A Beautiful Mind

A Beautiful Mind won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2001, and three others: Best Director (Ron Howard), Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress (Jennifer Connelly as Alicia) It lost in four categories, two of them to that year’s Hugo and Nebula winner, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, which also won four Oscars that year.

The other four Oscar nominees were The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, which I have of course seen, and Gosford Park, In the Bedroom and Moulin Rouge!, which I haven’t. The other 2002 films I have seen are Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone, Donnie Darko, Monsters Inc, Not Another Teen Movie and Storytelling. I love FOTR, have affection for Not Another Teen Movie, but am not especially wowed by any of the others, including A Beautiful Mind. IMDB users rank A Beautiful Mind 2nd on one ranking and 11th on the other, behind FOTR both times. Here’s a trailer.

 

We have no actors here who have appeared in Doctor Who, but several returnees from previous Oscar and Hugo/Nebula winners, most notably Russell Crowe, the central character John Nash here, and also the title character of last year’s winner Gladiator.


There’s been a somewhat longer gap since we last saw Christopher Plummer, here psychiatrist Dr Rosen, as Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music – 36 years, which is the longest interval I’ve so far seen between top billed roles.


Ed Harris, the sinister Parcher who is the product of Nash’s delusions here, was the equally sinister Cristof in The Truman Show two years ago.


Judd Hirsch, mathematician Helinger here, was the psychiatrist in Ordinary People, 21 years ago.

Victor Steinbach is Professor Horner here and was Mikolaj Ternovsky in 2010, but you know what, I have COVID and I’m not able to find pics of him in either role quickly.

I confess that I was not hugely impressed by A Beautiful Mind. It is a biopic of mathematician John Nash, who suffered from schizophrenia for much of his life; a story of romance triumphing over adversity, but you won’t learn much from it, or indeed you may learn the wrong things from it, about mental illness, mathematics, John Nash, or Alicia Nash. Film makers, even makers of biopics, are not obliged to stick rigidly to the historical record. But a lot of Truth here has been sacrificed for Art, leaving only a basic glurge plot about love triumphing over health issues, with some special effects for the central character’s delusions.

As so often, my biggest problems with the film include race and gender, combined in the depiction of Alicia Nash. Jennifer Connolly certainly deserved her Oscar as the only interesting character in the film. But the fact is that in real life Alicia Nash was from El Salvador, and spoke English with a Latin American accent. There is no hint in the film whatsoever that she was anything other than a WASP. We have not had such an egregious example of white-washing in an Oscar winner since All the King’s Men eliminated the entire African-American population of the state in which it was set. And Alicia was herself a gifted mathematics student, but we see nothing of that here.

(And I don’t think there is a single non-white speaking part; Princeton has had at least a handful of black students from the 1940s onwards.)

The real John Nash’s love life was just a little more complicated than is depicted on screen. He had long running affairs with several other men, and had a child by another woman before he met Alicia. He was once arrested for indecent exposure. He and Alicia formally divorced before getting back together again. Apparently the film makers felt that it would be too difficult to depict his bisexuality without implying that it was linked to his mental illness (a link which was mistakenly made by many of those who treated him). They certainly did not even try to do so.

It’s difficult to put mathematics into a mainstream drama. But again, the film-makers did not try very hard. There are a couple of mutterings about game theory, but otherwise it’s an activity done by white men behind the scenes, except when Nash starts writing on windows. I think that A Theory of Everything did it rather better, though I will also admit that perhaps Stephen Hawking’s theories are more telegenic than Nash’s.

Schizophrenia cannot in general be cured by the treatment portrayed in the film. Nash struggled with it for decades. He himself felt that the natural hormonal changes of aging eventually enabled him to reject his delusions; be that as it may, a recovery such as his is unusual. And while the manifestation of those delusions in the personalities of the sinister Parcher, friendly English Charles and Charles’ niece Marcee is compelling cinema and well executed, it really isn’t the lived experience of most people with schizophrenia and wasn’t the lived experience of Nash himself.

Nash’s hallucinations were much more of voices and weird ideas about politics, which is fairly “normal” for his condition. Rain Man wobbled a bit on the reality of autism, but was basically honest about it. A Beautiful Mind, again, went for Art rather than Truth, leading to heaven knows how many ignorant and stressful conversations between well-meaning people who think they know all about schizophrenia from having seen the film, and desperate people who are actually trying to manage its effects in their own lives.

