

The strange story of Dickie, George and Teresa is entrenched in the Theatre of the Absurd, which Polanski admired fondly. Having experienced the aftermath of World War II, Polanski, like the absurdist playwrights Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco, began to question the human condition. These questions were applied to Polanski’s films, but none posed a harsher interrogation of the human condition than Cul-de-sac. From the deserted landscape, which emulates Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, to the emptiness of the dialogue, which borrows from the traditions of Ionesco, these characters are caught in an absurdist environment surrounded by water. As David Thompson eloquently writes in regards to the film, the characters are imprisoned by their surroundings, and they “are ultimately faced with the option of departure or death.”

Through the absurdist lens, Polanski explores themes and motifs that he had explored, and would explore, in other films. There is the fear of sex and emasculation, which was at the core of his debut feature, Knife in the Water (1962), and of his later masterpiece, Rosemary’s Baby (1968). There is the use of the enclosed environment as a metaphor for the mind, which was perfected in Repulsion (1965) and The Tenant (1976). And there is the deconstruction of genre conventions, which was brilliantly used in The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) and Chinatown (1974). Cul-de-sac bundles these elements, along with others, into one existential amalgamation. It is in Cul-de-sac where thoughts are able to linger, where the illogical and logical are one and the same and where philosophies are able to roam amongst the imprisoned surroundings.

The term “Polanski” describes a man who is a result of his circumstances. His cultural experiences and his views on life turned him into a complex being who was broken down into numerous fragments. These fragments were located in his first two films, but it was Cul-de-sac that united the pieces into one whole man. Cul-de-sac helped the director explore new territories for his later masterpieces, which the world would regard with awe and bated breath. Though the film wasn’t a financial success at the box office, it was a personal success for the director. It was an important stepping stone that allowed the fragmented man to collect all his pieces and construct himself into what is now known as the auteur named “Polanski.”

Jose Gallegos is an aspiring filmmaker based in Los Angeles. His student films can be found on YouTube and you can also follow him on Twitter.



[EDITOR'S NOTE: Press Play is devoting much of its content this week to a study of the films of Roman Polanski, whose new movie Carnage opens the New York Film Festival this Friday, September 30. We will count down to the event by running a new video essay every day this week under the title Life’s Work: The Films of Roman Polanski. Chapter 2 of the series is a video essay by contributor Steven Santos entitled Spaces. It explores how Polanski uses physical space in his films to reveal unexpressed or unknowable traits buried in the human psyche. You can view Chapter 1 of this series, Polanski's God, here.]

By Steven Santos
Press Play Contributor

Roman Polanski has been making films for five decades now. His latest film Carnage is yet another of his works that takes place within a single, confining location, the better to allow Polanski to explore social, political and sexual issues. From his student shorts at the National Film School in Łódź to his early features Knife in the Water and Repulsion through his more recent films The Pianist and The Ghost Writer, Polanski has consistently explored how a physical space can affect a character's mental state.

When noticing this pattern, I asked myself: What exactly makes Polanski return to this theme over and over again? As problematic as I find about half of the films included in this essay, I was impressed by how cinematic he makes these stories, using the confines of apartments and houses to explore isolation, repression, paranoia, sexual dysfunction and madness. In Polanski's world, home is considered less a haven than a battleground.

This video essay references a dozen films from Polanski's career, and was made so that both fans and detractors of this divisive director will see how the juxtaposition of images from different films speak to each other, and perhaps provide insight into his obsessions.

Steven Santos is a freelance TV editor/filmmaker based in New York. His work can be found at He writes about films at his blog The Fine Cut. You can also follow him on Twitter.



Polanski's God from Serena Bramble on Vimeo.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: Press Play is devoting much of its content this week to a study of the films of Roman Polanski, whose new movie Carnage opens the New York Film Festival this Friday, September 30. We will count down to the event by running a new video essay every day this week under the title Life's Work: The Films of Roman Polanski. We're kicking off the series with "Polanski's God," about the pessimistic, bleakly funny world view expressed in the majority of Polanski's films. This video essay is a collaboration by two Press Play contributors. Simon Abrams contributed the narration; Serena Bramble edited.]

By Serena Bramble and Simon Abrams
Press Play Contributors

TRANSCRIPT: "Polanski's God," narrated by Simon Abrams; edited by Serena Bramble

I think people who go to see [Roman Polanski's films] for escapism are not going to be necessarily disappointed, but they're going to have to tweak their understanding of what entertainment is. When you watch a Polanski film, you're watching this sense of abundance in them. They have very cheerful settings — deceptively cheerful. You get the sense that you're watching the seasons change from this brightness to this inner gray that takes over.

Violence in Polanski's film is psychological. It's largely implied and it's rarely explicit, and when it is explicit, it's for comedy's sake. When Jake gets his nostril slit in Chinatown, he looks ridiculous for the rest of the film, with the bandage on his nose.

[Clip from Chinatown]

Jake: But. Mrs. Mulwray, I goddamned near lost my nose. And I like it. I like breathing through it. And I still think that you are hiding something.

