Heaven Can Wait
Artificial and other
natural ingredients

by Lynette Carpenter

from Jump Cut, no. 21, Nov. 1979, pp. 5-6
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1979, 2005

HEAVEN CAN WAIT is a very promising film. From the moment that the Ram coaches appear on the screen in their Bermuda shorts, it promises to be a funny film. From the moment that Julie Christie enters and begins her angry and persuasive plea on behalf of the people of Pagglesham, it promises to be a serious film. In fact, it promises to be more ambitious than its predecessor, HERE COMES MISTER JORDAN (1941), and most other Hollywood movies not only in its political commitment to some fairly liberal causes, but also in allowing a strong woman character to verbalize that commitment. That most of these promises are unfulfilled or betrayed is unfortunate; the film's reputation as an expression of American liberalism is well deserved.

HEAVEN CAN WAIT is a funny film, one of the best comedies to come out of Hollywood in a long time. It is the product of some remarkable comic talents — Elaine May, who wrote most of the script; Warren Beatty, who wrote, directed, and produced the film; and Buck Henry, who co-directed. They have expertly exploited the comic situation of the athlete who returns to life as a millionaire, adding scenes and sequences suggested by but omitted from the original, such as the search for a suitable body. The dialogue demonstrates a skill for verbal humor, from Dyan Cannon's explosive pun (Mrs. Farnsworth, on the murder of her husband: "I should be canonized") to Charles Grodin's corporate double talk (Mr. Abbott, on the possibility that a company plant could stimulate seismic action in the San Andreas fault sufficient to destroy Southern California: "I think you'd have to define 'destroy.'"). Some old comic formulae reappear: Julia Farnsworth screams on cue following Farnsworth's line, "Miss Logan, I don't frighten anyone"; and Joe Pendleton interrupts his escort's explanation of the afterlife with an old coin trick. Then there are the visual gags — push-ups in the clouds, the flag ceremony, and others — and a musical score that contributes to the whole effect. Moreover, the humor succeeds due to the talents of several fine comic actors — Beatty, Cannon, Grodin, Henry, Jack Warden as Corkle, Joseph Mayer as Sisk, and Arthur Malet as his cocoa-toting assistant.

Yet the film tries to be more than a situation comedy; it tries for a political statement. In the original play, Heaven Can Wait, by Harry Segall, [1] and in the film, HERE COMES MISTER JORDAN, Bette Logan's mission is a private one: her father has been jailed for the mishandling of corporate funds in a plot engineered by Farnsworth. In the modern version, Logan's mission is part of a public protest against the corporation. She sets up the political dilemma of the film by angrily denouncing the free enterprise system's victimization of the economically powerless. Her force and cogency seem to suggest that she is articulating the film's values in calling for increased corporate responsibility. The rest of the film, however, is a cautiously devised retreat from this statement.

The audience is led to believe in Joe/Farnsworth as the champion of the ordinary individual. We are not allowed to consider that his earnings as a professional footabll player probably put him closer to Farnsworth's tax bracket than the average citizen's. Joe's heart seems to be in the right place: "Don't you think you could do something legal and still be wrong?" He is appalled to learn that merger rumors are leaked by the corporation in order to drive up the cost of stock: "But isn't that dishonest?" He is concerned about accusations made against the corporation — that its plants are environmentally unsafe; that its tuna canneries are killing and canning porpoises; that it has acquired property by bribery.

But the crucial scene is the board meeting. In a speech that usually evokes applause and cheers from the movie audience, Joe/ Farnsworth argues for a new company policy, modeled on the strategy of a winning football team at mid-season. If the company is making money, why not protect those profits by safeguarding against mistakes? Why not start "a good-guy tuna company that's on the porpoise team"? Why not, in short, institute a new policy of corporate responsibility? Such a policy would cost more, he admits: "But we don't care how much it costs, we just care how much it makes." This line is the real key to the film's political statement. We can't have our tuna and eat it too without paying for the privilege. By the end of the speech, in fact, the new advertising campaign is already under way: "Would you pay a penny extra to save a fish that thinks?"

Thus the film neatly disposes of the whole issue of corporate responsibility. Bette Logan returns to apologize for her outspokenness and falls in love with the hero, and he falls in with the ecology movement. Indeed, she not only apologizes, but she congratulates him on having done something "extraordinary." Yet the new corporate policy and the terms attached to it sound strikingly familiar. Was it AT&T that just demanded rate hikes so that they could continue their philanthropic activities at the current level? And how many food companies have taken the artificial preservatives out of their products in order to exploit consumer willingness to pay extra for "all natural" foods? Julia Farnsworth's confusion of the ecology group with the football team is understandable in this context; apparently, both can be bought. Philanthropy, alas, must earn its way in the world.

