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Hairdressing is life

At least it is in the movies, from 'Shampoo' to 'Zohan'

ADAM SANDLER'S "You Don't Mess With the Zohan" is a comedy ostensibly about the Arab-Israeli political relationship. Sandler's Zohan is an ex-Mossad agent who takes a job doing hair in a New York salon. So who are we kidding? It's about a stylist.

The movies actually take hair and the people who do it pretty seriously, the salon being a realm of exposed truth - a strange, often fantastical space where anything is possible and everything goes. (My own stylist, for instance, was also once in the Mossad.)

In "Grease," the character Frenchy's career anxieties inspire a badly staged dream sequence that Frankie Avalon lords over: "Beauty school dropout," he sings, as a doo-wop put-down, "no customer would go to you unless she was a hooker."

The vague salon setting is sort of a joke, but one that allows Frenchy some reflection: "Go back to high school!"

Avalon's advice makes a flippant contrast to the stern sense of hope that American hairdressers bring to Afghan women in Liz Mermin's documentary "Beauty Academy of Kabul" (2004). A squad of New York hairdressers shows up in what was then post-Taliban territory.

The movie has a comic whiff of a Christopher Guest faux-documentary. One of the New York instructors insists that the country's future hinges on the locals' ability to craft a modern look. But the boastful Dr. Phil-isms feel resonant enough. Take this stylist's assurance to an Afghan pupil with husband woes: "I'm a hairdresser. I heal people." Amen to that.

At the start of the decade, the UK gave us at least three competitive working-class hair comedies - "An Everlasting Piece," "Blow Dry" and "The Big Tease," which, hilariously, was marketed as "Rocky" with curlers. The last two were set in salons. "Blow Dry" has Alan Rickman launching himself over the top as a championship hairdresser fallen on low times: He's barbering now. "The Big Tease" stars the future late-night host Craig Ferguson doing the same in swishy Scottish style.

The greatest musical number in a salon is "Straight and Nappy" from Spike Lee's "School Daze." The number ingeniously manages to unpack centuries of conflict between light-skinned black women and their dark-skinned counterparts in the genre of an MGM musical. They fight over hair. They fight over authenticity. The salon is more than a set piece; it is a space where these women's self-images can duke it out.

In "Steel Magnolias" (1989), Truvy's more convivially run beauty shop is where the movie's six women get together to gossip and celebrate and confess. They are never closer than when they gather around the hot curlers and dryer chairs.

Ditto for the more rambunctious multiracial nonsense in "Beauty Shop" (2005) - "Steel Magnolias" without the Oscar winners, the tragedy or the tears - and this year's "Caramel," a.k.a. "Steel Magnolias" in Beirut.

It's possible that Dolly Parton's Truvy would have kept the Compton beautician that Janet Jackson played in "Poetic Justice" on the payroll. Jackson's character could curse up a storm but was twice as melodrama-prone as Sally Field. Tyra Ferrell plays Jackson's ferocious boss in that movie, and it'd be great to see what would happen if she opened a shop across the street from Truvy's. Quick: Who can install the best weaves?

Hairdressers at the movies are mouthy (see Fran Drescher in "The Beautician and the Beast"), but, just as in reality, they know where all the skeletons are. In "Mississippi Burning," Frances McDormand's 1960s beautician is more mealy-mouthed than her peers, but, married to an abusive Klansman, she knows that he may have had something to do with the murder of three civil-rights workers.

The movie's best scenes are set in her dingy little parlor, where the women let their racism loose for Gene Hackman's FBI agent to see. But the hairdresser herself is meant to be the movie's pure moral hero.

No disrespect to Sandler, but it seems unlikely that "Zohan" will surpass the greatest film ever made about a hairdresser: Hal Ashby's "Shampoo," from 1975. Warren Beatty, in his best performance, plays George Roundy, a Los Angeles celebrity stylist juggling three women. Men think he's gay. His clients know better.

The movie brilliantly opts not to make hairdressing a metaphor for sex. Sex is sex, and hairdressing - with its battle against tangles, split ends and frizz - is life.*