Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: Pixar’s Soul was supposed to hit theaters. In its absence, we’re looking back on other cinematic depictions of the afterlife.
Heaven Can Wait may have ended up a sweeping commercial and critical success, but any Hollywood oddsmaker would have pegged it as a potential disaster. Its development read like something out of an over-the-top industry satire; the budget was ridiculous (at least by ’70s standards); and the whole idea of making an earnest homage to the 1940s heyday of guardian-angel- and afterlife-based comedies had all the makings of a vanity project. Which, in a sense, it is, being a Warren Beatty movie—actually the famously difficult actor’s behind-the-camera debut, though it was co-directed with the writer and comedian Buck Henry. It shares with the later (but similarly quirky) Beatty directorial efforts like Dick Tracy and Rules Don’t Apply a nostalgia for wish fulfillment and purportedly lost American innocence.
In Heaven Can Wait (which, confusingly, isn’t a remake of 1943’s Heaven Can Wait but of 1941’s Here Comes Mr. Jordan), Beatty plays Joe Pendleton, a good-natured, soprano-saxophone-playing backup quarterback for the L.A. Rams who is mistakenly sent to the hereafter after a car accident. Though Joe wasn’t actually due to die until 2025, his remains have already been cremated; the best that the angelic management type Mr. Jordan (James Mason) can offer is a fresh corpse.
The quarterback ends up picking the body of the filthy rich industrialist Leo Farnsworth, who has just been murdered by his scheming wife Julia (Dyan Cannon) and “personal private executive secretary” Tony Abbott (Charles Grodin). Joe is less attracted by Farnsworth’s material possessions than by the prospect of wooing Betty (Julie Christie), an activist who has come to protest his latest development project. In light of Beatty’s somewhat left-of-Hollywood leanings (his next project would be Reds), it’s hard to overlook the movie’s politics. At one point, Beatty had even considered casting the former politician and anti-war Democratic primary candidate Eugene McCarthy for the role of Mr. Jordan.
But this sort of rooting for the common man was arguably as much of a throwback as the movie’s style. Though very much a product of New Hollywood creative freedom, Heaven Can Wait seemed out-of-time in the late ’70s. It’s old-fashioned and set-bound. Neither Beatty nor Henry (who also plays the rookie angel responsible for the mix-up that sends Joe to the afterlife) had ever directed a movie, and there are a few clunky moments. A lot of it takes place in a single house and involves the kind of intrigues that typified an earlier era; much of the rest centers on the aggressively uncinematic subject of American football.
Yet this is a movie with a surplus of winning charm, kept in an unlikely balance by Beatty and an exceptionally good supporting cast—including all of the above-mentioned actors as well as Jack Warden, who plays Joe’s coach. One thing that might stick out to a modern viewer is that Joe, with his love of the soprano sax and his less-than-convincing football prowess (Beatty was at least 15 years too old to play a late ’70s NFL player), is not all that different from the kind of deluded overgrown goofball characters that Will Ferrell would play more than three decades later. The difference is at least partly in the sweetness and restraint of the performance.
One of the kookier details of Heaven Can Wait’s production backstory is that it was originally developed by Beatty as a starring vehicle for Muhammad Ali, in which the Joe Pendleton character would be a boxer, as in the original Here Comes Mr. Jordan. It’s an idea that sounds intriguing (given Ali’s outspoken charisma) and would unquestionably have been much more politicized, but it’s hard to square it with the finished product. Despite the fact that it’s a fantasy about reincarnation and the great beyond, Heaven Can Wait is a movie without visual effects. Instead, its humor depends to a large extent on screwball dynamics and the sincerity of Beatty’s Joe.