by Pat Holt
Friday, January 18, 2002
BOOKS INTO MOVIES, PART II: A NOT SO BEAUTIFUL MIND
Here's an old question: Is there such a thing as censorship by omission?
If you leave facts out of a movie adaptation for the sake of simplicity, timidity, cowardice (a fear that nobody will by tickets if you tell the whole truth), are you fibbing a little, sanitizing a lot, or censoring to beat the band?
The question comes up in spades with the new movie, "A Beautiful Mind," starring Russell Crowe as the schizophrenic mathematical genius and Nobel Prize-winner, John Nash, Jr.
On the one hand, we know this is a vehicle for Crowe, so it's probably a good idea to relax and let Hollywood deliver the usual formula - Torment + Love = Happy Ending.
And we know going in that no movie can ever capture the wealth of detail found in Sylvia Nasar's elegant prize-winning biography of the same name (now out in its movie tie-in paperback edition from Touchstone, $16).
And surely, we think, a movie can't alter facts of Nash's life, such as these: that he was in his early '20s when he wrote the game theory of economics that would win him a Nobel Prize nearly a half-century later; that he suffered from delusions and was in and out of mental hospitals for 30 years; that he seemed to recover in the late '80s and was well enough to accept the Nobel in 1994.
But you can't help wondering about the movie's slant as the story rolls on: Is this a film that, as George Will wrote in Newsweek, "imagines the almost unimaginable - how the intersection of a woman's love, a cluster of caring individuals and one man's will contributed to something extraordinary"?
Gad, George, you oughta be in PR. (Critics unite: Let's stop using the word "intersection" as though it means "destiny.")
The anchor of the movie is Nash's wife, Alicia, who, when she realizes the extent of his illness, agrees to electroshock therapy and continued confinement. Later, Alicia insists that a still-tormented Nash stay with her and their baby, Johnny, at home, even though he has been violent toward her and irresponsible when it comes to the baby's safety.
"The victory in the movie, and the victory in John Nash's life," one of the producers has said, "is the love story. The love story was the prevailing element, the prevailing common denominator that allows us to have a victory that's real and not artificial."
Really? Nothing "artificial"? Well, as Crowe told TV Guide, "I'm not going to play a real-life role that somebody has manufactured." So there.
Indeed, he's very believable when Nash, in his acceptance speech at the Nobel ceremony, thanks Alicia and says "the most important discovery of his life" has been "the mysterious equations of love." Holy cow, moviegoers can't help thinking, did the real John Nash utter them words that night? I mean, "the mysterious equations of love"! Maybe George Will wrote it.
Well, let's say Hollywood poured a little layer of schlock over Nasar's book - no harm in that, right? The screenwriter even turned some of Nash's delusions into characters we in the audience can see in order to witness Nash's inner struggle. There's a twist halfway through that's a nice touch.
But when we do read Nasar's book, holy blazin' cinema! The omissions tell a different story:
*Nasar reports, for example, that Nash had several homosexual lovers, the most abiding and intimate of whom was Jack Bricker, who "hero-worshiped Nash," according to a friend. A colleague recalls that Bricker and Nash "made no secret of their affection, kissing in front of other people."
Nash was also arrested for indecent exposure in a public men's bathroom and expelled from the RAND think tank in Santa Monica, where he worked as a researcher. Nash was blase about the arrest, says Nasar, furious about the expulsion.
Was Nash gay? He seems to have thought at least a part of him was. Nearly 20 years later (1977) he hoped that one of his sons upon maturity would play "an essential and significant personal role in my personal long-awaited 'gay liberation.' "
*At the same time (before meeting Alicia), Nash had a long-term affair with a nurse, Eleanor Stier, who became pregnant by him and whom he refused to marry. "One likely reason," Nasar believes, "was Nash's snobbery." Eleanor came from the wrong class, had little formal education, pronounced words incorrectly and was, Nasar suggests, "boring" to Nash, who could be nasty to her in public.
Nash told Eleanor to place the child, John David Stier, up for adoption, which she would not do. But since Nash wouldn't pay child support, during John David's first six years "the little boy was shifted from home to home," later working his way through school doing menial jobs.
*The movie portrays Nash imagining himself breaking Russian codes and being a heroic undercover agent for the government. But the book shows that his delusions were more often dominated by messages from extraterrestrials that were buried in newspapers, and by aliens who "recruited" Nash from outer space to save the world
*Alicia, far from insisting that Nash live with her and their son Johnny, divorced Nash in 1962 when, "exhausted and dispirited," she believed that "Nash's condition was more or less hopeless." She remained a part of his life, sometimes distant, sometimes helping his sister and mother commit him involuntarily. Much of the time he hated her for it, holing up in Paris, running out of money and edging ever closer to homelessness.
