Sunday, August 7, 2022

Probability and Outcome

Right now, I’m searching for signs of something good in the world. For one thing, there’s this friend of mine who always reports back whenever he sees Warren Beatty out having dinner at sushi places around town which always makes me happy to hear. It feels important to still have Warren Beatty somewhere in Hollywood, after all, even if he’s not going to make another movie at this point. Probably. I mean, you never know, right? Not knowing, after all, can be the definitive answer to what helps fuel an obsession and the feeling of obsession is a key part of certain Warren Beatty films, as well as a key part of his persona and our own attraction to those films. It becomes part of their power. This can even be felt in some of the films he didn’t direct, at least not officially, and helps connect them to one another whether thematically, politically or even emotionally. A line can certainly be drawn from his John McCabe of Robert Altman’s McCABE & MRS. MILLER to the hairdresser George Roundy he played in SHAMPOO, each man with big dreams but little follow through or awareness of how business (and, by extension, the world) really works. You could also go from McCabe building the town of Presbyterian Church to Bugsy Siegel intent on realizing his dream of Las Vegas and their ultimate fates. Even his John Reed and Diane Keaton’s Louise Bryant in REDS as seen in that early montage of creativity and expression during their early Greenwich Village days together is practically replicated in the flashback of Beatty’s Lyle Rogers and Dustin Hoffman’s Chuck Clarke beginning their collaboration in the early scenes of Elaine May’s ISHTAR, which itself leads to an encounter with world politics that attempts to destroy them. This is all for starters and the tone may be different in the films but there’s something about the feeling in them which stays the same, to pursue a dream to the point of obsession. What is life without a little obsession, after all? Beatty himself tends to be cagey about such things in the few interviews he’s given so, like many things in life, we’re forced to figure it out for ourselves.
As a matter of full disclosure, when it comes to one of Warren Beatty’s biggest hits I’ve always been somewhat of an agnostic. 1978’s HEAVEN CAN WAIT, which he co-directed with Buck Henry, has long seemed like something of an outlier to me as the rare Warren Beatty film that was ‘just’ a commercial romantic comedy, a big star vehicle meant to be a big star vehicle. It’s enjoyable, but that’s about all I took from it. Maybe this is a roundabout way of simply saying that except for the resonance of the final moments I felt less of a connection to this one and it didn’t seem to have much to do with any of the others. Simply put, I couldn’t locate the obsession. A remake of 1941’s HERE COMES MR. JORDAN (directed by Alexander Hall, starring Robert Montgomery, Evelyn Keyes and Claude Rains), it’s a slick fantasy-comedy which isn’t all that different plotwise from the film it’s based on beyond substituting football for boxing and while certainly entertaining, there didn’t seem to be much more to it than that. Maybe I just felt lost in all that ‘70s gauze of the cinematography and bounciness of the Dave Grusin score so it always felt like there was a distance. As it sometimes happens, things change. The film played at the TCL Chinese during the 2022 Turner Classic Movie Film Festival earlier this year with Beatty in attendance so I had to be there. And at a certain point during the screening that night the film started to finally click, even if it wasn’t in the expected way. This is a star vehicle, yes, and one that is very much a product of 1978 when it was one of the top grossing films of the year (opening in June, it took the place of STAR WARS at the Chinese and played for a not bad 14 weeks), along with the likes of GREASE, JAWS 2 and EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE. But it has something that almost none of the others in the top ten of that year have, an awareness of how little certain things matter in life which can lead to a realization of what really does. And when that occurs, an obsession can finally take hold so now when placed alongside those other films, suddenly it all begins to make sense.
After working his way back from a knee injury, Los Angeles Rams quarterback Joe Pendleton (Warren Beatty) is poised to start again for the team looking ahead to a Super Bowl victory. But his hopes are dashed with an accident while he is out riding his bicycle kills him and sends him to a way station taking off for heaven. His refusal to get onboard forces his escort (Buck Henry) to bring in Mr. Jordan (James Mason), leading to the determination that the escort messed up by removing him from his body a few seconds earlier than he should have from an accident that he would have survived. Searching for a new body since the old one has been cremated, Pendleton and Mr. Jordan arrive at the home of billionaire Leo Farnsworth, an industrialist in the process of being murdered by his wife Julia (Dyan Cannon) and personal private executive secretary Tony Abbott (Charles Grodin) who are both having an affair. Joe shows no interest in Farnsworth until he encounters Betty Logan (Julie Christie), an activist there to protest a power plant Farnsworth’s company is about to build which will decimate her hometown. Agreeing that this is only temporary, Joe takes over Farnsworth’s body, determined to help Betty but he quickly falls in love with her, making him prepared to stick around in Farnsworth’s body which gets him to convince trusted Rams trainer Max Corkle (Jack Warden) that he has what it takes to join back up with the team and help them win the Super Bowl.
