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 Heaven Can Wait

Heaven Can Wait (1978)

1978 was a year of serious films that examined the sexual, political and social upheavals that had swept the country during the previous decade. So it was a surprise when one of the most political and provocative filmmakers of the era made a sweetly retro romantic fantasy that became one of the biggest hits of the year. Warren Beatty produced, co-directed, and co-wrote, as well as starred in Heaven Can Wait (1978), a remake of Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941). The story, in the original film, was about a boxer named Joe Pendleton, who is prematurely escorted into the afterlife by a bumbling heavenly messenger, and must find another body to inhabit so he can live out his allotted days. Beatty wanted boxer Muhammad Ali to star, but Ali wisely decided to stick to boxing, and Beatty decided to play the part himself. Beatty knew nothing about boxing, but had played high school football, so he changed the character to a Los Angeles Rams quarterback.

The reason Beatty chose such an unlikely project, he told the press, was that he was planning to direct the enormously complicated Reds (1981), and decided he needed something simpler for his directing debut. According to some sources, however, Beatty had first approached Peter Bogdanovich, Mike Nichols, and Arthur Penn to direct Heaven Can Wait. But those directors all knew how hands-on Beatty was in shaping every film he produced, and turned him down. Once he decided to direct and write Heaven Can Wait himself, Beatty enlisted Buck Henry as co-director, and Elaine May as co-writer. Henry also played the hapless escort whose mistake sets Joe's predicament in motion.

Beatty had some grandiose notions about who should play Mr. Jordan, the celestial administrator who tries to straighten out the mess the escort has made. He wanted Cary Grant, who would have been ideal, but Grant had retired a dozen years earlier, and had no interest in returning to the screen. Beatty also considered his political mentor, former Senator Eugene McCarthy, the anti-war Democrat who ran for president in 1968. James Mason ultimately played the role, elegantly and with great authority.

Beatty persuaded his former lover Julie Christie to play his love interest in Heaven Can Wait, although their affair was over. And although their past relationship reportedly caused some tensions during production, their onscreen chemistry remained dazzling. Unable to leave his (and Christie's) political convictions completely out of the film, Beatty made Christie's character an environmental activist who challenges the millionaire developer whose body Joe Pendleton has inhabited. Playing the millionaire's scheming wife and her lover were Dyan Cannon and Charles Grodin, who both gave outstanding comic performances. Cannon was nominated for an Oscar®, as was Jack Warden, who played Joe's coach. Former Rams Deacon Jones, Les Josephson, and Jack T. Snow as football players, and real-life sportscasters Bryant Gumbel and Curt Gowdy added to the atmosphere.

Heaven Can Wait was an enormous success, taking in $77 million. And the critics liked it as much as the public. Frank Rich of the New York Times wrote that Heaven Can Wait "has everything going for it: big laughs, populist politics, billowy sequences set in heaven, a murder plot, a climactic Super Bowl game, a supporting cast of choice comic actors, and best of all, a touching (but PG) romance...." According to Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times, "What Heaven Can Wait preserves and presents is a wonderful innocence - funny, lyrically romantic and optimistic."

At Oscar® time, Heaven Can Wait earned nine nominations. Beatty was nominated in four different categories: actor, director, writer, and producer of a Best Picture nominee. He was only the second person to achieve that grand slam -- the first was Orson Welles for Citizen Kane (1941). Warden and Cannon received supporting actor and actress nominations, and the film was also nominated for cinematography, musical score, and art direction. But in this year of big pictures with serious themes, The Deer Hunter and Coming Home took most of the major awards. Heaven Can Wait won only one, for art direction. But three years later, Beatty was again nominated in the four major categories, for Reds. That film earned a total of 12 nominations, and won three awards, including Best Director for Beatty.

Director: Warren Beatty, Buck Henry
Producer: Warren Beatty
Screenplay: Warren Beatty, Elaine May, based on the play by Harry Segall
Cinematography: William A. Fraker
Editor: Robert C. Jones, Don Zimmerman
Costume Design: Theadora Van Runkle, Richard Bruno
Art Direction: Edwin O'Donovan
Music: Dave Grusin
Principal Cast: Warren Beatty (Joe Pendleton), Julie Christie (Betty Logan), James Mason (Mr. Jordan), Jack Warden (Max Corkle), Charles Grodin (Tony Abbott), Dyan Cannon (Julia Farnsworth), Buck Henry (The Escort), Vincent Gardenia (Det. Lt. Krim).
C-101m. Letterboxed.

by Margarita Landazuri

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