THE BIG PICTURE
- Warren Beatty originally wanted Muhammad Ali to star in Heaven Can Wait, but had to change the lead character to football instead.
- Warren Beatty shines as an actor in the film, portraying a good-hearted athlete and a health junkie with titanic charisma.
- Greta Gerwig drew inspiration from Heaven Can Wait for her movie Barbie, particularly its humanism and art direction.
In 2023, it’s hard to overstate just what a legacy Warren Beatty established in his prime. Had he had his way in 1978, though, his directorial debut would have looked a lot different, with Muhammad Ali at the center no less. Heaven Can Wait is an adaptation of Harry Segall’s play of the same name (the likes of which was actually remade in 2001 with Chris Rock as its star) but outside its title, plenty of changes were made to this update of a fantasy sports drama. Nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Warren Beatty coming into the forefront with his star power seemingly paid off, however it’s always fun to think ‘what if,’ especially when that ‘what if’ concerns one of the biggest sports legends to have ever existed.
Co-directed by Buck Henry, Heaven Can Wait follows Joe Pendleton, a health-obsessed backup quarterback for the L.A. Rams who’s plucked to Heaven a little too soon when an eager guardian angel decides to spare him the suffering from an oncoming car crash, not knowing that he would have actually missed the cars. In an attempt to rectify their mistake, Mr. Jordan (a seeming metaphor for God, portrayed by James Mason) and the guardian angel in question set out to find Joe another body to inhabit. Joe wants a sports body but unfortunately (or not so unfortunately) must settle for that of billionaire Leo Farnsworth, recently murdered by his wife Julia (Dyan Cannon) and secretary Tony (Charles Grodin). There’s a lot going on! Between Joe’s drive to take the Rams to the Super Bowl, even in his new body, and his wife and secretary’s increasingly kooky attempts at murdering him, it’s remarkable that the script remains as low-key as it does but with the criminally underrated Elaine May on board as a co-writer, anything is possible!
‘Heaven Can Wait’ Was Originally Meant To Star Muhammad Ali
To fully understand the production process of Heaven Can Wait, it’s worth diving into the changes made from the theatrical source material, the likes of which was also adapted into the film Here Comes Mr. Jordan in 1941, winning the Academy Award for Best Story and Screenplay (at a time when it appears those two crafts were interestingly separated). The original play and film actually follow a boxer of the same name and a similar plot which as a result, prompted Beatty to court his good friend Muhammed Ali into the role. The two reportedly shared a strong friendship and liked to go out to lunch to see who more people would recognize in a cute game among two icons of their respective fields. Ali rejected the role due to his boxing commitments (that is, after all, what champions are made of), forcing Beatty to change the lead character into a football character and play him himself.
While Ali’s fame would have been the biggest draw for audiences into this picture, Muhammad Ali was no stranger to the entertainment industry. In fact, in 1977 the heavyweight champion had just released The Greatest, based on his own autobiography, playing himself to chronicle his stratospheric rise to stardom, incorporating his religious conversion and abstinence from the Vietnam War while portraying his fight scenes through the use of his own archive footage. Other brief yet substantial credits of Ali include a starring role as an ex-slave across Kris Kristofferson in the 1979 historical drama miniseries Freedom Road, while prior to that in 1969, Ali found himself the star of Broadway musical Buck White. The musical ran for a brief period of time while Ali had lost his boxing license due to his refusal to fight in Vietnam but given its controversial subject of a black militancy meeting, it’s safe to say that Ali believed in the importance of the few roles that he portrayed.
What Does Warren Beatty Do Best in ‘Heaven Can Wait’?
Let’s be honest, Warren Beatty may be one handsome fellow, but his skills behind the camera are just as worthy of praise. As an actor, Bonnie and Clyde speaks for itself, but the man also starred in one of the greatest Western of all time and then went on to direct bona fide classics like Reds and Dick Tracy (pity is deserved for all children forced to witness the traumatizing cement baths of the latter). For Heaven Can Wait, his star power made it easy to garner cameos from several real-life football players as a producer but also made it possible to shoot footage at real football games, making that final battle for the Super Bowl trophy all the more engrossing and realistic.
However, where Warren Beatty really shines is as a star, concocting the perfect mix of a goodhearted athlete without any interest in fame or the superficial elements of being a sports star, as well as an obliviously goofy health junkie. True to the physicality that such a performance demands, there’s hardly a single instance where Beatty isn’t running somewhere, moving through his new mansion with the force of a track star on a constant jog. For a premise so over-the-top, however, the film remains constantly grounded. In the words of Greta Gerwig: “It’s extremely high concept, but it’s always human. There’s nothing about it that makes you feel distance from it.” And of course, there’s always Elaine May to thank, but no matter how carefully written the film’s particular brand of black comedy and athletic idealism is, it would mean nothing without some titanic charisma at its center, the likes of which Beatty provides in spades.
How Did ‘Heaven Can Wait’ Inspire Greta Gerwig’s ‘Barbie’?
There’s a little movie called Barbie that’s making billions at the box office right now and its director Greta Gerwig has been wildly open about her influences in creating her own genre-bending phenomenon. Chief among them is Warren Beatty’s Heaven Can Wait, which she looked at for the aforementioned humanism underlining every wacky happening throughout but also its art direction, which Beatty’s film won an Academy Award for. Gerwig shouted out the scene in which Joe almost transcends to Heaven as a particular source of inspiration for some of the elements in Barbieland, as this version of Heaven includes beautiful fluffy clouds that remain fixed to the ground. Gerwig wanted to mimic the aesthetic before realizing alongside cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto that it was made from dry ice and couldn’t be achieved.
One of the best shots of Heaven Can Wait marries both Warren Beatty’s physicality and his depiction of Heaven, as while he waits in purgatory, he finds himself doing push-ups, repeatedly revealing himself from below those comically fluffy clouds. It’s a great example of using his physicality for comedy and character at the same time, showcasing what a health nut he is through the ridicule of his character rather than the hyper-masculinization of it (something that Barbie is all for). It’s safe to say that without Heaven Can Wait, Ryan Gosling would have had one less character to base his iconic Ken performance on, as nothing gets the crowd going like a loveable himbo.
While Muhammad Ali’s warmth and charisma surely would have made him an excellent fit for the role that eventually went to Beatty, audiences can count their blessings on the fact that a film as tender and absurd as Heaven Can Wait even exists. It’s a powerful and underrated collaboration between an old guard of Hollywood powerhouses that combines so many genres, that it may as well create its own. Sweet in all of the right places but unafraid to joke about death, just like It’s a Wonderful Life, Beatty’s sports-fantasy-screwball-romantic-drama is best described with one word: magic.