Watching Shutter Island, I was reminded of this, O'Hara's debut feature. My thoughts on the film (and on a certain Ron Howard movie) written for Menzone Magazine back in March 27, 2002:
A Beautiful Lie
With the recent brouhaha over A Beautiful Mind--the autobiographical drama on mathematical genius John Nash, whose frontrunner position at the 2002 Oscar race was almost (but not quite) derailed by doubts about its authenticity--the question comes to mind: how true should a true story be? How much of the facts can you distort, modify, create out of whole cloth? Should one follow the truth, or at least approximate it, run parallel to it, ignore it altogether? And what is the truth anyway, while we're asking...?
The whole debate would be so much simpler if it weren't for Shakespeare. He wrote quite a few historical plays in his day, and some of them were outright slander (Richard III) while others were propaganda pieces slanted favorably towards the family of his patron, Queen Elizabeth (Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, Henry V). The result is what I like to call "The Shakespeare Defense"--where William Shakespeare's plays are held up as examples of adaptations that veered considerably from their source material, but are considered great literature anyway. Art, The Shakespeare Defense suggests, has its own prerogatives (with film requiring its own entire subset) and being factually faithful--as Shakespeare repeatedly demonstrated--isn't an especially urgent one.
It would be easy for A Beautiful Mind director Ron Howard to invoke The Shakespeare Defense; it would be just as easy for him to slip on a very large banana peel. Basically, Shakespeare got away with what he did was because he was, well, Shakespeare--the plays he wrote wandered off the historically beaten path, but they were 1) incredible pieces of dramatic literature, and 2) incomparable poetry. He's just too damned good, damn it--Henry V is bugle-blat for the Bolingbrokes, but it's also a canny, perceptive meditation on the demands and compromises that go with power. Richard III slanders the real Richard by making him hunchbacked, but the character is also an irresistible rogue with a seductive tongue (if someone were to portray me as a hunchback, this would be a nice way to do it). Conventional wisdom considers Machiavelli's "the end justifies the means" to be ethically indefensible reasoning in common human interaction; in the case of art, however, you may want to pause first and ponder...
Which brings us to A Beautiful Mind. Granted Howard and his writer, Akiva Goldsman, were aware of the other aspects of Nash's life--that he was bisexual, that he had a son by another woman, that he made anti-Semitic remarks--and granted that they chose not to use this material in their film. The question I'd like to ask, the only relevant one: does it work?
As it stands, Beautiful Mind is a conventional, cliched, totally unexciting piece of mainstream moviemaking, one that manages to cookie-cutter the rich dough of Nash's story into a standard-issue piece of uplift. Those who started the whispering campaign against the film should be roundly condemned, not for starting the campaign, but for using the wrong tack--the facts that have surfaced since the film's release could only have improved the story, not invalidate it; Ron Howard should not be accused of whitewashing, but mediocrity. The bisexuality might have provided a much-needed twist to Nash's apple-pie martyrdom; the anti-Semitism could have awakened the audience to the less lovable aspects of schizophrenia. The fact that Alicia, the wife, was not a beautiful WASP (like Jennifer Connelly) but an El Salvadorean suggests interesting tensions--how much more loyal is a Latino wife to her Anglo-Saxon husband? What desperation drove her to divorce her husband--and what sympathy (to a fellow social outcast) would compel her to allow him to continue living in her house, long after the divorce?
It's sad to see the son--the legitimate one--go largely unnoticed for most of the film, banished to one corner like a forgotten coffee mug; the way he was treated by both mother and father since birth could have given us hints of the kind of parents Mr. and Mrs. Nash were like. In real life the child ended up being both brilliant and schizophrenic like his father...a horrific touch that might not have gone well with the film's determinedly happy ending.
Very little is seen of the math that was Nash's life passion--the most Howard does is to show some numbers twinkling onscreen, like storefront Christmas lights. What's ironic about Nash's game theory was that he developed it at the beginning of his career--it was his thesis--and that mathematicians consider it the least of his achievements. That would be my foremost complaint--that the film is light on irony, heavy on inspirational moments. It's as if Howard didn't want to tax your brain with the more contradictory aspects of the man's life.
It's instructive to compare the picture with a similar tale of a fragmenting mind, Mario O'Hara's Mortal (1975)--also based on the true story of a young man named Antonio, who I suspect suffers from schizophrenia as well.
