This year marks 40 years since Paramount Pictures debuted its other big box office hit in 1978. Heaven Can Wait, not to be confused with the delightful Ernst Lubitsch comedy with the same title, was released within weeks of Paramount’s popular musical Grease. The light comedy, written by Elaine May and Warren Beatty, who also directed the motion picture with Buck Henry and took the lead, begins with an establishing shot of Los Angeles.
The movie opens without music, as if to underscore the remoteness of its main character, an athlete who plays the saxophone (badly) named Joe. This familiar tale blends elements of Here Comes Mr. Jordan and A Guy Named Joe. Beatty doesn’t stretch the material too thin. His professional football player lives by himself in a modest home in the hills, where he goes by a lonely but healthy routine, which he shares with his best friend and co-worker Max (Jack Warden in a career best performance).
While playing saxophone alone on his birthday, well past the expiration date stage of playing pro football, coach Max drives up in his Ford to bring Joe a birthday cake and a life-changing bit of good news. As Joe takes the jolt in stride, preparing for a pivotal opportunity which is an integral part of what makes this bittersweet romantic comedy one of the best movies of its time, he enters a dark tunnel. From the other side, it’s clear to the audience that a reckless driver enters the same tunnel seconds later.
The sound of silence follows the sound of mangling metal and sound is crucial in Heaven Can Wait, which indulges one’s senses in sweet, sloping dips, circles and loops. Then, Buck Henry appears with the manner of an efficiency expert or government bean counter. Soon, Henry’s escorting Joe to a place in the skies, where, with crisp sound punctuated by stretches of silence as if in a dream, the pair come across a supersonic jet boarding recently deceased passengers.
Joe refuses to board. Henry’s bureaucrat responds with a stern warning, causing his superior (James Mason in the perfect character role) to arrive on scene to correct any misunderstanding. Joe’s dressed down by celestial custodians: “Do not question the unifying principle.”
Joe merely wants to play ball, doing his workout, telling them he’s got to get ready for the big game, doing pushups in the cloud. This stylized take on a supernatural being and afterlife depicts heaven as fallible. Mistakes are made. Joe, who’s just had his second chance snatched away, responds to the injustice like a quarterback. The specter of an afterlife cutting short his life on earth circuitously stimulates him.
This is the main theme of Heaven Can Wait. That life should be passionate, strong and animated by the highest love — that life ought to be chosen consciously, embraced and lived fearlessly. Beatty, Henry and May keep the focus on life on earth, how and why man regards, chooses and lives it and why life on earth is all that matters. Details unfold around Joe’s embodiment of a wealthy businessman whose wife (Dyan Cannon, personifying the predatory spouse) and secretary (Charles Grodin, nailing the second-hander) are having an affair and plotting to murder him. It’s in their subplot that Ayn Rand makes an appearance for the sake of irony (“Pretend you’re reading The Fountainhead!”)
Joe’s first response to murder is to call for help. This speaks volumes about his character, which remains intact in each body Joe’s soul possesses. When a beautiful anti-capitalist (Julie Christie) shows up to challenge an imminent displacement caused by one of the businessman’s plans, his leadership skills come into play.
Against the murderers, frauds from every angle and ultimately inconsequential, Warren Beatty‘s quarterback’s single-mindedness prevails with mastery of the arrangements for his new life. So, the upshot is that an athlete yearning for life re-activates himself with an almost godlike ability to set forth an extremely selfish pursuit of happiness.
Heaven Can Wait captures this with lightness, peppering scenes of Max and Joe discussing the afterlife with a harp in the background. Throughout the film, jaunty jazz and light classical music accompany and accentuate smooth, gauzy pictures. Crisp editing in a montage adds to the movie’s dreamlike aura.
Even as an eccentric businessman, whose body the audience never sees, Joe’s ability radiates. As he makes connections, Joe becomes more human, less rote. He falls in love.
“Don’t be afraid,” someone says. Like the harp, the sheen and the music, coupled with the tenderness of Warren Beatty in a kind of alternative ending role to his young jock Bud in Splendor in the Grass, the theme that going boldly, refusing to live in fear, in the pursuit of being alive is embroidered into every scene.
Look for cameos by players for the Los Angeles Rams and NBC Sports broadcasters such as Dick Enberg and Bryant Gumbel. But revel in the portrait of a man emboldened by the idea that reality to a certain degree is the ultimate arbiter, who takes up the romantic notion that one can always make one great play in the big game. Heaven Can Wait coasts, unspooling benevolent humor, along the way.
As it does, 40 years after it debuted in movie theaters, Warren Beatty’s most life-affirming film, with slapstick, skilled screenwriting and gorgeous leads, cinematography and a bright, white-yellow glow, renders a picture about loss, loneliness and alienation, too. It comes in the form of Mr. Beatty’s handsome, simple Joe. It comes in the solitary struggle of Julie Christie’s Betty Logan.
But it comes, and necessarily so, most poignantly in the arc of the character played by Jack Warden. His Max is a wonder to watch. Max is filled with love for his young friend Joe and the sense of childlike play at the beginning of the film. Max turns sad and grieving in the middle. By the end, he is shocked, sobered and wiser, if left alone with the saxophone with which he first found Joe at home, This bittersweet fable about life and the fear (and fact) of losing it. Heaven Can Wait, is not downward. It is also not ridiculous. This is an accomplishment, particularly for a modern film about achieving, remaking and choosing passion and clarity in life.
There’s a magical quality to Heaven Can Wait. It isn’t made with magical realism like today’s absurdist films. It’s made with realism, it’s stroked with romantic optimism and it’s as clear as the sound of footsteps in a long and empty hallway. This, in essence, distinguishes Heaven Can Wait from the heartache of Somewhere in Time, the lessons of Hearts and Souls, the triumph of the ordinary in Defending Your Life, each indelible magic-themed movies about the power of free will. Heaven Can Wait casts a glow of California sunshine, evoking Elysian Fields amid its lines of scrimmage, letting three lonely souls play softly at the matter of life and death. It’s the rare film about heaven that leaves you feeling on top of the world while keeping a sense of the world as it is.