A Beautiful Biography

In my typically timeless style — I’m referring to tardiness, not eternal glory — I missed the Ron Howard film A Beautiful Mind when it won all those Oscars in 2001. (Gracious. Ron Howard has Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Film, and Martin Scorcese doesn’t.) It was just before Christmas, actually, that I finally saw it, and I liked it well enough that I watched it again with my girl a couple of weeks later.

An old friend told me years ago that I should see it, partly because of its cinematic merits but mainly because she’d seen pictures of my Dad as a university grad. “Crowe looks just like your father!” It was true: I was knocked out by Russell Crowe’s portrayal of the troubled mathematical genius, John Nash, but there was an extra thrill of creepiness there. My father was in his 50s when I was a young boy. I caught ghostly glimpses of a Dad I’d never known except in black and white photos from the thirties, forties and fifties. And beside that, Crowe was great. He didn’t tower over a so-so film like Jamie Foxx had in RayBeautiful Mind is better than that – but there was a family resemblance. I’d forgotten that it won four Oscars, and its best performance wasn’t even one of them.

I immediately went looking for the Sylvia Nasar biography that had inspired the film, and just finished it. And when I note that the movie version won for Best Screenplay, well, it’s interesting. A Beautiful Mind was based on the Nash bio of the same name, but I was startled by how much “creative licence” Hollywood allows itself in recounting a true story. The love angle, besides being much more central than it actually was, was mainly fiction. Almost the entire depiction of Nash’s paranoid schizophrenia, too, is completely invented. (I guess faithfulness to the book would have eliminated a good role for Ed Harris.) Given the Hollywoodization of life, it’s no wonder how little understanding the public has about mental illness!

But’s let’s concentrate on the book, which was superbly told and incredibly detailed. As a case study of genius, as an examination of psychiatric problems and their effect upon families, and as a recreation of critical times and places in mid-century America, Nasar’s book is a brilliant and compelling investigation. Its detailed description of Nash’s mathematics and of his fall into delusion barely slows down the book. I was engrossed, especially once I gave myself permission to skip the hundreds of end-notes in this densely detailed life history.

It has made me think long and hard about many things: how lonely it can be for our leading minds, how fine the line between creative genius and madness, the courage it takes to be an innovator or to live with one. In our dreamy moments, we sometimes think we’d like to be in the forefront of some great idea or cause, but most of us shrink from the cost. As spookily good as Russell Crowe was in the film, the story of the “beautiful mind” of Dr. Nash is best and most interestingly told – hey, have you heard this before? – in a book. The movie was worth the look, but A Beautiful Mind is a better thing when it’s read.

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