The aftermath of [the attack on Jake] is constantly rubbed in your face as very this silly thing to look at — whereas the lingering type of violence in [Polanski's] films is always something that's creeping and slow and under the skin that his characters have to deal with, with greater understanding of things. It's like the way that certain (H.P.) Lovecraft stories work. You get the biggest scares out of knowing things you didn't before. Well, that necessarily means that you have to build in stages to an ultimate sense of understanding, an ultimate sense of knowledge that will really destroy you, that will really violently upend you.

[Clip from Chinatown]

Evelyn Mulwray: She's my sister. She's my daughter. My sister. My daughter.

Jake: I said I want the truth.

Evelyn Mulwray: She's my sister and my daughter.

And that's why it's necessarily a creeping kind of violence. It's a kind of series of reversals, and really, implied actions.

Jake: He raped you?

With films like The Ghost Writer and The Tenant, you get the sense that these characters are dealing with their trauma as they're figuring out that it's happening to them. And that's fascinating.

There are no traditional good guys and bad guys in Polanski's films. They're typically much more ambiguous. But obviously there are exceptions that prove the rule. They're just people you don't want to spent time with. But, after a point, you just recognize that you're watching their lives disintegrate, and that's as close as you get to identifying with them, because you're watching them. You're sutured into the degradations of disintegration, and you can help but feel for them. But you don't like them after a point.

I don't think evil, in a traditional theological sense, exists in Polanski's films. I think you've got characters like John Huston's character in Chinatown. They are deeply self-interested. They are deeply self-involved. They are not necessarily out for anyone else's interest but [their own]. But, after a point, that [describes] everyone. The problem is that certain characters have more of an advantage than others, and those are usually the bad guys. Those usually the ones that are able to be more manipulative and exploitative than the little guys that Polanski's film follow with the understand that you want these characters to succeed very badly, even though they almost never can.

[Clip from Chinatown]

Jake: How much you worth?

Noah Cross: I have no idea. How much do you want?

Jake: I just want to know what you're worth? Over ten million?

Noah Cross: Oh my, yes.

Jake: Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat. What can you buy that you can't already afford?

Noah Cross: The future, Mr. Gittes! The future!

[Clip from The Ghost Writer]

Former Prime Minister Adam Lang: I've never taken orders from anyone. Whatever I did. I did because I believed it was right.

The Ghost: Even supporting illegal kidnapping for torture?

Adam Lang: Oh for God's sakes! Spare me the bleeding heart bullshit!

[The Ghost Writer] is a Polanski thriller through and through. It may be very similar in content to [Robert] Harris' novel — like the plot beats and everything. But the tone, and the way it moves, and the way the characters are essentially motivated and governed by the powers that be in that film, that's Polanski. Totally.

I think Polanski is not quite an atheist. But, I think that agnosticism is a lot closer to his belief system in many of his movies. You get this idea that [there] is something going on, there is some higher power or powers out there, and they're manipulating the characters in his films. But they're not always following a set plan, beyond the fact that they're gonna screw with these main protagonists. In that sense, for the longest time you can get the sense that there is no one up there, like in the beginning. And then, and then you get the idea that there is [someone up there] — and he hates you.

[The end of ] The Ghostwriter is the perfect example. The Ewan McGregor character gets hit by a car. We don't see it. There is not explicit violence. All the work that he did in the film doesn't matter. All the research, all the knowledge that he's accrued doesn't matter. It's all gone to pot, and he's dead.

Chinatown is another great example because it has that ending where the Jake character's totally resigned. He hasn't quite lost, but he knows he can't win. He has this absolute sense of certainly now that there is no viable way to continue with his investigation. He's not quite ready to throw in the towel, but it's so out of his hands that — that's it. That's the epitaph of his investigation. And beyond that, he just has to accept it. He just has to take it.

[Clip from Chinatown]

Walsh: Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown.

The interesting thing about The Pianist is that [it's about] a character that just wants to play his piano and be well off, to continue doing it on a steady basis. And he's not allowed that because of the historical context of the times. As Polanski had the impact of losing his wife to the Manson clan, that obviously informs this bleak, agnostic opinion, and that's why when you see The Pianist, survival is enough. Survival is its own victory, and I think [The Pianist has] one of most optimistic endings of any of his films, because you get the sense that [the hero] has won because he made it, as opposed to all the other films of his — especially Knife in the Water, where surviving is that much more hellish because all of these characters have been through a gauntlet and [gained] a greater sense of understanding is that there is no one up there, no entity that they can identify with.

There is something up there. But it's not understandable. You can't discern the motives of God, or of a deity like that. You just have to go with the fact that something's happening, wheels are in motion, and it's just like a giant Rube Goldberg machine, and you get out of it at the end. That's great. It never gets better. It just keeps going. That's life for Polanski.

Serena Bramble is a rookie film editor whose montage skills are the result of accumulated years of movie-watching and loving. Serena is currently pursuing a bachelor's degree in Teledramatic Arts and Technology from Cal State Monterey Bay. In addition to editing, she also writes on her blog Brief Encounters of the Cinematic Kind.Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in the Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, The Extended Cut.