Beatty’s directorial debut comes to Blu-ray with all its ethereal heart and hilarity.
In a way, there was never stopping Warren Beatty. That mix of devilish good looks and unique acting energy was an inevitable force that was always destined to take charge of the screen at a time when cinema was on the brink of revolution. It didn’t take long for Beatty to become a bona fide movie star sensation with Splendor in the Grass and The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone before eventually turning into a movie mogul thanks to his creation and shepherding of Bonnie and Clyde and Shampoo. His star persona, infamous love life, and notorious perfectionism wasted no time in granting him lifelong fame. But his eye for projects no one believed in and his ability to bring them to the screen, no matter how long and painstaking the process, is what has made Beatty one of the most iconic movie stars in film history.
Naturally, directing had to follow. It’s tough to imagine what Beatty had in mind for his directorial debut, but a remake of a warm-hearted comedy that doubled as a tale about the afterlife and a love story must’ve surprised even Beatty himself.
Originally conceived by him as a starring vehicle for Muhammed Ali, Heaven Can Wait stars Beatty as Joe Pendleton, a quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams who, following a car crash, is sent to heaven by accident. When the mistake is caught, head boss Mr. Jordan (James Mason) proposes a solution: He will put Joe into the body of a man who is recently deceased until a new one can be found. The body in question belongs to Leo Farnsworth, a loathed industrialist who has just been murdered by his wife Julia (Dyan Cannon) and his secretary Tony (Charles Grodin). Joe tries to get his own life back through the help of his trainer Max (Jack Warden), the only person Joe confides in. But Julia and Tony’s repeated attempts on Farnsworth’s life and the presence of beautiful environmentalist Betty (Julie Christie) threaten to change everything.
The element which will immediately hit anyone who watches Heaven Can Wait for the first time is the humor. The film is such a delightful romp, with gags that offer up a blend of slapstick and farce while remaining a mature comedy. Beatty had done comedy before, but often played the straight man to co-stars like Goldie Hawn and Jack Nicholson. Here, so many of the laughs come from Beatty himself. His sudden impulse to start doing push-ups in heaven, his nonchalant attitude at dinner as his wife and secretary are plotting their next move, and his energetic monologue to Farnsworth’s board members where he equates business to what it takes to have a winning season, all show a giddy, off-the-wall Beatty who is willing to put himself out there for the laughs. Whether it was the fact this was the most control he’d had on a project up to this point or something else entirely, so rarely had the actor been this free and open with himself as a performer than he was here.
But Beatty is also generous enough to share the laughter with his more than capable cast. Warden is a hoot as Max. His disbelief when he first encounters Joe in his temporary body isn’t overdone. Instead, the way Warden plays his character’s disbelief from scene to scene is in line with the very specific comedic strokes Beatty is going for. The heartiest laughs belong to Cannon and Grodin; the pair’s relentless attempts on Farnsworth’s life are the kind of comedy gold that’s just timeless. Cannon’s reaction to seeing the man she thought she’d killed is pitch perfect in its effect, while Grodin is a scream in Tony’s need to keep the situation under control. The reason it all works is because Beatty lets his actors be funny. Along with co-director Buck Henry, who also has a supporting role, Beatty knows what these people are all capable of and he uses them to the greatest of comedic effect.
There’s a tremendous amount of heart beneath the comedy of Heaven Can Wait as two different love stories emerge. The first is the one between Joe and Max. Trainer and star player, father and son—the two men are everything to each other and easily the most important figures in each other’s lives. When Joe dies, it’s Max who is the last one to leave the cemetery, and as soon as Joe gets his bearings as Farnsworth, Max is the only one he trusts with the truth. Seeing the pair’s interactions both pre-Farnsworth and post-Joe shows a camaraderie that stands as the movie’s purest aspect. This is driven home most in the final moments in the Rams locker room, where we see the bond between the two come through like never before. Beatty had always enjoyed a solid rapport with his male co-stars, but he and Warden shared a chemistry that cannot help but make a moviegoer smile.
The other love story between Joe and Betty may be a little on the conventional side and, admittedly, is the only time when Heaven Can Wait feels familiar. But there’s such loveliness in witnessing two people from different parts of the globe being brought together by otherwordly forces that even they’re unaware of. It’s hard not to be the slightest bit touched by this pair discovering each other as such madcap action takes place around them. There’s a deep sensitivity to scenes between the two as they actually look at the person in front of them and perhaps reassess who they believed they were themselves.
The movie’s surreal elements factor in less during these moments than they do in the rest of Heaven Can Wait until the very last scene; it’s then that the true essence of Beatty’s film shows itself. For all the laughter and heart, Heaven Can Wait is about souls finding each other not once, but twice.
Heaven Can Wait existed as an earlier version before Beatty decided to take it on and was remade 25 years after his version had garnered acclaim and box-office receipts. Cannon and Warden both received Oscar nominations, as did Beatty himself. The new director ended up being the first person nominated for Best Actor, Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Adapted Screenplay (shared with the talented Elaine May) in a single year. It was a feat he would repeat five years later with his follow-up effort, Reds, for which he did win the Oscar for Best Director.
Even though Beatty’s output behind the camera has been sparse since then, the intense, unwavering commitment he has towards his projects remains. Dick Tracy was a game changer in the way comics could be translated to the screen (not to mention giving Beatty the biggest hit of his career), while Bulworth was praised for its subtext and sharp political satire. If Beatty’s most recent outing, 2016’s Rules Don’t Apply, didn’t connect the way it should have, it doesn’t take away from a career rich in the kind of risks, determination, vision, and artistry that have made him “The Pro.”
Heaven Can Wait is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Paramount.