Will Oscar snub ”A Beautiful Mind”?
If there’s one thing you can count on every Oscar season, it’s the clucking. An Oscar race just isn’t complete without the annual chorus of grandmotherly noisemaking over ”factual accuracy.” Somehow, whether the film in question is ”The Insider” or ”JFK” or ”The English Patient” or ”The Hurricane,” the pundits find a new way to get very, very concerned that the folks who make movies actually seem to…CHANGE STUFF!
The recipient of the latest cavalcade of clucks is ”A Beautiful Mind,” which is up for eight Oscars, including Best Picture. ”A Beautiful Mind” is — and yet is not — the story of John Forbes Nash Jr., a Nobel Prize-winning mathematician afflicted with acute schizophrenia. Director Ron Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman took the skeleton of their movie from a biography written by Sylvia Nasar, and a few elements of the film do fall into the file marked Hard Facts: Nash did study at Princeton, did marry a woman named Alicia, was known for being a strange, grumpy fellow.
Other things in the movie were (gasp!) made up: Nash never gave a tearjerky Nobel Prize acceptance speech, for instance, and his psychotic delusions had more to do with messages from space aliens and Napoleon and Japanese samurai, imagined global journeys, and drastic identity confusion (sometimes, Nasar writes, he thought he was a mouse), than with the trio of friendly ghosts we see on screen. (Which is to say: The unreal stuff in the movie isn’t really the unreal stuff that Nash thought he was experiencing, or, uh, something like that. You know you’re in trouble when people start clucking about something that was a hallucination to begin with.)
More controversially, ”A Beautiful Mind” tidies up the arc of Nash’s redemption by tossing out a whole bunch of the prickly and tangled threads that you find in Nasar’s book: his alleged excursions into homosexuality, his divorce from Alicia (and their eventual remarriage), his abandonment of a son whom he fathered out of wedlock with a different woman.
Based on the way mainstream movies are made in Hollywood, it might be kind of tough to get a greenlight for a film whose hero is a schizophrenic deadbeat dad with a gay streak who occasionally thinks he is a mouse?regardless of how fascinating that film might be. (If you want to see that one, I believe the Latvian Student Film Festival gets rolling in Jaunpiebalga in April.) It also might be impossible to tell that story clearly in two hours. But all that aside, Academy voters are guaranteed to care less about this manufactured ”controversy” than they care about the fat content of their balsamic vinaigrette. Why?
Because taking liberties with a story is old, old news. Writers have been making things up and leaving things out — changing stuff — since Shakespeare was…was…well, we don’t know what Shakespeare was doing, because his own biographical arc is half-fictional, too. But his plays, even the ones stuffed with well-known historical figures, display a robust nonchalance in the face of logistical fussiness. In ”Julius Caesar,” the Bard tweaked the dates of battles and political triumphs in order to give the play a neat narrative flow. ”Shakespeare the dramatist was not careful about historical details any more than he was concerned about historical anachronisms,” says the introduction in my Folger Library paperback of ”Caesar.” ”If he needed a clock to strike the hour in Rome, he let a clock strike, and nobody bothered to inquire about when striking clocks were invented.”
In a dedication at the front of his 1955 novel ”The Quiet American,” Graham Greene confesses to having juggled a few events leading up to U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. ”For example,” he writes, ”the big bomb near the Continental preceded and did not follow the bicycle bombs. I have no scruples about such small changes. This is a story and not a piece of history…”
Granted, the changes in ”A Beautiful Mind” are not small, and they involve the contours of a man’s life. But still, if you think members of the Academy are going to vote against it because of THAT (especially when a lot of them have probably worked on similar movies that fudged the facts), then you’re the one who’s hallucinating. Could it be argued that Goldsman and Howard changed too much, shearing away the rich, weird complications of a life in order to give their movie the kind of well-scrubbed denouement that Hollywood producers drool over? Sure. You could also argue the same thing about Shakespeare, who only got over his writer’s block and cranked out ”Romeo and Juliet” after falling in love with a gorgeous blonde named Viola — oh, wait, sorry, that was a different movie that won Best Picture.