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Would you pay a penny to save the fish who thinks?

Movie

Heaven Can Wait
(1978)

 

Warren Beatty’s (and Buck Henry’s, kind of) remake of Here Comes Mr. Jordan is very clear about the limitations of its walk-in conceit. This is not a common practice. Rather, it’s one called upon on those rare occasions when heaven makes a mistake, snatching someone away from the earthly sojourn too soon. Thus, Heaven Can Wait’s mechanics revolve entirely around death – of Joe, and of whomever he is to inhabit next – which means even its cachet as a spin on reincarnation can only be taken as an analogous; much like its dry-ice-infused waystation, Heaven Can Wait is dealing with very traditional, acceptably Christian takes on (one) life, while throwing in the odd caveat that simply underlines its romcom lure; yes, we do have soulmates.

Beatty, musing why he picked the project, commented “Something about the theme didn’t seem small. It was dealing with death and reincarnation”. Whether sister Shirley had something to do with the choice is moot, but it’s entirely evident that Beatty the star saw it for what it was – a star vehicle. It was thus expertly tailored to show him off in said fashion, and duly made a mint. Beatty brought the not-quite-bright persona that had been a fixture ever since Clyde Barrow – “this quiet, stumbling guy” as Henry put it – and introduced him to a fish-out-of-water plot to frequently amusing (if rarely hilarious) effect. 

It seems Beatty originally had Mohammed Ali in mind for the lead, but he changed the character to an aging quarterback with the LA Rams (Beatty played the position at high school) when Ali informed him that training rigours precluded the role. Joe Pendelton’s soul is snatched away by Buck Henry’s heavenly Escort just before his body is hit by a truck. At least, that was the Escort’s assumption; he’s set straight by his supervisor Mr Jordan (James Mason). It turns out the Escort’s was a rash move, and Joe isn’t set to die until March 20 2025 (so, if Joe is Warren’s age, that would be 87, ten days before his 88th birthday). In an attempt to patch up the problem, Joe is offered another body, of a near-deceased person. He proves extremely picky, however, since he wants someone who can play ball; he only agrees to multi-millionaire industrialist Leo Farnsworth as a temporary arrangement because Betty Logan (Julie Christie), protesting his company’s plan to build a refinery in Pagglesham and evict its residents, catches his eye.

Thus, we have s misfit scenario in which Joe must navigate Leo’s corporate milieu (eventually applying football logic). He must also contend, or not contend, with the murderous attempts of wife Julia Farnsworth (Dyan Cannon) and her lover/his personal secretary Tony Abbott (Charles Grodin). Some of this premise will seem familiar, having as it does an updated screwball quality and the slight whiff of both earlier (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town) and later vehicles such as Trading Places (the corporate shenanigans). It’s a comedy that’s at once glossy (the Dave Grusin score) and shot by DP William Fraker in the manner of many a typical ’70s movie (that is, earthily with a hint of dour, for all the opulence, and without much lustre).

Around the edges of the movie are some highly enjoyable performances. Cannon is all deranged hysteria, Grodin suspicious bafflement (“He pretended for an hour not to know what a shareholder was”). Mason is consummate class, anchoring the fantasy in a manner that makes any new development seem entirely legitimate. Stealing the show is Jack Warden as trainer Max Corkle, however; he’s the one called upon to believe Leo when he tells him he’s really Joe, and go along with his plan to play quarterback (Leo buys the Rams). He’s also the one saddled with the truth about Joe’s final body (also a quarterback), Tom Jarrett, since Joe is fated to forget his former life; this scene is tantalising, as Betty’s encounter with Tom means she doesn’t visit Max, so the latter has no opportunity to tell her what he knows. 

Warden and Cannon received Oscar nominations, as did Beatty (actor, co-director, co-writer, producer); the picture received nine nods but had to settle for a single win (art direction). It’s that relatively rare example of a romcom receiving Academy recognition, albeit Beatty’s acting nod is, as noted, no more than him doing his standard star turn. Pauline Kael wasn’t so much scathing of the film as dismissive of its mechanical existence. She called it a “little smudge of a movie” and labelled it “pifflemaking” rather than moviemaking. Having been enamoured by Beatty (and Towne; they wooed her a few years earlier while making Shampoo), she now saw fit to bite him on the rear, complaining of the picture’s “genteel, wafer-thin whimsy”, that there “isn’t a whisper of personal obsession… The film’s only desire is to please, and that’s its only compulsiveness” and taking offence that “it’s image-conscious celebrity moviemaking”. Beatty, “looking fleecy and dazed”, was an “elfin sweet Jesus”.

The Beatty swipes are entirely fair, but also entirely the bleedin’ obvious. As Peter Biskind noted, Beatty was a leading man, not a character actor, so why complain he was playing to his strengths? Heaven Can Wait does what it does very well. It’s never in the same league as, say Toosie, in terms of calibrating structure, jokes, timing and performance, but it’s mostly an engaging, serviceable movie built on the engine of an earlier, more charming one (Mason excepted). 

