By Nick Maylor
This fantasy-comedy starring and co-directed by Warren Beatty was adapted from Harry Segall’s play of the same name, which had already been made into a film once with Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941).
The story involves life, death, second chances and the fallibility of guardian Angels (particularly ones new on the job). While dealing with heavy subjects it remains light-hearted and humorous throughout and it features an honest and believable performance by Beatty as a decent, all-American athlete thrust into a massive existential and supernatural conundrum.
Joe Pendleton (Beatty) is a backup quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams football team, who are focused on victory at the Superbowl. Pendleton is a team player. He has a deep, personal passion for football and he is not focused on selfish promotion or egotism. He just wants his team to go all the way. While riding his bicycle through the older west side of tunnel one on Kanan-Dume road in Malibu, he becomes the subject of a twisted and unfortunate scenario when his soul is plucked from his body moments before what would be his apparent death. Co-director Buck Henry plays Joe’s guardian Angel, known only as The Escort.
It is revealed that The Escort was hasty with his divine interference when it came to Joe’s imminent “death” as Joe was not meant to die and is in fact not scheduled to parish for many decades. By the time the higher ups realize the error has happened, Joe’s body has been cremated and thus, Joe’s soul needs another human body to continue along in the world of the living. After rejecting several possibilities of men who are about to die, Joe is finally persuaded to accept the body of a millionaire industrialist named Leo Farnsworth.
Farnsworth was a man of poor character, a ruthless tycoon. The unseemly things that this man was involved in is made very clear early on in the film. It is no surprise that everyone who knows “Leo Farnsworth” is shocked at his drastic change in demeanor and character. A wholesome and honest man, Joe Pendleton sees the good in every situation and immediately goes about undoing all of Farnsworth’s criminal endeavors as soon as he begins inhabiting the man’s body.
Joe also is not fazed from his love of football. He is so unwavering to his dedication toward the sport that he uses Farnsworth’s wealth to buy the Los Angeles Rams football team so he can personally lead them to the Super Bowl. In order to see this goal to fruition, Joe approaches his former long-time trainer Max (Jack Warden) to help get his newly acquired body into Super Bowl shape. It takes some time but Joe manages to convince Max of his true identity.
It is revealed that Leo Farnsworth’s death has been long planned by his wife Julia (Dyan Cannon) and her lover, Farnsworth’s personal secretary Tony (Charles Grodin). Though the murderous couple are amazed that Leo is found “alive” and well after their attempt on his life, they are resolute in finishing him off once and for all, something that will involve serious consequences for Joe.
Joe agreed to inhabit Farnsworth’s body only temporarily, until a suitable replacement could be arranged. However, while living as Farnsworth, Joe falls in love with an environmental activist named Betty (Julie Christie). Joe decides to go back on his initial agreement, deciding he wants to remain Leo Farnsworth, having achieved a great deal of good and wanting to marry Betty.
Betty is one of the first people to approach Joe after he occupies Farnsworth’s form. Julie Christie shines in the role, fearless in her resolve for justice against Farnsworth’s misdeeds. Her spirit is infectious, we understand why Betty and Joe are so significantly connected. They share something that ends up transcending prejudice, death and the very nature of identity.
Joe’s “soul” for lack of a better term lives on fully cognisant in Farnsworth but after assuming Tom’s body, he loses all memory of his former life as Joe.
Jack Warden is great as Max, instantly likeable and earnest. His final moments in the film are incredibly moving after he realizes that the friend he recognized has ceased to be, effectively dead. Or is he? The movie suggests that after Joe finally takes over in the body of Tom, he is given a new chance with memories altered after the fact. It raises serious questions about the nature of identity. “Tom” is left with no memory of the events of the film. Nor does he remember being Joe in the first place. Does he assume the memories of the now dead “spirit” of Tom? Does this mean that Tom will live on with Joe’s soul?
Of course Betty recognizes something said to her by Joe (as Farnsworth) upon running into “Tom”, suggesting an element of destiny.
The script is smart and purposeful, presenting thoughtful philosophical, existential and spiritual ideas that don’t ever get in the way of the humour, a credit to the cast and directors.
The film won the Academy Award for Best Art Direction (Art Direction: Paul Sylbert and Edwin O’Donovan; Set Decoration: George Gaines), and was nominated for 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 Cinematography, Best Director, Best Music, Original Score, Best Picture and Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay (Elaine May and Warren Beatty).
Nick is an actor/writer/comedian/musician from Hamilton, ON Canada. Having been a film nut since the early days of his life, Nick has had an obsession with cinema and popular entertainment. Nick has written for thecinemaholic.com and is currently working on a book about the American Cinema Renaissance (1967-present) with John H. Foote. Nick met John when studying acting at the Toronto Film School, for which John H. Foote was director and Film History professor. The two have been arguing ever since.
Follow Nick on Twitter @NickMaylor