Ironically, the film purports to be like one of those cans of tuna that Joe/Farnsworth envisions. It sells purity of heart, which the public has been more than willing to buy. According to Variety, by early October it was running only slightly behind JAWS 2 in box office sales; the only other recent releases running ahead of these two were SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER and GREASE. [2] Joe/Farnsworth seems, indeed, to be an extension of the man Time calls Mister Hollywood, [3] the uncomfortable millionaire who passionately involves himself in the advertising and distribution of his films.

The Time article on Warren Beatty, which coincided with the film's release, is particularly revealing. Writer Frank Rich begins by developing his image of Beatty as a paradox:

"He is a millionaire many times over but lives in two small, slovenly kept hotel rooms. He travels with the fastest crowd in the country but rarely drinks and never snorts or smokes. He is offered the best jobs in his profession but turns most of them down. His idea of sin is to eat ice cream … His idea of heaven is to spend hours debating the pros and cons of Proposition 13. He wears dirty jeans three days in a row."

We get a more thorough description of those hotel rooms later in the article, just in case the three-day-old jeans make us wonder what Rich means by "slovenly kept." A perceptive reader might also wonder just how small two rooms in the Beverly Wilshire Hotel could possibly be. Yet the image is familiar — Beatty as the American Dream. He is the boy next door, clean-cut if not actually clean (boys will be boys, especially when they are bachelors), successful but not arrogant or pretentious. That he equates sin with eating ice cream, and debates both the cons and pros of Proposition 13 gives us a clue to his notorious liberalism. (A long-time campaigner for the Democratic Party, he once considered Eugene McCarthy for the role of Mr. Jordan.) A friend tells Rich:

"His appetite is epic. He looks at the world, and there are things in it he wants. There are things he must do. There are people he must have. His appetite is enormous, and he has a wonderful time getting what he wants."

This comment highlights the acquisitiveness and the impersonal manipulativeness behind the all-American success story as personified by Beatty, although such implications are continually overshadowed by Rich's emphasis on the star's boyish charm and supposed indifference to wealth. In fact, we are probably not intended to connect the Time cover story with Beatty's reported attention to the details of marketing his pictures, nor are we expected to recognize Rich's prediction that HEAVEN CAN WAIT "is sure to be the most popular entertainment of the summer" as a self-fulfilling prophecy. We are to forget that no one becomes a millionaire superstar-turned-producer/director without absorbing some basic Hollywood tenets about projecting the right image to the public. At heart, Beatty is just an average Joe, like Joe Pendleton in the film. His next project? Possibly a biography of Howard Hughes, Rich reports.

Certainly the film has given some much-needed publicity to the tuna boycott and other environmental issues. But these are fairly safe issues, and a strong position is not likely to offend anyone except tuna fishermen and corporations endangering the San Andreas Fault. On the key question of corporate responsibility, the film hedges, arguing for a good-hearted capitalism that is not only more pleasant but more profitable than bad-hearted capitalism. In this argument, it resembles another 1940s fantasy, MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (1947). In that film, a crisis occurs when Macy's executives discover that their Santa Claus has been sending customers to other stores for toys not available at Macy's. When they witness customer appreciation translated into increased sales, however, they make customer referral a matter of policy. There is a lot of ballyhoo about the restoration of the Christmas spirit, but the crucial factor is profit. The difference between the two films lies in the greater self-awareness and the more conscious satire of the earlier one, evidence that Hollywood's political consciousness is regressing.

In the end, the political content of HEAVEN CAN WAIT is superseded by other considerations and left unresolved. When Joe says of professional football early in the film, "This is the only business I know that's real," he seems to be setting himself up for an education in the real power of big business. As Farnsworth, he discovers the profound effect that a handful of people can have on millions of lives. But the film ends with his return to football, and the people of Pagglesham are forgotten.

As for their champion, Bette Logan, she has long since metamorphosed into a docile, acceptable Hollywood heroine. Having apologized for her anger, she allows Joe/Farnsworth to carry on her fight. This change, however, is foreshadowed in the earlier scene in which Joe/Farnsworth finally interrupts her monologue and orders her to sit down and listen — an old dramatic formula for dealing with hysterical woman. Once tamed, she remains to facilitate the plot and to decorate the set, like the pink begonias in the garden.

What promised to be an atypical Hollywood film has turned into a typical one — better comedy than most, but no better as a serious political statement. This should not surprise anyone who sees the film as an extension of Warren Beatty as Mister Hollywood, a man committed to working within the existing political and economic system. But it is unfortunate that some of the energy, talent, and intelligence that went into HEAVEN CAN WAIT could not have been directed toward producing a truly extraordinary film.


1. Harry Segall, Heaven Can Wait (New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1942). The play was first produced on Broadway several years after HERE COMES MISTER JORDAN, and was unsuccessful. The 1943 Lubitsch film, HEAVEN CAN WAIT, is not related.

2. Variety, 11 October 1978, p. 9.

3. "Warren Beatty Strikes Again," Time, 3 July 1978, pp. 70-74.