The 40-Year-Old Movie

Next week marks 40 years since Paramount Pictures released one of its best movies, director Warren Beatty’s life-affirming Heaven Can Wait, which I’ve reviewed and examined here. I saw this romantic comedy during its early release, shortly after I’d seen Paramount’s other huge 1978 hit, Grease.

Whereas Grease gave me a welcome pre-teen glimpse of sex, raunch and fun, Heaven Can Wait‘s legacy was more indelible and enduring. I hadn’t seen Julie Christie as Lara in David Lean’s magnificent Doctor Zhivago. I hadn’t seen heartthrob Warren Beatty in anything. I had watched professional football on TV. Strangely, this is what paved the way for my predisposition to this wonderful and delightful film.

You see, in this movie, which is co-written with Mr. Beatty by the intelligent and enormously talented Elaine May, who was partnered for a time with the late Mike Nichols, Warren Beatty portrays a quarterback. This small plot detail proves to be pivotal to achieving the film’s blend of poignant, intimate romanticism and realistic humor with perfectly pressurized bite.

Until the year of release, and much more so since then, the football player was depicted as a mindless brute, a piece of meat, a gladiator in the Roman Empire for the mindless (even idiotic) masses. He might’ve been human (The Longest Yard) but he was hardly respectable and barely coherent, according to most major Hollywood fare.

Mr. Beatty had had some experience with this type of role in another, earlier breathtaking picture about romance, Elia Kazan’s marvelous tragedy Splendor in the Grass, a picture which earned Warren Beatty his first serious attention, a fact for which Mr. Beatty repaid Mr. Kazan with his loyalty during the major Hollywood assault on Elia Kazan (for being an anti-Communist) early in this century.

In Heaven Can Wait, the pigskin-playing athlete, however, is an individualist, not merely a cog in the wheel of dumb jocks. So is the woman with whom he falls in love and so is his best friend, who’s really his only friend. Not merely the individualist, Warren Beatty’s quarterback has an independent, rational mind, which he uses to pursue a single-minded virtue of selfishness (and look for a nod to the fountainhead of this radical ethics). It’s a light, warm movie about life, death and what makes heaven, which drills into the soul with a sense of peace, loss, loneliness, humor and eternal love.

All of this starts with a disarming title. Read my article on The New Romanticist here. Before you do, know that this Seventies movie imbued in me the knowledge that lightness, romanticism and a brush stroke of the ideal is possible in movies.

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