How true is a true story? When a Hollywood movie is “based” on a true story, you know that that word is being used in its most elastic sense.
As Ron Howard’s movie A Beautiful Mind rides confidently towards Oscar night with best movie and best male lead nominations (movies about people with mental problems are always a shoo-in), it has also attracted its share of disgruntlement about the way it has distorted the truth.
In particular, this story of schizophrenic mathematician John Nash has been nailed for not dealing with the issue of his sexuality. A brilliant but awkward man, Nash succumbed to madness in his 30s and spent the rest of his life battling it. Eventually he won a Nobel Prize for a theory he had developed in his student days. His secret gay sex life surely played a part in his breakdown and rampant paranoia, but that has been omitted from the movie.
We homosexuals feel sensitive about this kind of thing because once Western civilisation had got over the stage of burning us at the stake and so forth, it tried to erase us from history. And Hollywood, of course, as the primary machine of the American social and historical imagination, has long been part of that impulse of denial. Apart from forcing people like Rock Hudson to hide their true nature for decades, Hollywood made movies that outrageously distorted the facts for the sake of its audience’s alleged sensibilities. In The Agony and the Ecstasy, for instance, following the mendacious Irving Stone book, Charlton Heston played a skirt-chasing Michelangelo. Of course there was no way Heston was going to play anything other than determinedly straight, but Hollywood even went so far as to heterosexualise Cole Porter, for heaven’s sake.
The British film Enigma, now on circuit, also turns a real-life figure (the suicidal homo genius Alan Turing) into a hetero hero, but at least book and movie changed names while rejigging the plot, making clear the fact that it was a fiction; A Beautiful Mind, by contrast, uses Nash’s real name and lifts the title of his biography.
In the case of A Beautiful Mind, some dramatic potential has been lost. When Nash sees dark-suited men eyeing him at a party, and gets paranoid that they are spies, he might perhaps instead have just imagined they were cruising him.
Personally, I don’t think the sexuality business matters much to the Nash story. More important is the fact that Nash’s wife Alicia (Jennifer Connelly) is portrayed as the good woman who stood by him throughout his troubles; in reality, she divorced him soon after he lost the plot, though they did live together again, and remarried in old age. (It is a good filmic idea, by the way, to replace the real Nash’s phantom voices with visual hallucinations.) At any rate, the idea here isn’t to present a faithful portrait of a particular man, but to use the basic frame of his life story to create a movie with designs on both seriousness and the box office. It had to be heart-warming, uplifting, a feel-good movie. The audience should be feeling sorry for Nash when he starts losing his marbles, not be faintly disgusted by sordid sexual shenanigans. After all, this is a Ron Howard movie, and he’s a director known for his sentimentality as much as his stolid competence.
In A Beautiful Mind, Howard carries one along, willy-nilly, towards the touching finale. Russell Crowe may be acting true to life when he presents the eccentric, socially inept genius with all his tics and foibles, but he is very irritating for at least the first third of the film. He seems all flickering facial expressions and a series of tousled fringes. One longs to have Crowe back as a rather blank but viscerally physical gladiator. Nonetheless, he wins one over, which has as much to do with his somewhat fussy performance as it has to do with director Howard’s manipulation of the bigger picture.
We don’t get a coherent explanation of Nash’s brilliant work. He is simply the generic mad genius, scribbling unintelligible but visually attractive formulae on window panes. When he’s thinking very hard we get a kind of muttery voice-over on the soundtrack.
And yet, as I say, one sympathies become engaged despite any critical reservations. Skilfully and without mercy, A Beautiful Mind coerces one into feeling good.