A Beautiful Mind (2001)

Introduction

A Beautiful Mind is a 2001 American biographical drama film based on the life of the American mathematician John Nash, a Nobel Laureate in Economics and Abel Prize winner. The film was directed by Ron Howard, from a screenplay written by Akiva Goldsman. It was inspired by the bestselling, Pulitzer Prize-nominated 1998 book of the same name by Sylvia Nasar.

The film stars Russell Crowe, along with Ed Harris, Jennifer Connelly, Paul Bettany, Adam Goldberg, Judd Hirsch, Josh Lucas, Anthony Rapp, and Christopher Plummer in supporting roles. The story begins in Nash’s days as a graduate student at Princeton University. Early in the film, Nash begins to develop paranoid schizophrenia and endures delusional episodes while watching the burden his condition brings on his wife Alicia and friends.

The film opened in the United States cinemas on 21 December 2001. It went on to gross over $313 million worldwide and won four Academy Awards, for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress. It was also nominated for Best Actor, Best Film Editing, Best Makeup, and Best Original Score.

It was well received by critics, but has been criticised for its inaccurate portrayal of some aspects of Nash’s life, especially his other family and a son born out of wedlock. However, the filmmakers have stated that the film was not meant to be a literal representation of Nash’s life (see A Brilliant Madness (2002)).

Outline

In 1947, John Nash arrives at Princeton University as co-recipient, with Martin Hansen, of the prestigious Carnegie Scholarship for mathematics. He meets fellow math and science graduate students Sol, Ainsley, and Bender, as well as his roommate Charles Herman, a literature student. Determined to publish his own original idea, Nash is inspired when he and his classmates discuss how to approach a group of women at a bar. Hansen quotes Adam Smith and advocates “every man for himself,” but Nash argues that a cooperative approach would lead to better chances of success, and develops a new concept of governing dynamics. He publishes an article on his theory, earning him an appointment at MIT where Sol and Bender join him.

In 1953, Nash is invited to the Pentagon to crack encrypted enemy telecommunications, which he manages to decipher mentally. Bored with his regular duties at MIT, including teaching, he is recruited by the mysterious William Parcher of the United States Department of Defence with a classified assignment: to look for hidden patterns in magazines and newspapers in order to thwart a Soviet plot. Nash becomes increasingly obsessive in his search for these patterns, delivering his results to a secret mailbox, and comes to believe he is being followed.

One of his students, Alicia Larde, asks him to dinner, and they fall in love. On a return visit to Princeton, Nash runs into Charles and his niece, Marcee. With Charles’ encouragement, he proposes to Alicia and they marry. Nash fears for his life after surviving a shootout between Parcher and Soviet agents, and learns Alicia is pregnant, but Parcher blackmails him into continuing his assignment. While delivering a guest lecture at Harvard University, Nash tries to flee from people he thinks are Soviet agents, led by psychiatrist Dr. Rosen, but is forcibly sedated and committed to a psychiatric facility.

Dr. Rosen tells Alicia that Nash has paranoid schizophrenia and that Charles, Marcee, and Parcher exist only in his imagination. Alicia informs Nash that the Department of Defense does not employ a “William Parcher” and reveals the unopened documents he delivered to the secret mailbox. Nash is given a course of insulin shock therapy and eventually released. Frustrated with the depressive side effects of his antipsychotic medication, he secretly stops taking it and relapses, “meeting” Parcher again.

In 1956, Alicia discovers Nash has resumed his “assignment” in an abandoned shed near their home. Realizing he has relapsed, Alicia rushes to the house to find Nash had left their infant son in the running bathtub, believing Charles was watching the baby. Alicia calls Dr. Rosen, but Nash believes Parcher is trying to kill her and accidentally knocks her and the baby to the ground. As Alicia flees with their baby, Nash jumps in front of her car and affirms: “Marcee can’t be real! She never gets old!”, finally accepting that Parcher and other figures are hallucinations. Against Dr. Rosen’s advice, Nash chooses not to restart his medication, believing he can deal with his symptoms himself, and Alicia decides to stay and support him.

