DirectorWarren Beatty, Buck Henry
Release Date(s)1978 (November 30, 2021)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: B-
- Extras Grade: F
Heaven Can Wait is a 1978 romantic comedy that tells the story of Joe Pendleton (Warren Beatty), a quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams whose dreams of reaching the Superbowl are cut short in a fatal accident during training. On his way to heaven, he finds out that someone made a rookie mistake and he shouldn’t have died yet, so he’s offered the opportunity to return to Earth in a different body, and ends up in the body of the wealthy industrialist Leo Farnsworth instead. Pendleton can’t give up his dream of winning the Superbowl, so he decides to right the wrongs in Farnsworth’s life and train his new body to reach the same goal. Yet he finds that fate is a fickle mistress, and that there are angels on earth as well as in heaven...
Heaven Can Wait was Beatty’s first directorial effort, in this case working in collaboration with Buck Henry. Beatty co-wrote the screenplay with the legendary Elaine May (as well as the uncredited script doctor Robert Towne), based on—well, that’s where things get a little complicated. Heaven Can Wait bears no relationship to Ernst Lubitsch’s 1943 film of the same name, but is instead an ostensible remake of the 1941 film Here Comes Mr. Jordan, which was itself based on a 1938 play by Harry Segall called... Heaven Can Wait. (The game of musical titles continued when Segall’s play finally reached Broadway in 1946 under the title Wonderful Journey, where it quickly sank without a trace.) In all of the previous versions of the story, the protagonist was a boxer, and Beatty initially developed the project with the hopes of luring Muhammad Ali out of the ring and into the lead role. When that didn’t work out, Beatty took over the part of Joe Pendleton and reworked the script to turn him into a football player instead—Beatty was much more comfortable throwing a football than he was throwing a punch. He was a bit less comfortable making his directorial debut working both sides of the camera, which is why he brought in Henry to assist.
One of Beatty’s greatest strengths as a director has been his uncanny knack to surround himself with the strongest collaborators on both sides of the camera, and Heaven Can Wait was no exception. He’s been willing to take on risky passion projects like Reds and Bulworth, but he’s never taken any risks whatsoever in the actual filmmaking process. For Heaven Can Wait, in addition to working with the likes of Henry, May, Towne, cinematographer William A. Fraker, production designer Paul Sylbert, and composer Dave Grusin, he also assembled a fabulous cast. The film would be his third and final collaboration with the luminous Julie Christie, and the rest of the supporting cast includes James Mason, Jack Warden, Dyan Cannon, Charles Grodin, and Henry. Even the smaller parts are filled with memorable faces like Vincent Gardenia, Hamilton Camp, Arthur Malet, Dolph Sweet, R.G. Armstrong, John Randolph, and William Sylvester. The film also gains authenticity in the professional football milieu not just by licensing actual NFL teams like the Rams, but also by using real sports personalities like Dick Enberg, Curt Gowdy, and Deacon Jones.
Heaven Can Wait was a sizable hit in 1978, and it also garnered nine Oscar nominations including Best Picture. It was only the second time in Academy history that a pair of directors received a nomination for Best Director, and it was the first time that the same person received nominations for Best Actor, Best Director, Best Picture (as producer), and Best Screenplay (Adapted). 1978 was the year of The Deer Hunter, Coming Home, and Midnight Express, so Heaven Can Wait had to settle for a single statue for Best Art Direction. Yet Beatty had the last laugh, as the success of the film gave him the leverage to get Paramount to back his passion project Reds, a film for which he would again receive four Oscar nominations, this time taking home a well-deserved award for Best Director. Yet despite its less consequential subject matter, Heaven Can Wait shouldn’t be dismissed as a lightweight film. It’s impeccably crafted, and it aptly demonstrates Beatty’s abundant gifts on both sides of the camera. It’s a nostalgic throwback to the golden age of Hollywood, incongruously made during the New Hollywood era of the Seventies. That’s entertainment.
Cinematographer William A. Fraker shot Heaven Can Wait on 35 mm film using Panaflex cameras with spherical lenses, framed at 1.85:1 for its theatrical release (which has been reframed here slightly at 1.78:1). Paramount describes this Blu-ray version as having been “remastered from the original negative under Beatty’s supervision,” and the results are quite good given the nature of the cinematography. Fraker used plenty of subtle diffusion filters to give the film a slightly gauzy, hazy look, which means that it can never be the last word in fine detail. The image is clean and the grain is subdued (with the exception of a few shots), so it’s possible that a bit of noise reduction has been applied, but not destructively so. The colors are generally muted with an emphasis on earth tones, but the green of the grass and the brighter colors on the football uniforms do stand out. The black levels are good and the contrast is solid, though the filters that Fraker used occasionally give the contrast a softer look as well. It’s not a reference image, but it appears to be accurate to Fraker and Beatty’s intentions for the film.
Primary audio is offered in English 2.0 mono Dolby TrueHD. The overall fidelity of the track is somewhat limited, but the dialogue is clear (if sometimes a bit thin and sibilant) and the score from the inimitable Grusin sounds fine despite being presented in mono. Additional audio options include German, Spanish (Spain), and French 2.0 mono Dolby Digital. Subtitle options include English, English SDH, German, Spanish (Spain), French, and Japanese.
Paramount’s Blu-ray for Heaven Can Wait includes a slipcover, as well as a Digital code on a paper insert. There are no extras on the disc—not even the theatrical trailer.
Considering that there are plenty of stories to tell about the making of Heaven Can Wait, the lack of TLC here is a little disappointing. Still, it’s a delight to finally get the film on Blu-ray, looking as good as it ever has—that’s always the most important thing.
- Stephen Bjork
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