Monday, January 14, 2008

A Beautiful Lie: The Truth Behind "A Beautiful Mind"

I decided to use the format of Reel Faces to answer some questions for my most damning example of Hollywood tinkering with history, A Beautiful Mind. I offered this to Kevin Lang, the author of "Reel Faces" and he said he would "try to remember" to give me credit when it's done. Which doesn't exactly fill me with confidence. So here it is.

Q: Was John Nash as cocky and arrogant as he was in the movie?
A: Yes. In fact, many people who worked with Nash disliked him, even before his mental breakdown. They found him arrogant, egotistical, and insensitive, but tolerated him because of his mathematical genius.

Q: Was the portrayal of Nash's delusions in the movie accurate?
A: No. The storyline of a Communist conspiracy to smuggle a nuclear bomb into the U.S. was made up for the movie in order to capture the spirit of his delusions. In real-life, Nash's delusions were even less logical and more chaotic than the movie version.Nash's mental breakdown through schizophrenia didn't truly develop until the 1960s, after he had graduated from Princeton (no phantom roommate) and married Alicia Nash. At the height of his madness, Nash believed that aliens were sending him encrypted messages through the New York Times, and that any man wearing a red necktie was a member of a secret international communist organization. He claimed to colleagues that he was the Pope and the emperor of Antarctica, and feared the government was working with extraterrestrials to destroy his reputation. At some point, he developed a messianic complex and thought he was a messenger from God. Nash eventually came to believe he was on a holy mission to come up with a mystical number that would prove the existence of God.

Nash says he does not recall seeing any visual hallucinations, but heard voices that mocked and argued with him constantly. At times, Nash thought the voices were coming from aliens or angels. Nash would make phone calls to family and colleagues using false names and have rambling conversations about numerology and conspiracies that they would endure until he hung up.

Q: Did Nash stay at home after his first stay in the mental institution, trying to compose new formulas?
A: No. Nash actually left the country after his first release from the mental hospital and wandered Europe for months, declaring himself a refugee and trying to renounce his U.S. citizenship. While there, he mailed postcards containing nonsensical stories and numerical formulas to his old workmates. His wife eventually worked with the State Department to have Nash deported back to the United States.

Q: Was John Nash allowed to return to Princeton, despite his mental illness?
A: Yes. But unlike in the movie, Nash was a more mysterious and disturbing figure on campus. Nash became an almost mythical figure to the students, who called him "the Phantom." He would leave secret codes and mathematical formulas on blackboards and on papers shoved under the doors of teachers, and wander the campus in red sneakers, murmuring to himself.

Q: Was his wife's love and Nash's logic the key to his recovery?
A: No. The reasons for Nash's recovery are a matter of debate. Nash did indeed stop taking his anti-psychotic medication, and never did take any medication again. Nash claims that it was his logical mind that allowed his recovery. The truth is that many people age out of schizophrenia on their own over time.

Q: Was the love story between John Nash and his wife Alicia truly as beautiful as in the movie?
A: No. In reality, Nash was already involved with another woman and had fathered a son out of wedlock with her when he met his current wife, Alicia. She was a student in his class, and they did marry and have a son together, but his illness drove them apart. Unlike in the movie, Nash deeply resented Alicia for having him involuntarily committed. Upon his release, Nash withdrew from her emotionally and sexually. After three years of enduring his mania, Alicia divorced Nash in 1962 and began a new relationship with another man. She continued to help and support Nash as a friend rather than a husband. She even let him stay in her home to keep Nash from becoming homeless, but thought of him as a boarder; they lived separate lives under the same roof. Their romantic relationship was only restarted after Nash won the Nobel Prize. She remarried him in 2001, well after his mental illness had already subsided.

Q: Was a man sent by the Nobel Prize committee to check whether Nash was stable enough to award the prize?
A: Yes. J├Ârgen Weibull was an economics professor sent by the committee to meet with Nash. He did interview Nash and the moment when Nash initially resisted going into the Princeton faculty lounge did happen. In fact, Weibull cited Nash's hesitation as the reason he recommended Nash be given the prize; it showed an obscurity and insecurity on Nash's part that Weibull felt demanded to be corrected.

Q: Was there a moment where Nash was honored by Princeton faculty by their lying their pens in front of him at his table?
A: No. No such ceremony has ever existed at Princeton.

Q: Was John Nash's acceptance speech for his Nobel Prize the same as in the movie?
A: No. In fact, Nash was not allowed to give an acceptance speech at the Nobel award ceremony because they were afraid he was too unstable. He did give a speech afterwards at a party at Princeton, but it was not the one given in the movie. According to his biographer, Nash mainly made jokes about how he hoped the award would improve his credit rating.

