One of the most endearing love stories of the ’70s, Heaven Can Wait boasts an incredible amount of talent in front of and behind the camera. The flawless cast includes Warren Beatty, Dyan Cannon, Julie Christie, Vincent Gardenia, Charles Grodin, Buck Henry, James Mason, and Jack Warden; the script was written by Beatty, Henry, Elaine May, and Oscar-winner Robert Towne; and the picture was co-directed by Beatty and Henry. With notorious perfectionist Beatty orchestrating the contributions of these remarkable people, Heaven Can Wait unfolds seamlessly, mixing jokes and sentiment in an old-fashioned crowd-pleaser that’s executed so masterfully one can enjoy the film’s easy pleasures without feeling guilty afterward.
Furthermore, the fact that the underlying material is recycled rather than original works in the picture’s favor—Beatty found a story that had already been proven in various different incarnations, cleverly modernized the narrative, and built on success. No wonder the film became a massive hit, landing at No. 5 on the list of the year’s top grossers at the U.S. box office and earning a slew of Oscar nominations.
The story is fanciful in the extreme. After Joe Pendleton (Beatty), a second-string quarterback for the L.A. Rams, gets into a traffic accident, his soul is summoned to heaven by The Escort (Henry), an overeager guardian angel. Only it turns out Pendleton wasn’t fated to die in the accident, so in trying to save Pendleton pain, The Escort acted too hastily. Enter celestial middle manager Mr. Jordan (Mason), who offers to return Pendleton’s soul to earth. Little problem: His body has already been cremated. Pendleton adds another wrinkle by stating that he still intends to play in the upcoming Super Bowl. Eventually, Mr. Jordan finds a replacement body in the form of Leo Farnsworth, a ruthless, super-rich industrialist.
Joe becomes Farnsworth—although we see Beatty, other characters see the industrialist—and Joe uses his new body’s resources to buy the Rams so he can play for the team. The delightful storyline also involves Joe’s beloved coach (Warden), Farnsworth’s conniving wife and assistant (Cannon and Grodin), and the beautiful activist (Christie) campaigning against Farnsworth’s ecologically damaging business practices.
Heaven Can Wait is a soufflé in the mode of great ’30s screen comedy, featuring a procession of sly jokes, inspirational moments, and adroit musical punctuation. Every actor contributes something special—including Gardenia, who plays a detective investigating misdeeds on the Farnsworth estate—and the memorable moments are plentiful. Beatty’s legendary charm dominates, but in such a soft-spoken way that he never upstages his supporting players; Heaven Can Wait features some of the most finely realized ensemble acting in ’70s screen comedy. And, as with the previous screen version of this story—1941’s wonderful Here Comes Mr. Jordan, which was adapted, like the Beatty film, from Harry Seagall’s play Heaven Can Wait—the ending is unexpectedly moving. Whatever Heaven Can Wait lacks in substance, it makes up for in pure cotton-candy pleasure.
Heaven Can Wait: RIGHT ON