I am not going to totally dump on the film. The acting is good, the music is good, and the cinematography is great – in particular Princeton emerges as something of a character in its own right. (Though again, Nash’s professional life included many stops other than Princeton – but not the Pentagon.)

 

Incidentally, I make this the seventh biopic to win the Oscar, the first for 24 years, and I would put it in the lower half, after Gandhi, Lawrence of Arabia, The Last Emperor and The Life of Emile Zola, but ahead of Patton and The Great Ziegfeld. Overall I’m putting it in the bottom 15% of my list, after Mutiny on the Bounty but ahead of American Beauty.

Next up is Chicago, of which I have higher hopes.

The film is based on a prize-winning biography with the same title by Sylvia Nasar, the second paragraph of whose third chapter is:

What he saw was a genteel, prerevolutionary village surrounded by gently rolling woodlands, lazy streams, and a patchwork of cornfields.2 Settled by Quakers toward the end of the seventeenth century, Princeton was the site of a famous Washington victory over the British and, for a brief six-month interlude in 1783, the de facto capital of the new republic. With its college-Gothic buildings nestled among lordly trees, stone churches, and dignified old houses, the town looked every inch the wealthy, manicured exurb of New York and Philadelphia that, in fact, it was. Nassau Street, the town’s sleepy main drag, featured a row of “better” men’s clothing shops, a couple of taverns, a drugstore, and a bank. It had been paved before the war, but bicycles and pedestrians still accounted for most of the traffic. In This Side of Paradise, F. Scott Fitzgerald had described Princeton circa World War I as “the pleasantest country club in America.”3 Einstein called it “a quaint, ceremonious village” in the 1930s.4 Depression and wars had scarcely changed the place. May Veblen, the wife of a wealthy Princeton mathematician, Oswald Veblen, could still identify by name every single family, white and black, well-to-do and of modest means, in every single house in town.5 Newcomers invariably felt intimidated by its gentility. One mathematician from the West recalled, “I always felt like my fly was open.”6
2 See, for example, Rebecca Goldstein, The Mind-Body Problem (New York: Penguin, 1993); Ed Regis, Who Got Einstein’s Office? (Reading, Mass.: Addison Wesley, 1987); and recollections of Nash’s contemporaries, including interviews with Harold Kuhn and Harley Rogers and letter from George Mowbry, 4.5.95.
3 F. Scott Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise (New York: Scribner, 1920).
4 Albert Einstein, quoted in Goldstein, op. cit.
5 As recalled by her niece Gillian Richardson, interview, 12.14.95.
6 Donald Spencer, professor of mathematics, Princeton University, interview, Durango, Colorado, 11.18.95.

I got a lot more out of the book than the film. It is honest where the film is not about Alicia’s origins, John Nash’s sexuality and the nature and course of his illness and career. It goes a bit into the mathematics without trying too hard; in the end, the non-specialist has to take the word of the specialist that this was all Really Important Stuff.

But where the book excels is in its examination of the social and political construction of the environment where Nash worked. It had not occurred to me that the Princeton of Einstein (and Nash) was very different from the Princeton of Woodrow Wilson, just a few decades before. Nasar maps out very carefully how the decision of a few intellectual centres of excellence to invest in mathematics – or rather, in mathematicians – was driven by wider political and social currents, including McCarthyism and antisemitism  (Nash himself also lurched into antisemitism, and not only when deluded). Her behind-the-scenes account of how Nash almost didn’t get the 1994 Nobel Prize is one of the most gripping things I’ve ever read in a scientific biography. (Yeah, I know it’s not technically a Nobel Prize. Sue me.)

Some of Nash’s friends queried whether the biography was ethical, given that it was written without his consent or cooperation. In fact his attitude was studiedly neutral, and Nasar clearly had full cooperation from his colleagues and lovers, which he could presumably have deterred if he had really wanted to. He was apparently pleased enough with it in the end, and enjoyed the film too, though he commented (rightly enough) that it wasn’t really about him.

Here’s a lovely short video of Russell Crowe talking to John and Alicia Nash when they visited the set. Unfortunately we can’t hear what they are saying. The Nashes died in a car accident in 2015, returning from the ceremony where he had been awarded the Abel Prize

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in 80 Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011) | Argo (2012) | 12 Years a Slave (2013) | Birdman (2014)

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