It also supplies the boost of being a romcom with a faux-spiritual furrow; Ghost would also later eke awards recognition as a supernatural romantic thriller for a similar reason. The irony is that the weak link here, Julie Christie, would trash Beatty’s choices of empty amusements (per Biskind, she thought he could have been aspiring to Fassbender); obviously, she wasn’t making rubbish like he was. She was making quality art, like… Demon Seed (actually, I like Demon Seed, but social realism it is not). Christie and Beatty have chemistry, obviously, but Betty is a nothing character that desperately needed someone with spark or comic flair to make her vaguely special or remotely memorable. You’re most likely to remember her perm before her person. Later Beatty squeeze Diane Keaton was considered, but Warren was fixated on his ex, and besides, Keaton’s mouth was like “Fort Knox”.

Beatty makes some gestures towards things that are important (his grandest would be “For Jules” with Reds, which is rather flagrantly saying “Look, I can be serious too. Don’t you want me back now?”) Joe is a fitness freak who drinks liver and whey shakes. When confronted with Leo’s investments, he nixes the Haitian arrangement because sugar is no good for you (this doesn’t prevent Joe from sipping a Coke later; sugar may be no good for you, but product placement is an enormous boon). Exo-Grey has its own West Coast nuclear plant; oblivious to the nuke lie*, Joe becomes concerned over the potential health hazards of such an operation. He also tells Betty the village of Pagglesham will be fine; they’ll build the refinery elsewhere. And he’s terribly savvy when it comes to simple, honest folk who would rather spend a little extra for a product knowing they’ll save the environment, and especially porpoises (“Would you pay a penny to save the fish who thinks?”) Naturally, this doesn’t go down well with the board, the stock price entering freefall. 

If I were to criticise Heaven Can Wait, it wouldn’t be for the breezy nature of the movie’ it would be because you can’t see the graft that went into it on screen. Tootsie was a pain to make, but it’s very obvious just how honed and refined the material was. Heaven Can Wait’s production was, by all accounts, awash with typical Beatty prevaricating. That’s fine if it’s a Reds, but how do you justify it here, when you don’t see the fruits of the laborious shoot, when you simply get solid results in every department, rather than great ones? You don’t really feel Beatty’s films are directed – like many actor-directors – which isn’t such a dent to the romcom or the sub-Lean, vista-driven epic (Attenborough, Beatty’s Reds, Costner). 

Henry found Beatty a massive pain – as invariably does everyone working with him – and realised he wasn’t really co-directing. He couldn’t go home, however, as he was also acting in the thing. When you think of those Best Picture nominated comedies, they invariably stand out in terms of lines, scenarios, dialogue (Tootise, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Annie Hall). You’ll remember the rom in Heaven Can Wait, and the fantasy, but you’ll be hard-pressed to recall the com (excepting that the trio of Grodin, Cannon and Warden are first-rate comic performers).

The spiritual conceit of Heaven Can Wait, that it isn’t yet someone’s time, was also explored in other 1940s movies (A Matter of Life and Death). The possession of a new body in cinema, though, is generally tackled with more of a horror tinge. Unless you’re Quantum Leap, where Sam enacts a weekly walk-in at a crucial point in someone’s life before walking-out again; one might, possibly, see something of that idea in the Leo plotline, since while Leo will not get to live a life – he was, after all, dying anyway – his murderers are brought to justice. The idea presented is also decidedly unnuanced, that the soul can fit into any soon-to-be-vacated vassal and the two aren’t, in fact, nigh-on exclusively symbiotic/ mutually dependent relationships. We can, at least, be grateful the arrangement isn’t directly to anyone’s cost, in contrast to the extremely icky Wonder Woman 1984, where the deceased Steve Austin barges aside a minding-his-own-business occupant so Diana Prince can get hot and steamy.

Buck Henry didn’t let his own disapproval of the concept hinder his involvement: “Much as I loathed some of the script – because I don’t believe we come back – I knew that it was going to work”. Seeing Heaven Can Wait as offering a simple reincarnation metaphor makes more sense than a walk-in one, at least in terms of the final scene; despite a different body and personality, there’s mutual recognition between Betty and Joe, which is what any romantically minded audience member wants to see. If the standard walk-in moves on with their life as if nothing has happened (The Twilight Zone’s The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank, barring the funeral), that’s actually the end point of Heaven Can Wait, and that’s Tom’s story, rather than Joe’s; Joe would usually be the one walking out, as the soul recently attached to the mortal coil.

Heaven Can Wait only allows such happenings as a rather fractious exchange programme. Mostly, though, the movie succeeds because it’s working from a principle of universal innocuousness, a little like Beatty and his eager-to-please star persona. Heaven Can Wait offers audience a wholesome Warren they can like, and a vision of the afterlife and its operation that is wholly benign and fair-minded. It will even guarantee you Julie Christie again and again and again, which is much more than its star could muster.

*Addendum 24/06/23: I’ve been chasing the wrong conspiracy with that one, it seems. It’s almost inevitable that, when you think you’ve grasped the nettle of some subjects, you instead get stung to blue blazes. There’s long-standing theorising concerning the legitimacy of the nuke threat, and of nuclear technology generally, it took me a while to warm to it (probably in the last three or four years). Warm to it I did, though, and it seemed Q & A answers were confirming the counterfeit nature of the subject (this, however, as tends to be the case, was based on misconception of the parameters of the response).

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