Sunday, February 3, 2013

Look What I Found: Heaven Can Wait by Leonore Fleischer

Look What I Found is an occasional series on books I've hunted-and-gathered at garage sales, used bookstores, estate sales, and the occasional pilfering from a friend's bookshelf when his back is turned.  I have a particular fondness for U.S. novels written between 1896 and 1931.  If I sniff a book and it makes me sneeze, I'm bound to fall in love.

To this day, if you say the words "liver-and-whey shake," I'm bound to get a little choked up.  Or if I hear plaintive notes coming from a soprano sax, my eyes get a misty drizzle.  And if someone were to tell me that a Concorde supersonic jet transports us to heaven when we die, I'd believe 'em.

Such is the impact Heaven Can Wait made on me when I was a sophomore in high school.  I was a skinny, stuttering, shy teenager--especially when I was around girls who, it seemed, exuded some sort of chemical that clouded my confidence and made me fumble words like they were slicked with butter.  When Warren Beatty and Julie Christie finally got together up on the screen at the Jackson Hole Cinema, it was like Love Potion No. 9 had just been unbottled and spilled in the aisles of the dark theater.  I swooned, I clutched my chest, I palpitated.  I looked around to make sure no one had seen me.

For those who have never had the pleasure of seeing the 1978 movie (I pity you!), here's a brief recap: Beatty plays a quarterback for the L.A. Rams named Joe Pendleton who's killed when he enters a dark highway tunnel on his bike and meets head-on with a van coming in the opposite direction.  Unfortunately, it wasn't his time to die--he was snatched from this life 50 years too soon by an over-zealous angel.  Oops!  When Joe arrives in heaven and sees all the passengers boarding the Concorde for their "final flight," he protests to head angel Mr. Jordan (James Mason) and, heaven being the forgiving place it is (along with being quite embarrassed about the angelic error), he decides to give Joe a new body back on earth.  And so, he's reincarnated into the just-about-to-be-murdered millionaire Leo Farnsworth.  While dodging his "personal private executive" (played by Charles Grodin) and his wife (Dyan Cannon), scheming lovers who can't figure out why Leo didn't stay dead after they killed him, Beatty falls in love with an environmental activist named Betty (Julie Christie) who's upset that Farnsworth's corporation is polluting the world's oceans--especially the waters near her small English town of Paglesham.

Heaven Can Wait had everything my love-yearning heart was waiting for: eyes sparkling in the moonlight, last-second touchdowns, a butler named Sisk, and liver-and-whey shakes.  On that day in 1978, I put the film in my then-fledgling Lifelong Top 10 Movies List.  Since then, it may have slipped down to Number 14 or 15, but it still ranks among the sweetest, funniest movies I've ever seen.

And so, imagine my surprise and delight when I was browsing the shelves of books in a thrift store here in Butte, Montana yesterday and I came across this paperback, the official movie-novelization by Leonore Fleischer:

Faster than you could say "James Mason," I'd plunked my 49 cents down on the thrift store counter and went home with my own little slice of movie nostalgia heaven.

I've written before about "movie novels" and how I agree with Joe Queenan who once said "Authors of film novelisations, not unlike pornographers, rarely get the respect they deserve."  I haven't read enough of Fleischer's treatment of the screenplay by Beatty, Elaine May and Buck Henry to pass full judgement, but at first glance it does seem like some fairly ordinary movie tie-in porn.  For instance, take a look at the opening lines:
This was the time of the day that Joe loved best, the hours before the morning had been burnished to a gleam.  When he rolled out of bed at first light, there was still a chill in the canyon air, and the moon was only just disappearing reluctantly from the pink sky.  The day smelled fresh and newborn and ready for anything; Joe could sense it.
Or consider these pages in which Leonore Fleischer allows herself some flights of literary fancy as she describes the accident that kills Joe just when he's getting ready for a big game against the Dallas Cowboys:

The Pulitzer Prize committee probably won't be ringing Ms. Fleischer's doorbell any time soon.  But maybe she doesn't care.  Maybe she just wants to collect her paycheck.  Maybe she just wants to recreate the movie experience on the page, something for film fans like me to take down off the shelf and relive at any time of day or night (this was even more significant back in 1978 before instant Netflix streaming* and the omnipresence of VCRs).  A quick Google search of "Leonore Fleischer" tells me that, for a brief period in the 1970s and 1980s, she was the queen of movie novelizations, transmogrifying scripts into books for movies like FameRain Man, Ice Castles, The Rose, Flatliners, The Fisher King, and several others.  I suppose it was good work if you could get it, and I'm actually glad she took these writing gigs because 34 years later here I am, replaying one of my favorite movies in my head courtesy of some words on an age-yellowed page--no matter how flowery the prose (as purple as a Maxfield Parrish sky!).

I'm still not quite ready to drink a liver-and-whey shake, though.

*I just checked Netflix and Heaven Can Wait is not available--streaming or on DVD.  How can this be?  We must correct this crime!


  1. Enjoyed reading this post. I love the movie "Heaven Can Wait" and it is in my collection. :) Congrats on finding the book and being able to purchase it. I think I may have to get my DVD out and watch it yet again. :)

  2. I wasn't born yet when Heaven Can Wait was filmed. Seven years ago, I found a book similar to yours in a thrift shop here in the Philippines. Gosh, I never knew it was this big! I still have it with me. =)

  3. My goodness, google is helpful, and I hope, well perhaps you might be able to answer a question for me too, and from dialog in the movie Heaven Can Wait. I was 30 in 1978, and 65 now, and watched it again this afternoon with all those years in between.

    I'm the curious sort and in the last scene Julie Christie says, "You're Coldpack aren't you?" and Joe (Jarrard ) says, "Yes", and Betty says something to the effect that she would like to have coffee with him.

    I've gone back into the film trying to find out where he first used that phrase, or how it was that she would remember it, but can't seem to find it.

    Would you know where it is and in what scene that word first appears? I'd like to find it, and view it, then rewatch the last scenes again.

  4. I can loan you my DVD of HCW, but if you don't return it to me, Mr Jordan will certainly come looking for you.

  5. I was awarded the fire prevention poster contest in the 5th grade. The prize were 2 movie tickets. To the best football movie ever. I recite lines from this movie on a monthly basis or more. I have always had a mad crush on warren. I have sat through all his bad movies too. Lol. Jack warden is awesome in this role. Funniest scene, where Groden hides behind curtain & then answers Beatty anyway. And the marshmallow quote. Now I say the same quote every winter, when the marshmallows run out in my mug. Wish I had that book. I might steal it from u.
    Signed melissa

    1. What was the marshmallow quote? It was Fisk who asked him right? I forgot what it was.

    2. Here's the short snippet of "marshmallow."

  6. That movie is one of my favorite movies of all time, just because of the sentiment, and the comedy. They also had a book out of the movie - every page had pictures of the movie with the dialog. So I could watch the movie with this book. The ending was bittersweet, but just reading your article, made me realize that Heaven Can Wait w/Warren Beatty will probably be my answer when someone asks what my favorite movie is. Then I'll whip me up a liver and whey shake, and chug it down.