Best Feature of 2001?
The Case for A BEAUTIFUL MIND!
When we see a feature film that is supposedly based on real people and/or real events, how affected are we by what we think we know about “the facts” of the matter? Very little! We enter the theater knowing that time constraints make it unlikely that the filmmakers can do justice to all “the facts.”
(Of course, no book or film ever has all the facts, and every author and every filmmaker has biases. Did historians stop asking questions after the very first biography of Abraham Lincoln was published? Did the fact that Vincent Minnelli’s
LUST FOR LIFE received multiple Academy Award nominations in 1957 stop Robert Altman from releasing
VINCENT & THEO, his own version of Van Gogh’s life, in 1990?) We assume that the filmmakers will modify facts for narrative purpose. We measure the success of the effort by its overall coherence: Does what we see on the screen make sense to us?
We’ve applied our criteria to the most controversial case of 2001, A
BEAUTIFUL MIND, and it comes up a winner for us despite the drubbing of many important film critics. What’s particularly disappointing to us is the fact that these critics have focused their ire, by and large, on two very melodramatic but poorly documented “facts,” both ambiguous in their implications. The first is that the film makes no mention of Nash’s “mistress” and illegitimate son, the second is that the film shows no overt homosexuality. In both cases, these critics agree, the filmmakers’ goal was to soften reality by “Hollywoodizing” the hero in order to make him more
But we choose to dig deeper. The film is based, in part, on Sylvia Nasar’s award-winning biography of the same name, and she does use the word “mistress” to describe Nash’s relationship with Eleanor Stiers. But is this the right word? Nasar tells us Nash met Stiers when he was hospitalized in 1954 for minor surgery. She was his nurse. A month later, she’s pregnant. He never supported her, and Stiers told Nasar that he urged her to put the child up for adoption. With all due respect to Stiers’ feelings on the matter, we think the filmmakers are allowed to decide for themselves if Nash’s “second family” was accidental or intentional.
Nash’s homosexuality is even more equivocal, and, as Nasar says, both Nash and Alicia deny it. However, it is clear that Nash formed strong emotional attachments to several of his (male) colleagues, and we think the filmmakers honor this by creating a sympathetic composite character who could have walked straight out of BRIDESHEAD
On the other hand, there are numerous very well-documented facts in Nash’s life that could have been used for dramatic effect. For one thing, the decision to give Nash the Nobel Prize was hotly debated, and the filmmakers could have used this to mobilize our sympathy for “the underdog.” More important, from our perspective, is the absence of Johnny, Nash’s son with Alicia. The “real” Johnny seems to have inherited some of his father’s genius and all of his madness, and the filmmakers could have used this tragedy to break our hearts completely. They don’t, even though Nasar makes it clear that one of the things that helps Nash hang on to his own fragile reality is his commitment to helping Alicia care for
So the filmmakers have made choices. They have sacrificed many “biopic” details to make room for something else. Their audacious goal is take their audience somewhere new; they want to take us right into Nash’s head and show us how the world looks from inside Nash’s “beautiful mind.”
Their best device for “showing” rather than “telling” is to have Nash continuously scribbling his equations on windows rather than on blackboards. The image is the filmmakers’ invention (Nasar never says anything like this), their way of showing us that the “outside world” was always mediated through Nash’s mental constructs. The parallel device is the lightshow we see every time Nash stares at a blackboard. Through our own eyes, we see an impenetrable web of black and white. But when the filmmakers look through Nash’s eyes, we see intricate patterns with key elements.
This strategy continues as Nash moves closer to mental breakdown. Since we are used to looking through his eyes by this point, we see what Nash sees and it looks real and plausible to us. But events become increasingly frenzied, the signal that the filmmakers are changing their point of view from Nash to Alicia. She has also been looking at the world through his eyes (beginning with the scene in which he shows her how to find the patterns in the stars), but then she pulls back and we get pulled with her. The constructs are false. The patterns are imaginary. The beautiful mind has snapped. We’re shocked. We’ve lost our bearings. We no longer know what is “true” and what is “real.” And that’s the point.
In short, we believe that the filmmakers have accurately presented the essence of this true story. It is the story of a life lived, for better and for worse, inside the head of a unique man. It is also the story of a life made possible by a supportive alliance: his wife, his Princeton University colleagues, and the academic community that demanded recognition from the world for his very real
There have been many prior attempts to film “the life of the mind,” but few have succeeded. Most professionals raised serious objections to the simplistic portrayal of mental illness in films such as
SHINE; however, A BEAUTIFUL MIND has received almost universal support from the mental health community. Creative intelligence is, if anything, even more difficult to capture. You usually have to take the filmmakers’ word for the “genius” of their subject, as you do in
IRIS. However, because it captures both, the genius and the madness, we believe A
BEAUTIFUL MIND takes us on a rare and powerful journey. The filmmakers have not created an inspiring story, they have discovered an inspiring story, and they have shared it with us respectfully, using all their combined skills and best
It turns out that “reality” is complex and never quite as simple as we try to make it. The shallow critics all imply that this film is proof that Hollywood doesn’t “trust its audience.” In the case of A
BEAUTIFUL MIND, however, we think the exact opposite. After viewing all the candidates personally, we are convinced: A
BEAUTIFUL MIND is hands-down the Best Picture of
Let’s give Sylvia Nasar herself the last word. When Terry Gross of NPR’s FRESH AIR questioned her about the Nash’s marriage (another hot topic for those critics who focus on the film’s failure to mention the Nash’s divorce), Nasar replied: “After they were divorced, she [Alicia Nash] sheltered him for 25 years… After all, he had paranoid schizophrenia, he blamed her for hospitalizing him… And I think that if she's not a wife, I don't know who of us is.”
SUMMARY OF FILMS FOR TWO’s RELEVANT
2002 OSCAR PICKS:
|| A BEAUTIFUL MIND
|| RON HOWARD
|| RUSSELL CROWE
|BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS:
|| JENNIFER CONNELLY
|BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY:
|| AKIVA GOLDSMAN
(Click here for complete list of Picks & Predictions)
(See also the answer to our first FAQ.)
BEAUTIFUL MIND is now available on DVD (with multiple special features including original interviews with Akiva Goldsman, Ron Howard & John Nash) as well as video.