By John H. Foote


Warren Beatty had wanted to direct as far back as Bonnie and Clyde (1967) but his desire for perfectionism made him hesitate. He did not want to look like a fool. He had a lot to say on Shampoo (1975) but it was Hal Ashby who got the directing credit. For Heaven Can Wait (1978), his sweet, romantic remake of Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), Beatty asked his friend Buck Henry to have his back as co-director as he guided the comedy through its production phase.

Joe Pendleton (Beatty) is the second-string quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams pro football team. Through hard work and training, he has worked his way into a starting position. His friend and trainer Max Corkle (Jack Warden), tells him he is starting the game on Sunday and Pendleton celebrates with a glorious run. Tragically, he is killed running through the tunnel and finds himself in the clouds at a way station. There he learns he was not supposed to die, that his lightning reflexes should have saved him. However, the chance to put him back into his body is complicated by the fact Joe’s body has been cremated. Mr. Jordan (James Mason), who runs the way station (or is he God?) suggests anther body until an athlete can be found, and Joe agrees. Billionaire Leo Farnsworth is chosen and Joe becomes Farnsworth to all outward appearances, but to us, he is still Joe. He begins whipping the businessman into shape, because he wants to play in the Super Bowl. No one takes him seriously until he buys the Los Angeles Rams and announces his intentions. His secret identity is revealed to Max, who at first thinks him mad, until he speaks a sentence Max spoke at his funeral, heard by no one except Joe. Working with Max once again, he gets the body of the billionaire into terrific shape and impresses the Rams with his workouts. But behind the scenes, his personal private executive secretary plots to kill him, aided by Farnsworth’s grasping, hysteric wife. Charles Grodin is drolly hilarious as the secretary and Dyan Cannon, Oscar worthy as his loopy wife.

Buck Henry and Warren Beatty in Heaven Can Wait

All this is further complicated when Joe/Farnsworth finds himself falling for Betty (Julie Christie), who is in the US to fight for her small town in England. Farnsworth is killed, the killers are caught, and Joe finds himself on the field of the Super Bowl where the Rams quarterback Tom Jarrett has been killed accidentally. Taking his body, Joe powers his way to the Super Bowl as Max speeds to get to him. In the locker room after the game, Max calls to him and makes sure it is his friend, who warmly smiles at him to let him know indeed it is him. But as Joe is being interviewed, Mr. Jordan appears to him and tells him from this moment on he will be Tom Jarrett and all memory of Joe Pendleton and Leo Farnsworth will be gone. As Jordan disappears, Joe loses all memory of who he was and becomes Jarrett.

As Jarrett is leaving the stadium, he encounters Betty, and they chat briefly. The lights of the stadium are shut down and he says something to her that Joe/Leo had said she and knows at once she is safe with him and should give him a chance. Rather than go to the party, they go for coffee.

A beautiful romantic fantasy, Heaven Can Wait was a massive summer success and nominated for nine Academy Awards. Beatty became the first man since Orson Welles to be nominated for multiple Academy Awards including Best Actor, Director, Screenwriter and producer, a feat he repeated three years later with his masterpiece Reds (1981).

With Heaven Can Wait, he showcased his gifts as a light comedic actor with a fine, deft performance, using various forms of comedy throughout the film including farce, slapstick, and of course romantic comedy. Superbly acted by the entire cast, Mason, Warden and Cannon were particular stand outs.

A breathtaking comedy.

The Blu Ray transfer is crisp and clean, as fine a presentation of the film I have seen since first screening it back in 1978. Paramount is going to roll out some big titles in the next year, here’s hoping Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1978) is among them.

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