Heaven Can Wait Shows Off Elaine May’s Unearthly Powers
By Nick Nadel
Get to know the multifaceted artist behind this Warren Beatty comedy classic.
With a stellar cast that includes Warren Beatty, Julie Christie and Jack Warden, Heaven Can Wait is one of the funniest and most charming comedies of the 1970s. And while Harry Segall’s play of the same name has been adapted for the big screen on two other occasions (1941’s Here Comes Mr. Jordan and the 2001 Chris Rock comedy Down to Earth), the 1978 version has a secret weapon that helps it soar — the dazzling wit of Elaine May, who penned the Oscar-nominated screenplay with Beatty.
As one half of a groundbreaking improvisational comedy duo with frequent collaborator Mike Nichols, May influenced countless generations of funny people. Onscreen, she gave hilarious performances in everything from Enter Laughing to the Woody Allen projects Small Time Crooks and Crisis in Six Scenes, but behind the camera is where May really shines. With Nichols in the director’s chair, she penned sparkling scripts for The Birdcage and Primary Colors, the Clinton-era political satire that scored May her second Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.
May earned strong reviews in 1971 as a writer/director for the dark Walter Matthau comedy A New Leaf, which led to her breakout rom-com hit The Heartbreak Kid (a lackluster 2007 remake starred Ben Stiller). Proving she could tackle gritty drama with the same style and panache she brings to broad comedy, May’s 1976 crime film Mikey and Nicky garnered a cult following for its bracing critique of toxic masculinity and stellar performances from Peter Falk and John Cassavetes.
Unfortunately, May’s big screen directing career hit a roadblock when her post-Heaven Can Wait collaboration with Beatty, the 1987 action comedy Ishtar, flopped. (May is proof of the Hollywood double standard when it comes to female filmmakers — male directors have bounced back from far worse cinematic debacles. Happily, Ishtar’s value is being revisited.)
Fans of May’s skewed comedic sensibilities will find a lot to like with Heaven Can Wait. As a young football hero who dies prematurely and inhabits the body of a greedy businessman, Beatty delivers one of his funniest and most likeable performances. The film’s easygoing comedic rhythm flows naturally thanks to both the sharp screenplay and nimble direction from Beatty and Buck Henry (The Graduate, SNL). Guffaw-inducing gags abound, such as Joe Pendleton (Beatty) getting into shape with the stomach-churning combination of liver and whey blended into a shake.
Heaven Can Wait’s homage to classic screwball farce like Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday is a testament to May’s years spent honing her verbal comedy chops onstage with Mike Nichols. Her knack for wry one-liners is deeply felt in the supporting cast. Charles Grodin and Dyan Cannon -- as a pair of adulterous, hapless murderers -- score some of the film’s biggest laughs and bring to mind May’s affinity for the down-on-their luck lowlifes of A New Leaf and Mikey and Nicky. Grodin, who starred to great acclaim in May’s The Heartbreak Kid, is a deadpan delight reacting to Beatty in the body of his presumed dead employer Mr. Farnsworth. May’s talent for scripting physical comedy is on display in the scene where Tony (Grodin) speaks to Mr. Farnsworth (Beatty) from behind a curtain after hopping out of bed with the duplicitous Mrs. Farnsworth (Cannon). Grodin and Cannon have so much fun with the clever lines, one wishes they had shared the screen more often.
Not content to rest on her laurels, May helmed an excellent documentary celebrating the life and legacy of her creative partner Nichols and is set to return to her theatrical roots in a revival of the Kenneth Lonergan play The Waverly Gallery. Thankfully, we’ll always have confections like Heaven Can Wait as proof of Elaine May’s comedic powers.