The Best Picture Winners: A Beautiful Mind (2001)

| February 2, 2018

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just 28 days away and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.

For the second year in a row, the Oscar winner for Best Picture featured Russell Crowe, but – oh! – how I wish the academy had had the wisdom given him the award for this instead of Gladiator.  While the earlier film was a historical and cinematic embarrassment, A Beautiful Mind is a surprisingly thoughtful and moving examination of a man, John Forbes Nash, trying to temper his genius with a near crippling mental illness – a true battle to be fought and won.

Crowe occupies Nash like a glove, a brilliant real-life mathematician and Nobel Prize winner whom we meet in the 1940s as a Princeton graduate student where his eccentricities are assumed come with the territory.  In reality, Nash is a schizophrenic battling his own mind while trying to come up with a truly original idea (he writes a highly-regarded piece on Game Theory).  But he knows that his mind is both his greatest asset and his greatest curse, and as the years roll by we see how it affects his work, his career, his marriage and his sanity, but not in an obvious way.

Nash’s world is established with such an earthy feel that we can practically smell the polish on the wood paneling, which is juxtaposed in the confining and crippling manifestations of his mind.  There are people who wander in and out of his view that neither we nor he are sure are even real.  Director Ron Howard does a brilliant job of juggling both so that we  understand at all times what Nash is going through.  In this way, we understand his schizophrenia from the inside out and our sympathies come from the situation.

What is interesting is that for a long time he doesn’t even realize that anything is wrong.  It is only after he meets his future wife Alicia (Supporting Actress winner Jennifer Connolly) that he begins to realize that he has a problem. She is attracted to his mind and feels for him in his solitude. The movie allows them to have a romance but within the limits of Nash’s ability to get close to her. She realizes that she loves a man who is trapped inside the convolutions of his own mind and helps him find his way out.

Both John and Alicia grow over the course of the film, some 50 years, and we see them change. Nash, at the end of the film, isn’t just the same man with saw at the beginning now just in heavy make-up – he hasn’t completely worked the illness out but the movie shows him taking control of it. He is helped along by a doctor whose treatment is shock therapy and drugs but Nash believes that there is a more logical way to treat it. He is visited frequently by a trio of people whose connection with his illness is fascinating. I liked the way that the movie doesn’t force Nash into a phony “cure” or some kind of revelation,. Movies seem to have a way of pushing mentally ill characters into a cute mold, so it’s a little ironic that Crowe’s competition in the Best Actor race included Sean Penn for I Am Sam, also about mentally challenged man. That performance was phony and ran by the numbers but Crowe allows us to see different sides of Nash while staying true to his humanity.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.