“Joe, come here. Look at me and listen carefully to what I’m saying. This is not a dream… You know that this is not life. And you know now that this is not a dream. This is a place that comes after life and after dreams. I’m sure you’re aware of that, and you’ll take your place with the others.” – Mr. Jordan
In Heaven Can Wait (directed by Warren Beatty and Buck Henry), one cannot avoid pain, not in life anyway (and even the afterlife holds frustrations). And further, one should not avoid pain, even needless or unfair pain, because avoidance begets more pain it seems, as we see one character attempt to pull a person from potential pain and … mess up his life. And he really does mess up his life – he essentially kills him.
The character, our hero, isn’t himself anymore, not in his physical form, and he struggles with something common in people but one that is made literal – identity and recognition. Can anyone see me? He’s now seen his best friend grief stricken, he’s going to have to find another body to inhabit, a body that comes with a wife and secretary who are scheming to murder him (and murder him again) and … he won’t be able to play in the Super Bowl. That’s a lot of bad things. And then, worse, when he finally falls in love with his dream girl, he’s going to have to die – for the second time (or the third time). This is all because of a mistake of God, or rather, the mess up of divine intervention, which is a pretty colossal fuggup. I thought of Bigger Than Life’s James Mason (who co-stars in this film as a celestial entity with his celestial voice) insanely yelling, “God was wrong!” and that he’s almost right because, here, it’s not God who was wrong, exactly, but an incompetent, well-meaning newbie working under God who was wrong. Life is so loony that the afterlife is loony as well. Or at least, not perfect. And life is sad. And sweet. And nasty. And hopeful. And, for one character by the end, quietly devastating.
This all overcame me as I was re-watching Heaven Can Wait (co-written by Beatty with the great Elaine May) after not seeing the film in quite a few years. How crazy and touching this all was. I was vaguely worried the picture would play as too slight or overly frothy (I’ve heard that word – frothy or like a summer beach read in regards to this film) – and I’m not sure why because the movie has always haunted me in a liltingly charming way (I can even summon the off-key saxophone playing – same goes for Warren Beatty declaring, “I’m Joe Pendleton!” with those pleading eyes). But watching its star Beatty beginning the picture as Los Angeles Ram Joe Pendleton in that small, Los Angeles hilltop house, wearing that heather grey sweat suit, I knew the movie was going to work in a deceptively deeper way. Why? Because Beatty’s “light” touch as an actor, and his timing, both comically and emotionally, is so deft, that his uncomplicated character (who will become complicated and even darker by film end) is immediately moving and mystifying. He’s a regular guy, yes, but also so extraordinarily nice as to be not of this earth (who on earth is that nice?). He even seems a bit lonely in that little hideaway. Like the innocent brother to Shampoo’s George Roundy is up on that same Californian hilltop that Julie Christie left him on – and he has no idea what’s in store for him.
Up at that isolated house, Beatty’s Joe is visited by his best friend, Max (Jack Warden), his trainer who has brought him a sweet birthday cake. Yes, it’s Joe’s birthday and Joe is touched by this – he figured no one knew – which gives you a clue about his life or privacy, or maybe even how he’s worried about aging. Max informs Joe that he’s going to start as quarterback for the Super Bowl and Joe is elated – he’s getting older, he’s been backup, there’s not much to his life it appears (he’s watching old games on a projector in his living room) and he’s finally getting his shot. And then, he rides his bike into a tunnel, is hit by an oncoming vehicle and dies. He’s now in a way station in heaven and deeply confused (he’s also doing push-ups in the fog – he is clearly not accepting death). And for good reason – his heavenly “Escort” (Buck Henry) has fudged the date – Joe isn’t supposed to pass until 2025. It’s the Escort’s first assignment under Mr. Jordan (James Mason) and he didn’t want poor Joe Pendleton to feel the impact of the truck – he didn’t want him to endure pain. Well … this has now caused much more pain, and as I said, life is a lot of pain and this guy should know that. Joe Pendleton knows it – he’s a football player.
But as this early exit is unjust or perhaps, will screw up the flow of heaven (something) Joe’s got to get his life back. But – a problem – he’s been cremated. Well, he’s going to have to switch bodies with another person about to pass on. (This sounding silly? Who cares – it worked then and it works now and it worked in 1941 with Here Comes Mr. Jordan, which this movie is a remake of). Joe’s then switched into the body of an eccentric billionaire named Leo Farnsworth – a choice Joe makes after he’s smitten by Betty (Julie Christie) a British schoolteacher demanding to see the industrialist in regard to a factory he’s building in her small town. Mr. Jordan agrees to this temporary arrangement – and I guess it is fated that Farnsworth’s murderous wife (Dyan Cannon) and his secretary (Charles Grodin) with whom she’s having an affair, will eventually finalize the deed by murdering him, hence, this momentary life. Mr. Jordan doesn’t explain enough until the end, but before the finale, Joe convinces Max he’s actually Joe and not Leo Farnsworth, gets him to train him for a try-out and then buys the Los Angeles Rams. He accomplishes a lot and in such an agreeable way – but he’s going to have to die again which is – painful. Not just for him (he’s in love) but for Betty who loves him back, and for poor Max who will have to endure his friend dying, again.