Forgetting for a moment my slight prejudice going into this screening, HEAVEN CAN WAIT is a breeze of a film. Every moment remains pure pleasure, a light fantasy-comedy with finely honed characterizations that carry it along seemingly effortlessly but always with a current underneath to add weight to this breezy story. The commitment everyone brings to the comedy gives things an added intensity, aided by dialogue that contains more intelligence, wit and in the long run more meaning than it would otherwise. The movie never transcends what this genre is at the center but it does let the emotion creep in until the end result suddenly resonates more than you would ever have expected and even when this feels restricted by the plot points that have to take place it feels ready to use it all to its full advantage. In a very simple sense, the film does so much right. On a surface level, all of this is true but it’s in the details where HEAVEN CAN WAIT feels most resonant, letting you sometimes dig for the extra layers.
But to also break part of the plot down even more succinctly: A wealthy man surrounded by employees forced to deal with his madness that has seemingly appeared out of nowhere. This could be HEAVEN CAN WAIT, this could be BULWORTH. Maybe some of it is even part of RULES DON’T APPLY. In the case of this particular film it’s almost a sidebar of the main storyline (screenplay by Elaine May and Warren Beatty, based on a play by Harry Segall) which, as far as we can tell for a long time, is primarily about Joe Pendleton’s determination to get to the Super Bowl. It’s all he really cares about at first and this is so important to Joe that he barely seems to think about the greater issue of, you know, his life having ended. Entering Farnsworth’s body does something about the way he sees things even if his motivation primarily comes from his very first look at Julie Christie. Who could blame him, of course, but what this does is set Joe on the right path to actually accomplishing something in this other body that would be good for the world. So while everything he’s saying and realizing makes perfect sense to us, the people around him are simply baffled, suddenly forced to deal with a Howard Hughes suddenly going full Bulworth, if you will.
We never meet Leo Farnsworth and never see what he looks like but everything about him is completely absurd. His oversized mansion, his clothes, the way his servants dote on him, the possibility that he has looked into purchasing Haiti. Of course, these days all this makes him even more believable. When Joe takes over Farnsworth’s body, this puts him in the unique position not to care about any of this so when he begins questioning all these business practices and speaks out about doing better the fact that he’s making sense leads the people close to him to only one conclusion, that he must be totally crazy. Maybe the world is forced to pay more attention to how awful wealthy people are these days but it’s hard not to think about the BULWORTH similarities, another movie about a powerful man going off the rails by speaking the truth which even shares a slightly similar murder plotline, but even if that’s not quite the main thrust of HEAVEN CAN WAIT the message still gets across. When Joe-as-Farnsworth publicly announces at a board meeting that he’s putting a stop to the plant that will destroy Julie Christie’s small English hometown, it becomes secondary to the real point of the scene which becomes the big speech he makes to the increasingly baffled board of directors about how they’re going to have to spend more money in the future to do things right. The money doesn’t matter and they’ll get it back anyway, what happens based on what they’re doing is what does. Thinking about the long game instead of the quick win that these businessmen only care about, Joe is about focus, his mind always on training as he drinks those health shakes, his body ready to take as much pain during that scrimmage as necessary to prove himself, and he’s been so focused on that he’s realizing what’s going on around him for the first time even though he isn’t himself anymore. That bouncy Dave Grusin music doesn’t even come in for the first few minutes as if to indicate how the determination in Joe’s head doesn’t have space for anything else. In doing all this he’s simply applying what he knows to all this just as he plays the one tune on that soprano saxophone repeatedly, not because he’s any good at it but as a Zen sort of centering thing.
The movie feels centered too and it has that seventies naturalism in the air to set it apart from the film blanc stylings of the original, right from the opening shot looking down on things that could be Mr. Jordan’s point of view as he waits for Joe to arrive and even the relatively simple visual layout of the way station where Joe is first brought has a simple elegance that goes perfect with the approach. The pleasures of HEAVEN CAN WAIT are numerous but come especially from the extra sharp wit in all that dialogue which presumably can be at least partly attributed to Elaine May, if not Beatty, but then again maybe Buck Henry, who knows? Every moment of Charles Grodin and Dyan Cannon bickering is priceless and Grodin’s “No, before. Outside. But she relives it,” about someone just having seen a mouse sounds like a line written by Elaine May if there ever was one but, whoever was responsible, this is a moment that belongs in the Smithsonian. And everyone is good in this movie, bringing to their parts an intensity that balances with the lighthearted nature to the storytelling. For that matter, so much of the comedy particularly the bedroom stuff may be nothing new but it’s still done so expertly thanks to the shrewd playing by the actors who know just what the timing needs to be for the laughs. It always feels like Beatty is fixated on the logic of it all as much as possible, whether the depiction of the way station Joe arrives in or to account for Joe still seeing himself in the mirror and not whatever Farnsworth looks like, always looking to talk things out so the plot makes as much sense as it needs to, along with using the idea of probability and outcome to break the plot down for Max in the same way.
