By Stan Persky | Mar 26, 2002

Ron Howard (director), A Beautiful Mind, written by Akiva Goldsman, starring Cameron Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Paul Bettany, Ed Harris (2001).

Sylvia Nasar, A Beautiful Mind (1998).

Okay, now that Ron Howard’s film, A Beautiful Mind, has received its Oscar as best English-language movie of 2001, and the controversy, the smear campaign, and the millions of publicity campaign dollars to win the hearts and demented minds of Academy of Motion Pictures voters have been spent, perhaps we can make some sense, in "recollected tranquillity," of the storm of emotions raised by this project.

There are three or four interesting issues to sort out: 1) "best picture" prizes; 2) the "facts" about the life of mathematician and schizophrenic John Nash, the protagonist of the story; 3) history and the Cold War; and, finally, 4) madness and civilization.

The first question, about the movie itself, is pretty easy. Hollywood mostly gives the best picture prize each year to a film I’ve come to think of as Gone With the Wind, Part Umpty-Umph–that is, the Academy voters tend to go with some big, spectacular, blockbusting, money-making, sentimental slab of pure kitsch. Last year it was Gladiator, a couple years before that the awful Titanic, before that a treacly version of The English Patient (which made us all very proud because it had "Canadian content" in the person of Michael Ondaatje and his book, upon which the script-doctoring was done). In any case, so it went, all the way back to Gone With the Wind itself, and no doubt various other pieces of similar schlock before that. Sometimes the epic winners are at least moving–Lawrence of Arabia, maybe–sometimes really embarrassing–Around the World in 80 Days, say. And when the winner is Shakespeare in Love–the Tom Stoppard-scripted Shakespeare-lite concoction–you occasionally have to give in and just, as the waiter used to say at yuppie restaurants, enjoy.

When Hollywood doesn’t give the award to an epic, its fallback position is to donate to charity. So, the best pic award goes to some socially-conscious, issue-of-the-week movie. In general, I prefer the socially conscious awards to the prizes for epics, although the issue-movies can be pretty treacly, too (usually about somebody dying of cancer or AIDS or something else that’s awful). Considering the alternatives this year–the epic fantasy film, Lord of the Rings, or the epic musical, Moulin Rouge, or Robert Altman’s epic about English manners in the 1930s, Gosford ParkA Beautiful Mind was probably not a bad pick, at least of the sort of film that can win such prizes.

But I’m less interested in the prize-winning than I am in what’s in Ron Howard’s picture. A Beautiful Mind, as everybody who even vaguely follows these things knows, is the story of a rather unpleasant and very unlucky genius named John Nash. The West Virginian-born Nash was a math genius from about 1946 to around 1960. He was a certifiably nasty nerd who swanned around Princeton and MIT and wrote several papers on a variety of math topics which other nerdy mathematical eccentrics certified as pretty great. Then from about 1960 to the early 1990s or thereabouts, Nash was a certifiable schizophrenic who bounced in and out of mental hospitals and wandered the halls of Princeton, where he was known as The Phantom. He thought there were secret messages about atom bombs in The New York Times which he was decoding for the U.S. government. Then in the early ’90s, his schizo symptoms went into more or less inexplicable remission. In the midst of the remission, he was awarded a Nobel Prize in economics for a mathematics paper on game theory he’d written a half-century earlier. He was also able to return to work at Princeton, he got and kept the girl, and he was in the audience in Hollywood when the Oscars were handed out.

When I saw Howard’s film a couple of weeks before the awards, I was immediately struck by the director and scriptwriter’s ingenious solution to the main aesthetic puzzle in making this movie: how to portray the schizophrenic hallucinations of Nash? So as to avoid the sin of giving away plot secrets without warning, I’ll assume that everybody who’s reading this has either already seen the film or isn’t planning to (if you’re planning to see it, stop reading now).

The solution is to present hallucinatory people–mainly the CIA agent played by Ed Harris and the handsome college roommate played by Paul Bettany, neither of whom existed except in Nash’s troubled mind–as real people, indistinguishable from the other (real) persons in the story. Not until better than halfway through the movie do the film makers reveal that these key figures are imaginary. That is, it’s a bit of magic realism in reverse–rather than extending realism into the hallucinatory, the hallucinatory is made realistic, including secret, possibly Russian agents, pursuing Nash and his hallucinated CIA minder in a shoot-em-up chase scene.

