Reeling Backward: Heaven Can Wait (1978)
Warren Beatty starred in, co-directed and co-wrote this fluffy, light-as-air romantic comedy about a football player who comes back from the dead as a sort of a proto-Forrest Gump.
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In 1978, after the disasters of Vietnam and Watergate and amidst the throes of economic malaise, American movies were in a dour phase. Consider the films nominated that year for the Academy Award for Best Picture: “Coming Home,” “Midnight Express,” “An Unmarried Woman” and the winner, “The Deer Hunter.”
Wait, we left out one: the fluffy, life-affirming, light-as-air romantic comedy, “Heaven Can Wait.” Huh?
An adaptation of Harry Segall’s play, which had previously been turned into a 1941 film, it starred Warren Beatty, who also co-wrote the screenplay and co-directed with Buck Henry. The play and earlier movie centered on a boxer who is accidentally taken to heaven before his time, and to make up for it the angel/officiants in charge offer him his choice of other bodies to occupy, so he picks a business tycoon in hopes of doing some good.
Beatty wanted Muhammad Ali to star but he declined, preferring to focus on the last stages of his career in the ring. So Beatty jumped in himself and the sport was switched to football, since I don’t think anyone would buy the actor, who was prettier than most of the actresses he played against, as a pugnacious pugilist.
It was a huge commercial hit (about $350 million in today’s dollars) and scored nine Oscar nominations including screenplay, direction, three out of the four acting categories, and won one for set decoration.
I’ve always firmly believed that movies that do well are a reflection of the contemporaneous mood of the populous — either what they’re currently going through, or want to break out of. Thus the upbeat “CODA” beats out “The Power of the Dog” in this year’s Academy Awards race.
Maybe counter-programming explains the success of “Heaven”: with all that heavy material in other movies, audiences and critics craved some old-fashioned, family-friendly, uplifting storytelling. Interestingly, it holds only a 68% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, an indication its reputation hasn’t held up to modern times.
(“Sonic the Hedgehog 2” has a 97% audience score, if that tells you anything.)
I remember seeing it in theaters as a boy with my parents and not being terribly impressed. I recently caught the new Blu-ray reissue and my reaction was about the same.
Beatty plays a second-string NFL quarterback for the L.A. Rams, Joe Pendleton, who is apparently coming off a serious injury. Joe is getting on in years (Beatty was 41 when the movie came out) and fears that he’s missed his only shot to make his mark.
He’s a health nut who’s constantly exercising and consuming 1970s blender concoctions like whipped liver with whey. His light gray sweat pants and hoodie outfit (shades of “Rocky”) is essentially his totem, which he bears even into the afterlife. He also carries an alto saxophone upon which he attempts to play a trilling tune, which somehow follows him around in all his fleshy iterations.
As they prepare to make a strong run at the Super Bowl, the coaches — partly at the urging of team trainer Max Corkle (Jack Warden), who’s friends with Joe — want to replace starter Tom Jarrett with Joe. Unfortunately, Joe is killed while riding his bike through a tunnel on one of California’s signature twisty mountain roads.
Or, at least, it seemed so. His angelic escort (played by Henry), a rookie, snatched him up a few seconds before the impact, wanting to spare him a painful death. But a check of the records shows Joe wasn’t due to die for 50 more years.
Technically, Joe never actually makes it to heaven, only a waypoint where people board a Concorde jet for their final destination. It’s represented as an endless expanse of white clouds that sit perfectly at thigh level — the filmmakers must’ve rented every fog machine in Hollywood.
James Mason plays Mr. Jordan, the head man in this domain who lays out all the rules. (The earlier film was titled, “Here Comes Mr. Jordan.”) It seems that bodies are just like clothes that a soul can put on or take off, so it’s a simple matter to return Joe to his. Alas, his body was cremated, and reconstructing his form is beyond the ken of middle management.
Interestingly, a Creator is never directly referenced, perhaps not wanting to step on the tails of “Oh, God!”, which came out a year earlier.
