Monday, January 4, 2016

Nothing But the Best: "A Beautiful Mind" (2001)

Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

A Beautiful Mind
Release Date: January 4, 2001
Director: Ron Howard
Written By: Akiva Goldsman (Screenplay), Sylvia Nasar (Book)
Starring: Russell Crowe, Ed Harris, Jennifer Connelly
Genre: Biography, Drama
Running Time: 135 minutes

Oscar Wins: 4
-Best Picture
-Best Director
-Best Adapted Screenplay
-Best Supporting Actress (Jennifer Connelly)

Oscar Nominations: 4
-Best Actor (Russell Crowe)
-Best Editing
-Best Make-Up
-Best Original Score

Other Best Picture Nominees

-Gosford Park
-In the Bedroom
-The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings
-Moulin Rouge!

And the winner is...

With the turn of the millennium in recent memory, it's interesting to note the winning streak that actor Russell Crowe had. Following 2000's Gladiator, director Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind marked the second time that the actor would appear in a Best Picture winner - and in a radically different one at that. In the biopic of mathematician John Nash, he played the man with a mixture of sincerity and a surprisingly complex take on schizophrenia. With excellent writing and acting, it reflected both Howard's ability to create a compelling take on familiar territory, and how the story of mental illness can create a fascinating portrait of a theme that has always been conflicted in films of the past. It's a prestige film that may feel more deliberately in line with prestige tropes, but it's also one of the more impressive.

The story begins with Sylvia Nasar's book "A Beautiful Mind," which was published in 1998 and quickly became a Pulitzer Prize-winning tale of mathematician John Nash and his wife. The one catch was neither Nash nor his wife insisted on turning their life story into a movie. Upon reading an excerpt of the book in a Vanity Fair article, producer Brian Grazer jumped at the rights, eventually making a more persuasive case than competitive producer Scott Rudin. He insisted on having Howard direct the movie, as the two had worked together on several projects throughout the decades. Howard backed out due to scheduling conflicts. After Grazer had approached everyone else, he narrowed it down to another name and Howard - who was finally available. He went with the tried and true and stuck with Howard.

The fight for the right screenplay was also difficult. Grazer initially insisted on going with a more dramatically-incline writer. Things eventually turned to writer Akiva Goldsman, whose resume wasn't nearly as impressive with blockbusters such as Batman & Robin, Lost in Space, and The Client to his credit. His pitch was striking to Grazer, choosing to mislead the audience by not revealing the nature of Nash's schizophrenia until later on in the film. Howard loved it based on the first draft, only insisting to add more focus on the love story to add depth. The film itself has been brought into question for several inaccuracies to Nash's real life. The most notable absences are those of Nash's homosexuality, his affairs, his love of alien culture, and his moments of Anti-Semitic remarks that equated Jews to Communism. Even his wife, played by Jennifer Connelly, was originally from El Savador and was set to be played by Salma Hayek.

The film's technique was to make the film through the eyes of a mathematician. This included exposing low contrast stock (Fuji F-400 8582) to an orange light before shooting to create a golden look. With many reports also equating the moment of breakthrough for a mathematician to either the smoke clearing or a light bulb going off, Howard incorporated various forms of this symbolism to better portray it. All of the math problems are unique to film, as they are all ones that Nash had done in his real life and were factually accurate (most films use equations that are inaccurate). The only conflict with showing this type of symbolism is that Nash was notoriously anti-smoking for his entire life, which conflicted with Russell Crowe's depiction on screen.

The film was shot predominantly (a reported 90%) in order to help give Crowe a better sense of his character's changing mental health. Along with this, the make-up work was meant to age Crowe in the direct sense that he would look like an older version of himself. However, Crowe insisted that he age to look more like the real life Nash. Not only did this cut down the make-up process from eight hours to four, but it lead to the creation of a new silicon-based make-up that could be used for overlapping applications. He was also fitted with dentures to better create an overbite. Composer James Horner collaborated with Grazer and Howard on the score. After a screening, he noted that the visuals were like an evolving kaleidoscope. As a result, his soundtrack featured music that evolved and emphasized a mathematical sensibility where everything builds upon each other, rediscovering its essence along the way.

The film earned $313 million over its run after debuting in December in limited release in 12th place. The film's slow acclaim gave it plenty of edge when it came to The Academy Awards, where it garnered eight nominations, winning half of them. Despite various controversies around accuracy, the crew admitted that it wasn't to be faithful to Nash's life entirely - an idea that seems present when considering its Best Adapted Screenplay win. Otherwise, the film's general success was without fanfare, as it won Best Picture without setting too many other important records. It was also the second film in a row featuring Crowe to win Best Picture, and the fourth film in five years to feature him in a Best Picture-nominated film (he would also appear two years later in nominee Master and Commander: The Far Side of the Sea). 

The legacy of A Beautiful Mind is one that hasn't been as noteworthy as most Best Picture winners. Unlike many others, it doesn't have immediate iconography that has been lampooned - save for its use of newspapers as a sign of paranoia. The rest of the film has since garnered a conflicting reception with many liking its depiction of schizophrenia, while others complain about its varying inaccuracies. In an attempt to combat this, PBS created its own documentary about him called A Brilliant Madness that was far more accurate. In 2015, three of the people associated with the film unfortunately died in automobile accidents: James Horner (plane crash); John Nash and Alicia Nash (same car crash). Speaking as The Academy's general voting has caused the 00's to be considered one of the worst decades of winners (or at best controversial), it's impressive that A Beautiful Mind is a quaint and simple film by comparison of what's to come.

No matter how one views A Beautiful Mind, it's an intriguing take on the biopic as well as a film that updated how mental illness was depicted on screen. While the film received flack for its depiction of this, it also managed to create an exciting and beautiful look into the conflicting nature of mathematicians and their home life. With a standout performance by Crowe, it is one of the films that captured awe of voters and made for something inspiring. Since Howard was a director who enjoyed making movie for the masses, it only makes sense that this film has some traces of forced accessibility in ways that cause the story to likely be more uplifting than the real life results. It's still an impressive movie with great production all around, telling a story that is itself a compelling twist on the familiar model.

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