The Best Picture Project – A Beautiful Mind (2001)

Directed by Ron Howard

Written by Akiva Goldsman, based on the Sylvia Nasar book

Starring Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Ed Harris, Josh Lucas and Paul Bettany

Not all that long ago I covered the awful 2000 film Gladiator for the Best Picture Project and mentioned I thought Russell Crowe won an Oscar for the wrong film.  Usually the Academy gets it wrong and honors an actor (or director) for some lesser work later in the career, usually to make up for overlooking them earlier in their career.  Think about Al Pacino winning for Scent of a Woman but going empty-handed for everything he did in the 70s; Martin Scorcese taking gold for The Departed and not Taxi Driver, Raging Bull or Goodfellas; or Kate Winslet winning for The Reader despite previously being overlooked for Little Children and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.  These are but three, but the list goes on.

However, with Russell Crowe, maybe for the first time in Academy history did an actor win an Oscar for a lesser earlier work, to the detriment of better, later work.  In this case the lesser work was Gladiator, which, I thoroughly believe was awful.  In case you missed that the first few times I said it, I’ll say it again: Gladiator is awful.  The better, later work, of course, was A Beautiful Mind.

As an aside, we’ll leave it unsaid that the truly magnificent performance in all of Crowe’s filmography is his work in the lesser-known Romper Stomper, followed closely by his barely-controlled-ball-of-rage Bud White in L.A. Confidential.

Nevertheless, the point here isn’t to say Crowe isn’t a deserving Oscar winner, because he is.  He’s a great actor of skill and intensity.  The point is actually just how much mediocrity the Academy has anointed as ‘Award-worthy’, simply to make up for their own past idiocies.  For a group that is supposed to be honoring the best in film, they sure are willing to ignore it at every turn, simply to assuage their own guilt over getting it wrong in the past.  It makes Jeremy Iron’s acceptance speech of his 1990 Oscar for Reversal Of Fortune all the better for thanking David Cronenberg, a subtle acknowledgment to the fact he won his Award for the wrong film.

Fortunately, Crowe’s Oscar for Gladiator the year before meant he didn’t need to be lauded a year later, clearing the way for Denzel Washington to win his own lesser-work Oscar for Training Day – which is the one he really should have won for Malcolm X.

Oh, but I digress.

Despite Crowe’s victory, and despite the superb performance by the ever-beautiful Jennifer Connelly – at least until late on in the film, when her superb, charming wife, morphs into a crying, red-eyed monster and becomes a mere caricature as opposed to an actual character – and despite Ron Howard’s more-than-capable direction, the appeal of A Beautiful Mind has waned for me.

At the time of the film’s release, I really saw the Best Picture race as between two films: A Beautiful Mind and Gosford Park.  Both are excellent and I thought Gosford Park was the better picture, but only by a nose.  And though I preferred Gosford Park, I wasn’t offended it lost.  In the eleven, or almost twelve, years since then, I still think Gosford Park is better by a nose, though now it’s by Pinocchio’s nose, the one he sported at the end of all his lying.  And yes, I’m a little offended it didn’t win Best Picture.

It isn’t that A Beautiful Mind has somehow gotten worse in the decade since its coming-out party, or Gosford Park has gotten that much better, because neither has happened.  They both remain the films they always were.  It’s just that being clear-eyed about it, and free of the hype that comes with the Oscar season, I see A Beautiful Mind for what it is: good, but not great.  And compared to the delicious dessert of Gosford Park, it pales.

As another aside, the other nominees for Best Picture that year were: In The Bedroom, which did little for me and left me baffled why everybody was blown away by Sissy Spacek, when it was clearly Tom Wilkinson who carried the show; Moulin Rouge!, which I liked quite a bit, what with all its goofy over-the-top excess; and The Lord of the Rings, which can only be measured against itself and not against any other films.  In other words, it’s a special case that I don’t want to deal with.

To take a further aside from that aside, consider that a genius little film called Memento couldn’t even rate a Best Picture nomination.  Just think about the injustice of that for a while.

To be fair, I have to say that I am aware of the controversy that surrounded a number of pictures around the turn of the century that were labeled bio-pics but were less true than could be believed – I’m looking at you, Hurricane – but I don’t hold it against A Beautiful Mind for taking some liberties with John Nash’s life.  After all, the movie was already two hours and ten minutes long and to take even a cursory glimpse at such jettisoned elements as the bastard-child Nash fathered and abandoned in the early-50’s, or the allegations of a homosexual relationship when he was at the RAND corporation, would have stretched the film a good twenty minutes more.

I also don’t hold it against the film for taking liberties with Nash’s illness – apparently, his hallucinations were auditory, not visual, and because film is a visual medium, you can understand changes had to be made – or that his Nobel acceptance speech was created out of whole cloth, as it never happened in real life.  I don’t hold these things against the film because it’s not a documentary, but a movie.  Therefore, it must entertain first and hopefully, if there’s time, get the facts straight.

Nevertheless, while I don’t hold the truthfulness of the film – or its lack thereof – against it, I’m still not blown away by it, which means that my one true quibble with the film rises to the level of grand disappointment.  This would be the necessary flaw where the film simply jumps whole-hog from the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s in one fell swoop, glossing over thirty-odd years of the man’s life.  Normally, I wouldn’t give a damn about this, but when much of the film covers John Nash from about 1947 to 1960, basically the time during which he went from being an eccentric from West Virginia, to a full-on schizophrenic in need of hospitalization, then jumps forward 30 years in a blisteringly-paced montage sequence to get us the ‘ta-da’ moment of the Nobel Prize and an emotionally satisfying climax, I’m left a bit cold.

I almost prefer that the film simply end when Nash has recovered enough to go to his old Princeton nemesis and ask to work in the library and leave the Nobel prize for a title card.  Maybe also mention that though he was improving, it was a long way to go to full recovery, etc.  It would be a good, hopeful ending, and wouldn’t be simply designed out of thin air to make the audience cry.

Of course, given it already won the Award for Best Picture, I don’t imagine Ron Howard will be falling all over himself to re-edit the film in a way that pleases only me.  After all, my approval comes with no gold statues or box office success or any of the other things you get with an Oscar.  Besides, at this point I’d rather he spent his time working on the next season of Arrested Development, which I live in insane anticipation of.

Trivia

Nice to see the co-stars of Dazed and Confused, Anthony Rapp and Adam Goldberg, back together in A Beautiful Mind.  If only they’d turned up Marissa Ribisi, it would’ve been perfect.

For the other winners and films left to see, click here.

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