Nash returns to Princeton and approaches his old rival Hansen, now head of the mathematics department, who allows him to work out of the library and audit classes. Over the next two decades, Nash learns to ignore his hallucinations and, by the late 1970s, is allowed to teach again. In 1994, Nash wins the Nobel Prize for his revolutionary work on game theory, and is honoured by his fellow professors. At the Nobel ceremony, he dedicates his prize to his wife. As Nash, Alicia, and their son leave the auditorium in Stockholm, Nash sees Charles, Marcee, and Parcher watching him, but looks at them only briefly before departing.

Cast

  • Russell Crowe as John Nash.
  • Ed Harris as William Parcher.
  • Jennifer Connelly as Alicia Nash.
  • Christopher Plummer as Dr. Rosen.
  • Paul Bettany as Charles Herman.
  • Adam Goldberg as Richard Sol.
  • Josh Lucas as Martin Hansen.
  • Anthony Rapp as Bender.
  • Jason Gray-Stanford as Ainsley Neilson.
  • Judd Hirsch as Helinger.
  • Austin Pendleton as Thomas King.
  • Vivien Cardone as Marcee Herman.
  • Killian, Christian, and Daniel Coffinet-Crean as Baby.

Production

Development

After producer Brian Grazer first read an excerpt of Sylvia Nasar’s book A Beautiful Mind in Vanity Fair magazine, he immediately purchased the rights to the film. He eventually brought the project to director Ron Howard, who had scheduling conflicts and was forced to pass. Grazer later said that many A-list directors were calling with their point of view on the project. He eventually focused on a particular director, who coincidentally was available only when Howard was also available. Grazer chose Howard.

Grazer met with a number of screenwriters, mostly consisting of “serious dramatists”, but he chose Akiva Goldsman because of his strong passion and desire for the project. Goldsman’s creative take on the project was to avoid having viewers understand they are viewing an alternative reality until a specific point in the film. This was done to rob the viewers of their understanding, to mimic how Nash comprehended his experiences. Howard agreed to direct the film based on the first draft. He asked Goldsman to emphasize the love story of Nash and his wife; she was critical to his being able to continue living at home.

Dave Bayer, a professor of Mathematics at Barnard College, Columbia University, was consulted on the mathematical equations that appear in the film. For the scene where Nash has to teach a calculus class and gives them a complicated problem to keep them busy, Bayer chose a problem physically unrealistic but mathematically very rich, in keeping with Nash as “someone who really doesn’t want to teach the mundane details, who will home in on what’s really interesting”. Bayer received a cameo role in the film as a professor who lays his pen down for Nash in the pen ceremony near the end of the film.

Greg Cannom was chosen to create the makeup effects for A Beautiful Mind, specifically the age progression of the characters. Crowe had previously worked with Cannom on The Insider. Howard had also worked with Cannom on Cocoon. Each character’s stages of makeup were broken down by the number of years that would pass between levels. Cannom stressed subtlety between the stages, but worked toward the ultimate stage of “Older Nash”. The production team originally decided that the makeup department would age Russell Crowe throughout the film; however, at Crowe’s request, the makeup was used to push his look to resemble the facial features of John Nash. Cannom developed a new silicone-type makeup that could simulate skin and be used for overlapping applications; this shortened make-up application time from eight to four hours. Crowe was also fitted with a number of dentures to give him a slight overbite in the film.

Howard and Grazer chose frequent collaborator James Horner to score the film because they knew of his ability to communicate. Howard said, regarding Horner, “It’s like having a conversation with a writer or an actor or another director.” A running discussion between the director and the composer was the concept of high-level mathematics being less about numbers and solutions, and more akin to a kaleidoscope, in that the ideas evolve and change. After the first screening of the film, Horner told Howard: “I see changes occurring like fast-moving weather systems.” He chose it as another theme to connect to Nash’s ever-changing character. Horner chose Welsh singer Charlotte Church to sing the soprano vocals after deciding that he needed a balance between a child and adult singing voice. He wanted a “purity, clarity and brightness of an instrument” but also a vibrato to maintain the humanity of the voice.

