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Ron Howard is the kind of success story Hollywood loves: an adorable child actor who made a seamless transition to young adult star but who really wanted to direct, and did, working his way up from ambitious super-8 films shot on actual Hollywood sets through the Roger Corman school of practical filmmaking (where he made Grand Theft Auto ) to popular comedies (Splash , Parenthood ) and colorful fantasies (Cocoon , Willow ) without ever losing his reputation as one of the nicest guys in Hollywood. For all his commercial success, however, he never really got much respect as a serious filmmaker, even after his more-than-respectable Apollo 13 . It didn't happen until A Beautiful Mind (2001).
The project, based on (or, more accurately, inspired by) Sylvia Nasar's biography of Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Forbes Nash, Jr., was not necessarily the most obvious choice for an uplifting tale of perseverance and triumph over adversity. Nash, a pioneer in the development of game theory whose work in the area of pure math is hardly the most cinematic of subjects, was a brilliant eccentric diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and mild clinical depression in 1959. The film spans almost 50 years in the life of Nash, from his days as a socially withdrawn and awkward student at Princeton to his tenure teaching at M.I.T. (where he met his future wife, Alicia) to the erratic behavior that led to the diagnosis of schizophrenia and his struggle with the incurable condition that he learned to confront. What's not in A Beautiful Mind is much of Nash's more extreme and at times hostile behavior under the influence of his condition: the child he fathered and then abandoned before his marriage, his affairs (with both men and women) and his divorce from his wife.
Howard's producing partner, Brian Grazer, had been looking for a project that explored the issues of mental illness and was intrigued by Nasar's book and brought in Akiva Goldsman. The son of child psychologists, Goldman had worked in the field of mental health before becoming a screenwriter and was more interested in trying to convey the experience than in creating a literal biography. He ostensibly avoided the more off-putting details of Nash's troubled life to make him a more sympathetic figure, and he put his dramatic energies into crafting a screenplay that experienced Nash's world through his own eyes, or rather his mind. Only after we come to accept the world from his point of view does the film reveal how much of his experience was delusion. That approach satisfied John and Alicia Nash, who were reluctant to put their lives on screen, and captured Howard's interest. He signed on to direct as well as produce.
Howard approached Russell Crowe, based on his work on L.A. Confidential  and The Insider , to play Nash, and Crowe took up the challenge of the role, playing Nash as a shuffling, stooped, socially disconnected genius. By all accounts, the often difficult Australian star got on famously with Howard (they collaborated again a few years later on Cinderella Man ). The real-life Nash married Alicia Lpez-Harrison de Lard, an El Salvadorian physics student who took one of his classes. For the film, she's transformed into an all-American woman played by Jennifer Connelly. Long one of the most underrated and underutilized actresses of her generation, Connelly earned an Oscar® for her performance as the devoted wife who struggles to understand her increasingly irrational husband. British actor Paul Bettany, largely unknown in the U.S. at the time of his casting, has the liveliest role in the film as Nash's impulsive college roommate and he runs with it, playing the fun-loving extrovert to Nash's intellectual introvert.
"We had to find a way to make that story more accessible and entertaining," explained producer Grazer to the New York Times in 2001. "So we genrefied it, and turned John Nash's life into a more compelling thriller." Ed Harris helps establish that dimension of the story as a circumspect government agent who brings Nash in as a code-breaker on a CIA project that takes it toll on Nash through exhaustion, stress and paranoia. As it develops into schizophrenia, A Beautiful Mind presents his experience in a way that, if somewhat simplistic, is neither cartoonish nor dismissive. Even after he's diagnosed, the numbing effects of the drug regimen dulls his mind and his spirit in a way that Nash finds even more crippling than his hallucinations and paranoia. While there's a triumph of the spirit quality to his story, it's Nash's mind that finally confronts his demons.
The controversies surrounding the film's willful neglect of Nash's less sanguine history haunted the release of A Beautiful Mind and was brought up in many of the reviews, even the favorable ones. But it was also championed for its sympathetic insight to mental illness by the likes of political columnist George Will, and the National Mental Health Awareness Campaign awarded producer Grazer and director Howard their first annual Awareness Awards. By Oscar® night, those issues seemed largely beside the point. Nominated for eight Academy Awards, A Beautiful Mind took home four major Oscar®s: for Best Actress Jennifer Connelly, for Akiva Goldsman's screenplay adaptation, and two for Ron Howard: Best Director and Best Picture. In his first nomination, he took home the gold and got the industry respect he so longed for.
Producers: Brian Grazer, Ron Howard
Director: Ron Howard
Screenplay: Akiva Goldsman; Sylvia Nasar (book)
Cinematography: Roger Deakins
Art Direction: Robert Guerra
Music: James Horner
Film Editing: Dan Hanley, Mike Hill
Cast: Russell Crowe (John Nash), Ed Harris (Parcher), Jennifer Connelly (Alicia Nash), Christopher Plummer (Dr. Rosen), Paul Bettany (Charles), Adam Goldberg (Sol), Josh Lucas (Hansen), Anthony Rapp (Bender), Jason Gray-Stanford (Ainsley), Judd Hirsch (Helinger), Austin Pendleton (Thomas King), Vivien Cardone (Marcee).
by Sean Axmaker