Now, Howard’s movie is probably not a great film. It’s certainly not an "art" film. But it’s a "serious" movie about a particular and important mental hell. It has limitations. Howard, the director of such epics as Apollo 13, is a mainstream Hollywood director with his eye on the prizes. His film about Nash is sanitized, a bit sentimental, and is generally obedient to the rules of Hollywood prize-film making. For all its limitations though, it seems to me that the solution to the problem of how to put the viewer inside the hallucinations of a schizophrenic is effective, and aesthetically satisfying (whatever that odd phrase really means) in terms of a middlebrow work of art. It’s the subjective reality of the hallucination, of the paranoid fantasy, that is the horror of schizophrenia, and Howard and Goldsman come up with a neat way of making it believable.

Once the film was in the running, naturally, critics and competitors took a look at Sylvia Nasar’s A Beautiful Mind (it won a National Book Critics Circle Award for biography in 1999) upon which Goldsman’s script was, as they say, "loosely" based, to see what the movie had left out. In fact, I did the same thing myself. I came out of the film thinking, Well, maybe not great, but not bad either, and these days, "not bad" is pretty high praise in the face of a relentless barrage of truly mind-numbing action films, schlocky epics, and brilliantly made works of utter cynicism (usually clever movies about drug deals and dealers). Not a masterpiece, of course. (What’s a masterpiece? Raul Ruiz’s film version of Proust’s Time Regained, but I don’t think it won any Academy Awards.) Not bad, I thought, adding, I wonder what they left out? So I got a copy of Nasar’s book and read it.

Of course, very good film critics like The New York Times’s A.O. Scott had all of this nailed down by the time the film hit the theatres last December. Scott immediately noted that Nash, who had inhabited both ordinary and fantastic realms, now had the dubious distinction of dwelling in "the treacle palace of middlebrow Hollywood moviemaking, in which ambiguity is dissolved in reassuring platitudes and freshly harvested tears." Scott quickly learned that several "facts" in Nasar’s biography had been quietly dropped: Nash, in addition to the marriage portrayed in the movie, had in real life a previous mistress and child whom he had more or less abandoned; "he formed a number of intense, apparently sexual bonds with other men" (this is Scott’s way of hedging his bets on whether Nash was really a homosexual); he lost his security clearance and his job at the RAND Corporation in the 1950s after he was arrested for soliciting sex in the middle of the night in a men’s washroom in Santa Monica, Ca.; his faithful wife divorced him (and later remarried him); and at the height of his insanity he ranted about Jews. In fact, even the content of the schizophrenic hallucinations is apparently a creation of the screenwriter–at least, it’s not reported in Nasar’s biography. As Scott remarks about these "facts" in his review, "None of this has made it to the screen," and things that were not facts did. Scott says, "Anything that would dilute our sympathy… has been airbrushed away, leaving a portrait of a shy, lovable genius."

Later, when it looked like A Beautiful Mind was likely to win some prizes, gossip columnists trotted out these "revelations" about Nash’s real life, and this–the facts, the film makers’s failure to include them, and their appearance as mud-slinging media exposures–"has been taken as evidence of a smear campaign by rival studios looking to win the best picture statue for their own offerings," Scott reported in a subsequent column a week before the prizes. At one point, Nash and his wife, Alicia, were hauled out to appear on the TV show, 60 Minutes, where they denied all allegations. Biographer Nasar also weighed in with a newspaper piece protesting the distortions of her work by the "allegators" (if my coinage is not a word, it should be).

Most of that part of the hoopla is not terribly important. The interesting question is, How important is the stuff that was left out? Not very important, I would say–at least the stuff involving relationship abandonment, homosexuality, and ranting about Jews while crazy. After I read Nasar’s biography, my judgment was that while some of this is interesting as gossip, it’s not very interesting in terms of the subject of the film, namely, genius and madness. Indeed, the most interesting moment for me (this is in the book, not in the film as far as I recall), is when a Harvard mathematician visiting Nash in the mental hospital in 1959, asks, "How could you, a mathematician, a man devoted to reason and logical proof… how could you believe that extraterrestrials are sending you messages? How could you…?" And Nash replies, "Because the ideas I had about supernatural beings came to me the same way that my mathematical ideas did. So I took them seriously."