The film was shot 90% chronologically. Three separate trips were made to the Princeton University campus. During filming, Howard decided that Nash’s delusions should always be introduced first audibly and then visually. This provides a clue for the audience and establishes the delusions from Nash’s point of view. The historic John Nash had only auditory delusions. The filmmakers developed a technique to represent Nash’s mental epiphanies. Mathematicians described to them such moments as a sense of “the smoke clearing”, “flashes of light” and “everything coming together”, so the filmmakers used a flash of light appearing over an object or person to signify Nash’s creativity at work. Two night shots were done at Fairleigh Dickinson University’s campus in Florham Park, New Jersey, in the Vanderbilt Mansion ballroom. Portions of the film set at Harvard were filmed at Manhattan College.

Many actors were considered for the role of John Nash, including Bruce Willis, Kevin Costner, John Travolta, Tom Cruise. Howard ultimately cast Russell Crowe.

Writing

The narrative of the film differs considerably from the events of Nash’s life, as filmmakers made choices for the sense of the story. The film has been criticised for this aspect, but the filmmakers said they never intended a literal representation of his life.

One difficulty was the portrayal of his mental illness and trying to find a visual film language for this. Sylvia Nasar said that the filmmakers “invented a narrative that, while far from a literal telling, is true to the spirit of Nash’s story”. Nash spent his years between Princeton and MIT as a consultant for the RAND Corporation in California, but in the film he is portrayed as having worked for the Department of Defense at the Pentagon instead. His handlers, both from faculty and administration, had to introduce him to assistants and strangers. The PBS documentary A Brilliant Madness (2002) tried to portray his life more accurately.

Few of the characters in the film, besides John and Alicia Nash, correspond directly to actual people. The discussion of the Nash equilibrium was criticized as over-simplified. In the film, Nash suffers schizophrenic hallucinations while he is in graduate school, but in his life he did not have this experience until some years later. No mention is made of Nash’s homosexual experiences at RAND, which are noted in the biography, though both Nash and his wife deny this occurred. Nash fathered a son, John David Stier (born 19 June 1953), by Eleanor Agnes Stier (1921-2005), a nurse whom he abandoned when she told him of her pregnancy. The film did not include Alicia’s divorce of John in 1963. It was not until after Nash won the Nobel Memorial Prize in 1994 that they renewed their relationship. Beginning in 1970, Alicia allowed him to live with her as a boarder. They remarried in 2001.

Nash is shown to join Wheeler Laboratory at MIT, but there is no such lab. Instead, he was appointed as C. L. E. Moore instructor at MIT, and later as a professor. The film furthermore does not touch on the revolutionary work of John Nash in differential geometry and partial differential equations, such as the Nash embedding theorem or his proof of Hilbert’s nineteenth problem, work which he did in his time at MIT and for which he was given the Abel Prize in 2015. The so-called pen ceremony tradition at Princeton shown in the film is completely fictitious. The film has Nash saying in 1994: “I take the newer medications”, but in fact, he did not take any medication from 1970 onwards, something highlighted in Nasar’s biography. Howard later stated that they added the line of dialogue because they worried that the film would be criticised for suggesting that all people with schizophrenia can overcome their illness without medication. In addition, Nash never gave an acceptance speech for his Nobel prize.

Release

A Beautiful Mind received a limited release on 21 December 2001, receiving positive reviews, with Crowe receiving wide acclaim for his performance. It was later released in the United States on 04 January 2002.

Box Office

During the five-day weekend of the limited release, A Beautiful Mind opened at the #12 spot at the box office, peaking at the #2 spot following the wide release. The film went on to gross $170,742,341 in the United States and Canada and $313,542,341 worldwide.

Home Media

A Beautiful Mind was released on VHS and DVD, in wide- and full-screen editions, in North America on 25 June 2002. The DVD set includes audio commentaries, deleted scenes and documentaries. The film was also released on Blu-ray in North America on 25 January 2011.

Production & Filming Details

  • Director(s): Ron Howard.
  • Producer(s): Brian Grazer and Ron Howard.
  • Writer(s): Akiva Goldsman.
  • Music: James Horner.
  • Cinematography: Roger Deakins.
  • Editor(s): Daniel P. Hanley and Mike Hill.
  • Production: Imagine Entertainment.
  • Distributor(s): Universal Pictures (North America) and DreamWorks Pictures (International).
  • Release Date: 13 December 2001 (Beverly Hills Premiere) and 01 December 2001 (US).
  • Running Time: 135 minutes.
  • Country: US.
  • Language: English.

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