Heaven Can Wait (1978): Warren Beatty’s Oscar Winning Romantic Comedy, Starring Julie Christie and Himself

Warren Beatty’s feature directorial debut (with Buck Henry) is a swinging romantic screwball comedy that has nothing to do with Lubitsch’s 1943 film of that title. It’s a loose remake of the 1941 screwball comedy, “Here Comes Mr. Jordan,” starring Robert Montgomery.

In his capacities as star, producer, and co-writer (with Elaine May, who would direct him in “Ishtar”), Beatty was the driving force behind this production, and he found himself on the cover of Time magazine, when the movie became a blockbuster.

Not only the public loved it, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences too, showering on the film nine Oscar Award nominations, including Best Picture.

Beatty stars as Joe Pendelton, a quarterback of the Los Angeles Rams, who after a car accident, is prematurely summoned to Heaven by a messenger who calls himself “The Escort” (played by co-director Buck Henry).

Once there, the archangel Mr. Jordan (a delectable James Mason) tries to make him repent for his sins by sending him back to Earth, albeit in the body of a rich industrialist just moments after he is murdered by his sexy, adulterous wife, Julia Farnworth (Dyan Cannon).

The film’s funniest characters are Joes’ wife Julia and her lover, the secretary Tony Abbott (played by comedian actor Charles Grodin), a pair of scheming, would-be murderers. One of the murderers, expecting any minute to be discovered, says to his accomplice when the police are about to enter the drawing room, “Pick up ‘The Fountainhead’ and pretend to be reading.”

Determined to play in the Super Bowl, Joe buys the rams and hires his old coach, Max Corkle (Jack Warden) to train him, but not before convincing him that he has been reincarnated.

The romantic interest is the lovely Julie Christie, who plays Betty Logan, a British environmental activist, and shows strong chemistry with her lead man (and offscreen lover)..

Whimsical in a pleasant, frivolous way, “Heaven Can Wait” was a star vehicle, but more than anything else, it served as a reminder to all the great screwball comedies Hollywood used to make in the 1930s and 1940s.

Most film reviewers embraced the romantic comedy, which was supremely produced, particularly the snowy white sequences in Heaven. However, one of the dissenting voices belonged to the New York Times critics, Vincent Canby, who observed that in a peace time, life-after-death doesn’t excite as much as the original “Here Comes Mr. Jordan” did during war, or perhaps, we are more sophisticated today.

Paramount (Dogwood Production)

Oscar Nominations: 9

Picture, produced by Warren Beatty
Directors: Warren Beatty and Buck Henry
Actor: Warren Beatty
Supporting Actor: Jack Warden
Supporting Actress: Dyan Cannon
Screenplay (Adapted): Elaine May and Warren Beatty
Art Direction-Set Decoration: Paul Sylbert and Edwin O’Donovan; George Gaines
Cinematography: William A. Fraker
Original Score: Dave Grusin

Oscar Awards: 1

Art Direction-Set Decoration

Oscar Context:

In 1978, two Vietnam War films, “The Deer Hunter” and “Coming Home” swept most of the important Oscars. The Cinematography Oscar winner was Nestor Almendros for “Days of Heaven,” and the Score Award went to Giorgio Moroder for “Midnight Express.”