Knowing that Nash did or didn’t have homosexual relationships doesn’t really tell you much more about Nash than you already knew, unless you’re a gay tribalist trying to demonstrate that suppressed homosexuality in the 1950s regularly led guys over the edge of sanity. I suppose it did, but it’s just not all that important in the case of Nash. (Yeah, yeah, I know, I’ll probably lose the Purple Heart Award the gay movement issued to me back in the 1970s, for even faintly suggesting that homosexuality is not the key to explaining a unified theory of the universe.) The same can be said for the rest of Nash’s love-life, and his rantings. After all, poor Nash was a nasty enough brilliant young man without burdening him with more labels–even if we suspect that director Howard knew perfectly well that turning his hapless schizo into a hapless, child-abandoning, homo, anti-Semitic schizo would reduce the picture’s chances of taking home a prize. And anyway, couldn’t Howard plead that the presence of the exceptionally handsome Paul Bettany as Nash’s imaginary college roommate was his nod toward homoerotics?

A.O. Scott, however, had one more complaint that’s harder to dismiss. In his review, he writes that much of the story "egregiously simplifies the tangled, suspicious world of Cold War academia. More than a few mathematicians and scientists at the time, including many at MIT, where Nash went to teach after Princeton (not, as the film has it, to conduct top-secret defense-related research), were sympathetic to Communism, and many more… were suspected of such sympathies." While Nash was not among them, "he was hardly the intrepid cold warrior" depicted by Howard and Goldsman. By 1960, when he was in the throes of madness, Nash went to Europe and unsuccessfully tried to renounce his U.S. citizenship to express his belief in the need for world government, another fact not in the film. As for the phenomenon of McCarthyism in America, it gets, if I recall rightly, exactly one passing mention in the film (in fact, I remember being a little surprised at the time, thinking that most viewers under 40 would probably miss the reference altogether). So, Scott is probably right when he says that "the paranoia and uncertainty of McCarthy-era academic life is reduced to spy-movie cliches." Further, "this kind of simplification is in some ways more troubling than the fudging or forgetting of the details of Mr. Nash’s life." What’s missed in the movie version of A Beautiful Mind is the irony that while Nash was in the midst of schizophrenia, much of America was in the midst of large-scale social schizophrenia. Yes, it would have been very good to have that complexity woven into the film (there’s a little more of it in the book), but this is where the limitations of Ron Howard simply have to be recognized as a fact, if not fully accepted.

One of the striking, if rather obvious, aspects of the movie and the book is how little we know about schizophrenia. Nasar attempts to do more with the mystery of madness–mainly, by way of interviewing a lot of professionals in the field–than the movie, which settles for a sinister psychiatrist (played by Christopher Plummer) and the barbarism of insulin shock-treatments, to which Nash was subjected.

Insanity has always struck me as not only humanly, but philosophically interesting in terms of understanding consciousness, minds, and language. Michel Foucault, in his mid-60s book, Madness and Civilization, not only attempted to look at the history of "madness" as a social construct, but also argued that the recognition and social creation of madness had a lot to do with power and social control, an argument that found considerable favour with noted anti-psychiatrists of the period like R.D. Laing.

But I’m thinking about madness in more mundane terms. Just the other day, for example, I was looking at an advertisement that had some relevance to my interests and, for an instant, I really thought it was a message expressly directed to me, which is the way people having psychotic episodes interpret many of the "signs" offered up by the world. Although consciousness is remarkably tough when you think about the horrors people survive, the mind is also precariously fragile. A bit of chemical this-and-that, as anyone who lived through the 1960s knows, and bingo, most of our ideas about normalcy and how the world is put together go right out the window (unfortunately, back then, so did a lot of people).

Similar mystery attends the remission of madness. Nash didn’t recover as the result of a medical magic bullet, the symptoms continued but began to recede into the background, enough so that Nash, through an effort of mental will, could dismiss some of the phantasms. As well, the mystery of the connection between schizophrenia and heredity remains. One of Nash’s sons has also been a long-time sufferer of schizophrenia, another cumbersome fact not included in the film. A Beautiful Mind, the movie, doesn’t unravel those mysteries–that really would be to expect too much from a mainstream, or perhaps any other kind of film–but it does do something interesting about what it’s like to be inside of them.

Berlin, March 26, 2002 2567 w.


  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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