Through it all is the issue of what the film has an interest in spending time on. The longest film that Beatty has ever made is REDS which, at 195 minutes, was always meant to be an epic anyway. Many of the other films he produced or directed don’t even hit the two-hour mark and HEAVEN CAN WAIT moves like a rocket at a trim 101 minutes, even if it is seven minutes longer than HERE COMES MR. JORDAN. And it doesn’t need to be longer than that, it always has a purpose so each moment counts, pacing that feels like the equivalent of Joe racing from one part of the giant mansion to another while still getting all the necessary plot points in. At a certain point it’s almost like the film becomes about the very act of watching Warren Beatty run. But it still finds a way to pause for moments of weight and lyricism like Joe emerging from that well, Mr. Jordan waiting to lead him on, so once again it’s the Dave Grusin score which makes this moment all the more resonant, providing the lyricism felt when these dreams appear to be snatched away from Joe. The speed picks up even more for the last twenty minutes where it’s as if the only things in the movie are either necessary story points or business by the actors that Beatty likes too much to cut so if Vincent Gardenia’s investigating police lieutenant had any long expository speeches they were dropped because, well, who cares? What it doesn’t do is spend more time on stuff than it needs to so the resolution of the murder investigation and the Super Bowl victory all go by so fast you could almost sneeze and miss them. It’s the emotion the film dwells on that becomes important, even as Joe in his new body as the quarterback apparently both throws the winning play and scores the touchdown which is a pretty neat trick, you have to admit. Just as it took its time earlier on for certain moments with Julie Christie and Jack Warden, the final moments pause to just hold on Jack Warden realizing that Joe is really gone, sitting there and holding his instrument. And the final scene with that way Julie Christie looks at him, that connection found in the eyes once and for all, knowing and not knowing all at once is all that we need to understand.
In spite of all this, for much of the time the inherently lightweight nature of the material can’t be avoided which maybe has something to do with my mental block to the film for such a long time, wondering why Beatty had been attracted to this sort of thing. But it knows how to find just the right moments that pop which shows that he found a way to connect with it and really say something about the transient nature of it all. In this film made by the Gulf & Western subsidiary Paramount, he saw the way such conglomerates were beginning to swallow things up, asking why such people exist in the world and what they really care about, anticipating his next film REDS or even the way Rogers & Clarke of ISHTAR deal with being marked for death by those in power and at times HEAVEN CAN WAIT is just as political, just as aware of what the ultra-wealthy are doing to the world during this present day we’re living through where an entire political party is about nothing more than hate and ugliness and attaining power, solely about making this world a worse place for people. The totem of that saxophone is the one thing Joe carries with him, a symbol of his spirit and in the end is left with the one person who will remember any of this. Football seems to be all about being the best to him but when it comes to that instrument it’s done just for the pure pleasure of doing it so it doesn’t matter how lousy he is. It only matters that he plays it. “I’ve got poetry in me,” John McCabe famously mutters to himself in his movie and through the soprano saxophone which turns into the totem of the film representing him (Beatty’s Howard Hughes in RULES DON’T APPLY plays an alto, which is close enough) is like Joe Pendleton’s poetry that he can’t express otherwise, even when alone with Julie Christie.
We think of Warren Beatty as this legendary movie star, hugely successful for decades and living at the top of the world somewhere up on Mulholland but every main character he plays in his films has only so much power in the long run just like any of us do. Sometimes they die, sometimes it’s a more spiritual death as they become irrelevant to the world around them. Sometimes the connection with a woman in his life gets made, sometimes it’s cut short. The ultimate question of this movie, or just about any Warren Beatty movie, seems to be asking how are you going to live your life? What do you want to achieve and leave behind in the end? Do you only care about money or really doing something to enrich yourself and others? This is the rare Warren Beatty film that isn’t about sex much at all even as a metaphor, so in that sense it really is an anomaly, and the main characters never even kiss which makes sense at the end since the two people in question have just met, or so they think. Instead it’s a connection, one that the characters played by Warren Beatty and Julie Christie in SHAMPOO couldn’t make in the end. “We’re not dead yet, that’s the only thing that’s too late,” he tells her on that hilltop in Beverly Hills, a few moments before watching her drive off with Jack Warden in the final shot. The ending of HEAVEN CAN WAIT seems to find a way around that idea, giving Joe Pendleton a rebirth he never knows about from a life he no longer remembers. “There’s nothing to be afraid of,” becomes a key phrase that gets repeated and becomes the lynchpin for the whole film, maybe for all of Beatty’s films, so the message is simply look someone in the eyes to see what’s in there and we get to see the two leads of this film go off together, not afraid. Which is all that really matters. The rest of the world is just a bunch of people worried about ‘profits’, to use the famous line in REDS. All this may be written, as Mr. Jordan infuriatingly keeps saying, but our own arrival date—like 2025, the date Joe was originally supposed to die—is closer than we think. So don’t be afraid, which is something I’ve been wishing lately that I’d remembered on a few occasions in my own life. HEAVEN CAN WAIT was nominated for nine Oscars, winning only for Art Direction, and it may never be the Beatty film I return to the most, not the way I’ve watched the likes of SHAMPOO almost compulsively at times, but right now along with a new appreciation of all that dialogue I’ve found the yearning in it. The drive of obsession becomes clear.
