Heaven Can Wait
Directed by Warren Beatty and Buck Henry
Heaven Can Wait is the only movie from 1978 that I was familiar with before this project of mine, and by “familiar with,” I mean I have it practically memorized. This is another movie that I grew up, one that my dad would play over and over again while he was working at home. It’s both easier and harder to analyze a movie that you’re familiar with. On one hand, because you know the plot so well, you can concentrate more on the film elements. On the other hand, it’s sad when you find flaws in a movie you know so well. When I do find things that are less than perfect, I just have to remind myself that I can still enjoy an imperfect movie.
So what’s the story? Los Angeles Rams quarterback Joe Pendleton has been working hard to get back in the game after a bad knee injury. Just as he is getting back in shape, Joe is killed in a bike accident. When he shows up in the afterlife, however, he finds that he wasn’t supposed to die for another fifty years. Mr. Jordan, the angelic supervisor, offers to put Joe back into his body, but unfortunately, Joe’s body has already been cremated. Joe and Mr. Jordan look at several new bodies, Joe insisting that the new body be in good enough shape to play for the Rams. When Joe spots beautiful Betty Logan, he decides to accept the body of ruthless business mogul Mr. Farnsworth so that he can help Miss Logan out. Will Joe ever make it back to the Rams? Will Betty be able to look past Mr. Farnsworth’s terrible reputation to see Joe inside? Will Mr. Farnsworth’s scheming wife and his private secretary murder him before Joe has a chance to find happiness?
The Good: The screenplay is fun and funny. Joe gets himself into funny situations, which are often met with dry humor or great one-liners from the other characters. The people in Mr. Farnsworth’s life aren’t used to working with a young quarterback, and their reactions to some of Joe’s requests are priceless.
The sets are excellent. Joe ends up in three very different places: his little house where he lives as a football player, the waystation to his final destination, and Leo Farnsworth’s mansion. Each one is very different, and each reflects the person who lives there. It’s a subtle thing that helps to develop the characters.
Heaven Can Wait is a movie in which the supporting actors do a better job than the leads. Jack Warden shows a great range of emotions as Joe’s friend and trainer, Max; he’s happy when Joe overcomes his injury, devastated when Joe dies, disbelieving when Mr. Farnsworth tells Max that he (Mr. Farnsworth) is really Joe. Warden does all that and more perfectly. Mr. Farnsworth’s scheming, hysterical, alcoholic wife, Julia is played to perfection by Dyan Cannon. Charles Grodin is her perfect counterpart as the scheming, yet calm, personal secretary Tony Abbott. Joseph Maher is hilarious as Sisk, the very proper butler who deals with his employer’s new personality with complete aplomb. I’ve always loved the nameless angel who takes Joe out of his body too soon and then throws a fit when Joe won’t believe he’s dead. It turns out that the angel is played by Buck Henry, who is also the co-director of the movie. Too fun! And the calm, stately Mr. Jordan, the angelic supervisor, the played by the great James Mason. The casting of the supporting cast was perfectly done.
The costuming was also very good. The ugly jackets that Max wears, Julia’s over-the-top designer dresses, and Leo Farnsworth’s ridiculous sailing outfits that he wears even though he doesn’t sail all add another dimension to the character’s personalities.
If there were a category for best use of classical music in a movie, I would give the Oscar to Heaven Can Wait. The scene where Joe and Max try to get Farnsworth’s body into pro football shape using the servants as players is great by itself, but the musical accompaniment of Handel’s Sonata #3 makes the scene brilliant. It might be my favorite part of the whole movie.
The Bad: While the original musical score isn’t bad, the instrumentation is dated. Just like in An Unmarried Woman, there is too much saxophone. While it could be a subtle reference to Joe and his badly-played soprano sax, it didn’t age well.
The Ugly: When I was little, I always thought Julie Christie’s hair style was ugly. When I watched it this time, I decided I would be open-minded about her hair. Apparently, it’s ugly no matter how old you are.
Because they are souls without bodies, Mr. Jordan and Joe can walk through walls. The editing for the wall-walking is terrible. My nine-year-old niece literally does better editing on her dad’s smartphone. Yes, technology has changed over time, but there is no excuse for the bad effects.
The copy of Heaven Can Wait that my family had when I was young was copied from TV onto a video that wasn’t long enough, so I haven’t seen the ending as often as I’ve seen the rest of the movie. I’m okay with that, though, because I’m not fond of the ending. It goes on too long, and Joe doesn’t get a very good deal at the end. (Because I don’t do spoilers, I won’t say what bothers me specifically, but if you want to argue that the ending is perfect, we can do so in the comments.)
As I watched the movie this time around, I realized that there is a major plot hole. If the angels know the exact date that someone is going to die, why would they send an angel out to collect his soul at the wrong time? Don’t get me wrong; I still love the plot, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that the premise is logically wrong.
The worst thing about Heaven Can Wait is that it is a very obvious vanity project for Warren Beatty. Near the beginning, Joe (who is played by Warren Beatty) says something about how he’s old in the football business, but in any other field, he would just be getting started. At that point, I realized how old Beatty looks in the movie. I checked his age, and he would have been 41 when he made the film. There aren’t very many forty-one-year-old NFL players, and most of them are kickers. Starting quarterbacks that old are few and far between. If the character was supposed to be 41, he wouldn’t be young in another field. Even setting aside the age issue, Joe is just too good to be true. He’s a not-too-bright football player, but he is able to spontaneously come up with brilliant, profitable business ideas that none of the experienced businessmen in Farnsworth’s firm have ever thought of before. Women fall in love with him quickly and with flimsy reasons. In addition to that, he’s a great quarterback. His only fault seems to be his inability to play the soprano sax. This is why I feel that Warren Beatty’s acting is not the best; he’s basically playing himself.
Oscar Won: Best art direction-set decoration.
Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best actor in a leading role (Warren Beatty); best actor in a supporting role (Jack Warden); best actress in a supporting role (Dyan Cannon); best director; best writing, screenplay based on material from another medium; best cinematography; best music, original score.