Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Legends in a Mind

"Imagine if you suddenly learned that the people, the places, the moments most important to you were not gone, not dead, but worse, had never been. What kind of hell would that be?"

Dr. Rosen (Christopher Plummer)

As is so often the case with biographical movies, "A Beautiful Mind," which premiered 15 years ago today, was not a literal telling of the life — and mind — of John Forbes Nash Jr., who was played by Russell Crowe. Director Ron Howard and others who were behind the production readily conceded that point. Those who criticized it for being inaccurate in its portrayal of the Nobel Laureate in Economics needn't have bothered.

I wouldn't necessarily recommend the movie as source material for someone writing a term paper on schizophrenia. I haven't read the book upon which it was based so I don't know how accurate it might be — but books are almost always better (and, in the case of biographies, more accurate) than the movies that are inspired by them, anyway.

But I would recommend it for several other reasons.

If you've been reading this blog for awhile, you must be aware of my fondness for history and biography. And I do prefer that movie biographies not embellish the facts — but I realize that is almost impossible, even though I have long believed that if a life's story is compelling enough to be written about, it is compelling enough to be presented on its own merits without having to add to it in print or on the screen.

So I cut biopics some slack on the accuracy part if — and this is an important distinction for me — such discrepancies do not make significant differences to the story. I know that, as far as most filmmakers are concerned, these revisions are judged by their dramatic effect. I like to be entertained as much as the next guy, but the dramatic element really isn't important to me.

And, from what I know of the life of John Forbes Nash Jr., his schizophrenic episodes did involve the delusion that he was working on top secret assignments from the U.S. government. That's not the kind of detail I mean.

Let's say, for example, that the person being portrayed was, in real life, a lefthander — but the actor/actress doing the portrayal is right–handed. Unless the fact that the person was left–handed in life is a crucial point in that person's story — Babe Ruth, for example, was left–handed — I won't quibble over such a small detail. Well, not much, anyway.

But suppose the detail in question has more significance than that. Suppose it locates a character in a place and time that had no meaning for that character's life — and presents that detail as being critical in the character's timeline. Suppose the character is portrayed as having played a decisive role in an event when, in fact, that character played no role in it at all.

That is the kind of thing to which I object.

I don't think "A Beautiful Mind" was guilty of that — although, ironically I suppose, "A Beautiful Mind" was the story of a man who believed he had played roles in events in which he really had played no role at all. The events themselves may have occurred only in that beautiful mind, which clearly was brilliant but also disturbed.

It was no surprise, really, when "A Beautiful Mind" won four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. I thought Crowe deserved Best Actor (Denzel Washington won for "Training Day"), and Jennifer Connelly received Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Forbes' wife (I thought she should have been nominated for Best Actress). The movie also won Best Adapted Screenplay.

Christopher Plummer, who played the doctor who diagnosed Forbes' schizophrenia, was not nominated at all. Nor was Ed Harris, who played one of Forbes' hallucinations.

Oversights. Severe oversights.