Part of what sets Mortal apart from A Beautiful Mind is the structure. At first you aren’t sure what kind of movie you're watching (the thought arises that maybe the filmmaker himself is suffering from delusions)--Antonio runs down one endless corridor after another; he watches in horror as grotesque dwarves pray in an open grave. He runs after a young woman who is abducted by strange men--or does she follow willingly? He can't be sure, and the uncertainty is killing him. Through all this strides a slim, menacing figure in glittering dress (Lolita Rodriguez, taking her cue from Maria Casares’s Death in Jean Cocteau's Orphee).
Eventually, a narrative emerges--the young man and his wife were assaulted, the wife gang-raped. The woman is traumatized, the man shattered; soon he's entertaining suspicions that his wife is a slut, constantly unfaithful to him. He kills her, and is committed to a mental asylum.
Form follows content in Mortal: while the man's mind is immersed in madness, the film itself is nightmarish and confused; when the man starts to recover, so does the film--like its hero, it regains sanity. What starts out as a vision of utter dementia ultimately transforms itself into the rather moving story of a man struggling out of his self-dug pit to regain his soul.
Not that Beautiful Mind doesn't tell a similar story, but there are differences. O'Hara's film is uncompromising--when the movie begins, you plunges straight into Antonio's psychosis, no introduction or apologies; only after the first hour does the film even begin to make sense. Howard has always been a user-friendly filmmaker, he never strays far from conventional narrative (when he does, he seems to expect a pat on his head for his 'daring').
Then there are the delusions themselves...when Howard presents Nash's more sinister apparitions, they're shot at a low angle, with shadowy lighting (you can tell Howard is drawing from the noir films he's seen--which is counter-productive; presenting the delusions as noir imagery makes them more familiar, not less). The delusions come in clearly marked packages, with every shift in reality telegraphed and scrupulously prepared (the dead giveaway--at least for me--was the ridiculously huge atomic clock they manage to inject into Nash's arm).
O'Hara's images are harder to identify, borrowings from Cocteau (and, I suspect, Fellini, Bunuel, and Dante) aside. The delusions run freely for pretty much the film's first half, and struggle mightily through most of the second. Much of the imagery--dwarves in a graveyard, wife carried away by men--play on that most potent of emotions, the Filipino male's sexual jealousy. Antonio is committing the ultimate act of self-flagellation--taunting himself and his manhood for failing to protect his wife.
Then there's the way the protagonists resolve their respective crises. Nash in Beautiful Mind uses superior intelligence to differentiate illusion from reality--a neat solution, except the schizophrenia in the real Nash merely receded of its own accord. The movie goes on to show his struggle to regain normal life, and only when he actually wins the Nobel Prize, the film implies, is the struggle validated. NO doubt the Nobel was a good thing, but it displaces attention from what I think are his true accomplishments: surviving the ailment and re-establishing himself in society (the Nobel, in fact, is so overhyped you wonder if the filmmakers aren’t projecting their own lust to win an Oscar statuette).
Mortal does share a common belief with Beautiful Mind that love--for daughter in Mortal, for wife in Beautiful Mind--can help counter and ultimately redeem a man’s insanity. Howard counts on this love so much, however, that it never transcends the status of tired convention--the wife may scream in frustration, but never abandons her man (which wasn’t true). Antonio’s love for his daughter is much more persuasive--is such a fragile, tremulous emotion that its very struggle against madness is an element of suspense in the film: love as an ever-threatened thing.
As for historical truth--the facts behind Mortal's story are even more obscure than those of John Nash, partly because it happened so long ago (back in the '70s) partly because the woman’s family successfully sued the producers (plunging the picture's production company, Cinemanila, into bankruptcy). In this case, however, I don't think the facts matter as much, mainly because it's easier to invoke The Shakespeare Defense--the film by itself is so interesting and strange you may not care as much if it were faithful or not.
Mortal died at the box-office; its reputation has since grown as a little-seen, largely forgotten cult classic. A Beautiful Mind was a critical and commercial success during its theatrical run and has gone on to win an Oscar for Best Picture (trust the Oscar voters to miss the boat as usual). The difference--which has teeth and which doesn't; which is an inoffensive mediocrity and which brilliant experimentation; which feels honest and which doesn't--is dramatic indeed.