This screwball, celestial story, so well crafted by May and Beatty (adapted from a play by Harry Segall) often feels less like the original picture (Beatty is much different in this role than Robert Montgomery – softer, sadder) and more like part of a Frank Capra movie. I kept thinking of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Gary Cooper’s beatific performance – a masculine guy who wants to save damsels in distress, but a sensitive fellow who doesn’t care for snobs making fun of him or for butlers helping him with his clothes. Even the fantastic, hilariously breathless speech Beatty gives at Leo’s board meeting is like a serious Capra moment done daffy – an idealistic guy who wants to play for the good team:
“It’s like when everybody was supposed to stop eating grapes. I didn’t because I like grapes. A lot of guys will keep eating tuna. What if we had a good-guy tuna company on the porpoise team? A lot of guys would buy that so their kids wouldn’t get mad at them. I don’t think they’re taking into account the expense. We don’t care how much it costs, just how much it makes. If it costs too much, we charge a penny more. Would you pay more to save a fish who thinks? We handle all lawsuits that way. Let other teams build plants in the wrong places. Let the other quarterback throw a gurgle so newspapers get hold of it and stockholders don’t like it. Let’s be the team that makes the rules, plays fair, that gets the best contract, that’s popular. Forget these nuclear power plants until we know they’re safe. That Pagglesham refinery, we’ll have to relocate it. It’ll cost us 35 million dollars, but we don’t care, because we’ll come out ahead in the end. That plastic stuff we’re making, we’ll have to stop. We’re not here for just one game. We’re going all the way to the Super Bowl! And we’ll already have won!”
The perfected timing and cadence of Beatty here is so beautiful and charming – he’s so persuasive that we’re laughing, not at him, but at the faces of the board members, and cheering him on for his spirit and naiveté (though his ideas aren’t bad). Beatty has that same lovely quality of Cooper – playing an uncomplicated man but not a stupid man, an idealistic, unsophisticated man, but not a rube, and one who learns that life is a bit darker than he thought, or, is more in touch with darkness than the audience anticipates? Does he know a lot more than he lets on? He even lumbers around the mansion much like Cooper does in Mr. Deeds (Beatty is often running down the hallways, yelling for servants in a good natured way, tossing his napkin down after dinner and thanking everyone), and this kind of performance is not as easy as it looks. There’s a wistfulness to Beatty underneath his innocence, as if somewhere along the edges of his mind, he knows the ending for him – one in which he’ll not remember who he is. And that ending, by the time the picture settles on Jack Warden’s revelation that he’s lost his friend (watching it again this time, I was fearful Warden might go a little crazy wondering if he had imagined all this in his grief), is not full of darkness but full of sadness. And loss.
The final, melancholic act finds Joe placed in the body of quarterback Tom Jarrett, (with his memory as Joe being erased). Jarret’t a nice guy, but a steelier-seeming fellow over Joe Pendleton – we feel he’s not as warm. Or maybe because we, as the audience, have to try to strain to know this new guy, we imagine him to be less sweet, a little harder than Joe. Beatty is so good at this subtle shift that we almost lean into his eyes to study them for recognition – as if we want him to know who we are too – and worry that we’ll feel rejected by him. With this, Heaven Can Wait not only studies both grief and a new life, a second chance, and the performances that can be our lives (Joe’s got to perform as Leo in many ways), but also works allegorically – how we feel if someone doesn’t see us. How we want people to see us for who we are – from Joe yearning to be seen as Joe, and for people to see us, the person they love, like Max straining to find Joe within Jarrett. And Betty seeing Joe. Does she see Joe? Are there any traces of Joe’s spirit in Jarrett? We have no idea and the movie is not going to tell us – we’re left with the belief that Betty and Jarrett/Joe have some kind of future together. And maybe they do. If so, we get a feeling it’ll be a complex future, and not devoid of pain, which they’re not going to be able to avoid, nor should they. She’s in a love triangle with a dead man who does not remember who he is. Nevertheless, they need to try. No one said life was easy. Or fair. And in this case, heaven, either.