*Nash and Alicia's son, Johnny, whose character is glimpsed in the movie as a handsome, healthy and up-and-coming scholar, has been in and out of mental hospitals himself, refusing to take his medications so that he can take the role of a born-again Christian who takes Greyhound buses across the country.
Alicia and Nash were remarried three decades after the divorce. Nasar sees them happily reconciled, though many problems still exist. Johnny is one. When he is at home and violent, "he destroys things in the house, attacks [Nash and Alicia], acts inappropriately in public," writes Nasar
*Finally, did Nash, during his acceptance speech at the Nobel Prize ceremony, thank Alicia and the "mysterious equations of love?" No. Although Nobel Prize winners deliver a lengthy acceptance speech, Nash wasn't allowed to. He bowed to the audience when the prize was awarded, and that was it.
That Did It
Well, you can forgive Hollywood anything, I think, except maybe fibbing, sanitizing and censoring. And except maybe cowardice.
When asked why Nash's gay affairs weren't mentioned in the movie, Crowe told the Courier Mail, "We didn't want to imply there was any possibility that schizophrenia and homosexuality are related. That would be ridiculous."
Say what? Gee, whoever thought they WERE related? Maybe director Ron Howard did, or, more likely, as mentioned by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, "maybe it's just that Hollywood execs figured that icky homosexual behavior might compromise Crowe's beefcake portrayal of Nash."
It certainly seems that Crowe protests too much when he insisted to Entertainment Weekly that the film does show Nash's sexuality at a key stage in his development:
"There's a scene where Nash is walking down a corridor at Princeton and he fixes a young man walking towards him with a gaze," Crowe said. "The extra turns around and goes, 'Wow, what was that about?' You don't need a whole scene for everything - there are grace notes that you can do."
Ah, grace notes! Aren't they darling?. An entire scene of perhaps 2 seconds in length is supposed to give us an understanding of Nash's complex nature. Maybe George Will wrote it.
Well, let's give Ron Howard a grace note and say: When you're too cowardly to take on the many dimensions of a real person, when you think people are so timid they can't understand the facts, when you replace aliens from outer space with the more acceptable Communists and their secret codes, and finally when your Academy Award-winning he-man beefcake talks as though he's terrified of playing a gay scene, why, you simply employ "grace notes" and let those Golden Globe nominations start falling your way.
Was there a way to tell the whole story, gay affairs and all? One is reminded of "The Talented Mr. Ripley," a great example of how beautifully taboo subjects can be portrayed in a film. Because of the movie's deft and sympathetic handling of an all-too-human sociopath (Tom Ripley), not only do we find ourselves rooting for this triple murderer, we also hope that Tom will find happiness with that cute music scholar at the end. (Of course, Tom murders him instead, and that's another story - but even then, he earns our sympathy.)
I think what bothers me most about "A Beautiful Mind" is the strange cover-up we're supposed to believe. A producer tells us the film's portrayal of Nash is "a real life lived," but it isn't, of course. Ron Howard says it's "a very unique character study. It's the story of a life; it's just not everyone's life."
Well, it's not even *Nash's* life, for pete's sake. It's sanitized biography. It's fibs. It's even worse than censorship - it's propaganda. But then, this vast machine that tells us what roles we should take, how we should look and act, and whom to aspire to be, when you come to think about it, is probably what Hollywood does best.
I just had to write because I just received word yesterday that my Random House rep, a man whom I have worked with for the past 5 years, have ordered countless books from and have arranged hundreds of author signings with, was laid off due to "cost cutting efforts." May I also mention that this man was with the company for over 30 years.
My gripe is that suddenly, me, the customer, shouldn't raise an eyebrow over this. The incident personally sickens and disgusts me. I considered this man as part of our family here at the store. I want to know why the decision was made to can a distinguished rep. This man, with an excellent sales record, is suddenly given the axe to save some money. But wait, isn't this the same company that foolishly spent 4 million dollars for the Stephen Carter manuscript? Is there any book in the world worth that much money, and for a first-time novelist? Yet this huge conglomerate is nickle and diming on the personal front lines.
It seems to me to be penny-wise but pound-foolish in many ways. RH has taken a trusted rep and has alienated me as a customer. Not only me but the many other independent stores that this rep visited; what of them? I guess the mighty efficient machine really doesn't care for my account or my business. I mean after all, it is the chain stores that buy all the books. right?
Name withheld for obvious reasons
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Susan Vogel's comments ("it amazes me when people are miffed that I am not updating my books every year or act like it is my DUTY to continue providing fact-packed, highly informative, low profit books!") reminded me of a customer who, after being told that we did not carry the book he was looking for, expressed outraged disbelief that we did not order in at least one copy of every book that was published each year.
Of course, he was instantly promoted to high rank in our store's Customer Hall of Fame (along with the woman who didn't know the author or title of the book she had seen in the store on a previous visit, but when asked if she recalled what the book looked like, said, "It's rectangular.")
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