Coming midway between the releases of SHAMPOO and REDS, this is Warren Beatty at his movie star prime with all the confidence in the world and expert comic timing to every response he makes. The authority he brings to that tone lets the story build so when he fights with Mr. Jordan about Betty you can feel how this is all no longer clinical to him and it gives the film all that feeling. That emotion is felt every time he looks at Julie Christie and if you believe the various Peter Biskind books covering Beatty that say Christie had no interest in doing this but when you compare this to other roles she had played in the ten years leading up to this there’s not much to see since she’s basically The Girl. We’re meant to fall in love with her just as Joe does and that’s exactly what happens. But Christie brings such gravity and intelligence to every scene she’s in that it makes her role, and the entire film, work. She makes it all matter. That emotional feeling matches up nicely with the calm provided by James Mason, always smiling at Joe, always understanding towards him when he can’t anymore even if he can’t say why. What Mason does allows us to see what Mr. Jordan is doing, letting Joe make the decisions but still taking him along for what we know has to be. Buck Henry’s own coming timing with every ounce of his disbelief up against them is perfect but it’s the pairing of Charles Grodin and Dyan Cannon that provides some of the biggest laughs, Cannon appropriately a force of nature in every moment she's onscreen but the deadpan provided by Grodin is equally priceless as he tries to piece together what the hell is going on, offering some of the greatest pleasures to pick out in the corners of the frame. It’s the people around him as they react, even some in small roles, who also bring that weight to it, the likes of Joseph Maher and Hamilton Camp as a few of the servants backing up Beatty while getting laughs of their own and Beatty’s own double take at Camp’s servant stifling a laugh at one point is an awesome thing to see. But through all this it’s Jack Warden who becomes the real heart of the film right from the start, playing the only person who really knew Joe and knows what’s being lost. It leads to not just the joy coming from his expert coming timing but also the most truly emotional moments in the entire film all the way up to the last time we see him. As the years go by this becomes one of the actor’s most endearing performances of his long career.
Warren Beatty has made so relatively few films over his long career that it’s hard not to think of each of them as being part of some sort of strange overall narrative personal to him even if there are some where we have to dig to find the meaning. Whether I feel the need to look into DICK TRACY or LOVE AFFAIR next, who’s to say. In search of that meaning in HEAVEN CAN WAIT, the post-film discussion with Ben Mankiewicz that night in the Chinese at the TCM Classic Film Festival didn’t really shed light on very much but it makes me wish for the chance to talk with him where he wouldn’t have to be on the record about anything and simply hearing him refer to McCABE & MRS. MILLER as “an interesting movie…for several reasons” makes me wish for a lengthy elaboration of some kind. There was also talk of wanting the likes of Muhammad Ali and Cary Grant to star early on, probing how the football scenes where he gets knocked to the ground were shot, faking the Super Bowl during an actual Rams game as well as if he would ever write a memoir. When the subject of Julie Christie was brought up he simply answered, “Are you delving into my personal life?” You can watch the whole thing here and, I swear, I’m pretty sure I can be heard cheering in the crowd at the end although I’m not claiming that he answers all these questions. I didn’t expect him to. But there’s always the hope that I’ll see him at some tiny sushi place in a strip mall one of these days but even if this happens I promise I won’t bother him. As the two leads walk off into the darkness at the end of HEAVEN CAN WAIT we know that their story isn’t over, just like in our own lives we sometimes keep walking and if we say that one meaningful thing maybe a certain someone will walk with us. Maybe that idea is just a dream, but maybe it’s all we can do. One other question Ben Mankiewicz asked Warren Beatty was if he plans to make another movie. The answer, of course, was, “I don’t know.” Sometimes that’s the best response for anything in this world. Especially when deep down we already know what the answer is.