The solution: put Joe into the body of another man who is about to die, and he can continue his life from there, that soul having recently exited. After looking at some options with Mr. Jordan, Joe selects Leo Farnsworth, an energy tycoon. He does this mainly to help Betty Logan (Julie Christie), an environmental activist petitioning Farnsworth not to build his latest pollution-spewing venture near her hometown (Scottish or Irish, I forget — Christie’s accent certainly can’t tell).
The plan is for this to be a temporary arrangement while Jordan searches for a more athletic body so Joe can continue his football career. But he soon falls for Betty, enjoys righting some wrongs Farnsworth had been responsible for — not to mention the cushy lifestyle of a sprawling mansion and estate with dozens of servants.
So instead he hires Max to train his middle-aged body into shape, letting him in on who Farnsworth really is inside. To ensure a spot on the Rams roster, Joe/Farnsworth buys the team for $67 million. Beatty actually makes some plausible passes in a handful of gridiron scenes.
In a conceit carried throughout the movie, Joe’s outward appearance never changes, the idea being he sees himself because that’s who’s inside, while others see Farnsworth. Even his reflection in the mirror fails to foil the illusion.
Some challenges: Farnsworth had been poisoned by his treacherous wife, Julia (Dyan Cannon) and his toadying secretary, Tony Abbott (Charles Grodin), who is carrying on an affair with her. They are astonished when he suddenly appears unscathed, and soon launch a variety of other assassination attempts.
Cannon and Grodin have great fun in their roles as the antagonists/comic relief, performing a lot of “who’s on first” type of verbal clashes. She’s a drinker who’s constantly on the verge of spilling the beans about their murderous machinations, while he’s a (superlatively Grodin-esque) nervous nellie whose ambitions outstrip his mettle.
(Cannon was nominated for best supporting actress, as was Warden for supporting actor, shutting out the more deserving Grodin. Beatty got an Oscar nod, too.)
Beatty’s Joe is something of a naif, a sweet, slightly dim man who lives only for football. We get the sense that Betty is the first real love of his life. He upturns Farnsworth’s energy empire at a board meeting where he invites journalists and activists to join them, tanking the company’s stock by cobwebbing plans for more nuclear plants and oil rigs.
Really, in a lot of ways Joe is something of a proto-Forrest Gump or Chauncey Gardiner, an ordinary man who falls backwards into importance and is notable for being the rare decent and kindly figure in a sea of self-service and greed.
He’s a few clicks north of Forrest on the I.Q. scale, though not a bunch.
The metaphysics of “Heaven Can Wait” are hard to pin down. When Julia and Tony finally succeed in their attempts to do Farnsworth in, Mr. Jordan offers him another body: Tom Jarrett, who has just been fatally sacked in the middle of the Super Bowl. Joe takes over, wins the game and seems set up for the happy life he always wanted — he has even forewarned Betty that he may turn up again someday in another footballer’s body.
But Jordan suddenly reappears to warn him that he will lose all memories of Joe Pendleton and continue his life as Tom Jarrett. Huh? Didn’t we establish that souls trade bodies like raincoats? So if Tom’s is gone yonder and Joe’s is put inside his body, why would any essence of Tom remain? If Joe forgets himself, how can he meaningfully be said to still live?
It’s OK for a movie to have the kookiest fantasies the writers can dream up. But once you’ve established the rules, you have to stick to them. (I’m reminded of J.K. Rowling, who always had the “one more spell or magic item” up her sleeve for the Harry Potter flicks.)
Whatever. Max is disappointed when his friend leaves him finally, though Joe/Tom bumps into Betty and she sees that “something in his eyes” that she glimpsed with Farnsworth. The starving thin romance is doubtless the softest of many weak points in the picture.
“Heaven Can Wait” isn’t a bad movie, but it seems frankly unworthy of the people who participated in its making. It surely has to rank as one of the worst films ever nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, no matter how much people wanted a break from those ‘70s doldrums.