SOURCES
* Lycos: John Nash
* Free Info Society: John Nash
* http://www.slate.com/id/2060110/
* John Nash's Autobiography for the Nobel Prize
* PBS: A Brilliant Madness
* CBS: Beautiful Mind No White Wash

14 comments:

Mauricem said...

Wow. That was brilliantly done and really interesting. I knew that the visions in the movie were made up and I don't blame them for that but I didn't know to what extent they had to "base" the story on real life.

I still think "A Beautiful Mind" is a great movie, even if most of it was untrue. Casablanca didn't really happen, but it's still a good movie.

Looking forward to more.

Monkey Migraine said...

I agree, it's a great movie. I just wish Hollywood would stop making movies "based on a true story" when they change so much. They should do what the Farrelly brothers did with "Stuck on You" and many other movies when they want to change things - make it a completely new story with fictional characters inspired by the original story.

Sprank said...

It's not "tinkering with history" it's artistic license. A film is a work of art and has not responsibility to be historically accurate, the story is based on the life of John Nash. It never claims to be historically accurate that's not the point of a narrative, it's the point of a documentary. A Beautiful Mind isn't a documentary, it takes strong characters and their story and compacts them into a 2 hour long film that effectively builds an emotional relationship with the characters and the audience. You suggest you have a completely new story, why? The story that was told in the film is a great story that's told very well. If you want a history lesson, read a book.

Monkey Migraine said...

Sprank,

It is a great story, but it's not John Nash's story. You say that the movie doesn't claim to be historically accurate, but it does. There was no disclaimer saying that it wasn't, and by saying "Based on a true story," the audience is assuming it's at least close to the truth. They essentially did create a new story using the names of real people. That, to me, is disingenuous. It's what I hate about the trend.

maherid@hotmail said...

Through the history, secret sociality was always kidnap the scientist anyone who invent something ..etc, in the age where science was a sin to the church.

I don’t why I have a feeling that Nash tried to resist this society but –as always- they won

Go to the Nobel Prize winners through the history and you will always find something mysterious about them.

Anonymous said...

While I enjoyed the article, I have to say it is far from the "most damning example of Hollywood tinkering with history". That honor should go to Bridge On the River Kwai.

Anonymous said...

i just finished watching it yet again. i ran out and got the book after i saw the movie the first time. and initially, i was also pretty ticked off at the inaccuracies. but then neither john (nor alicia) were particularly sympathetic characters, nor did that compelling love story portrayed in the movie, exist, as such. without that, where's the movie? the outline of his life, as well as his suffering, was hauntingly portrayed by the movie (and stellar cast). a math prodigal came down with a severe and incapacitating mental illness-and years later won the nobel prize for his early accomplishments. besides feeling for his personal tragedy, it left us wondering what more nash might have accomplished, had he not been stricken..

Anonymous said...

Why do you say that he didn't recover because of Alicia's love? That may not be the key reason but I do think Alicia's love for him did help him and contribute to a huge extent his recovery. People do not grow out of schizophrenia just like that. In my opinion, it is a combination of Alicia's willingness to take him back ( that was not after but before the Nobel prize as they were living together albeit not married), the mathematical community (yes they may be fiercely competitive but they are ultimately tolerant of his idiosyncrasies and many offered practical help during this period), his psychiatrists, and lastly his resolve to start ignoring those voices. I think Nash's story show that there is enormous hope for those with mental illness and that a loving community would be most helpful to recovery. I am also immensely proud of the mathematically community who stood by him. Yes- many hated him and didn't want to be associated with him. Yet, there were many who took it upon themselves to ensure they were always around for him - visiting him regularly in hospitals, providing references, recommending him for grants, even helping him get an award (Shapley did that - incidentally he received the Nobel Prize in 2012), fighting hard for him for his well-deserved Nobel Prize. His closest friends cried tears of joy when they heard on the radio he received the prize- many even thought he was dead. Such vindication and such truimph! I still watch his recent interviews and I pray that he will come to know The Lord Jesus Christ❤️

Anonymous said...

"If you want a history lesson, read a book."

The book with the same title was historically accurate, and still a compelling read.

What is special about movies that they feel the need to lie about everything? Would the movie somehow have been worse if they didn't invent an obviously fake pen ceremony?

norahaty mo said...

Thank you very
much for this assay

Anonymous said...

What are the Organizational Behaviour and HRM aspects of the movie - A Beautiful Mind(2001)? It would be great if a few instances for both are stated.

Maryscott OConnor said...

I've never had a problem with artistic license vis a vis "based on a true story." The line itself tells you it isn't ACTUALLY a true story. Anyone expecting complete veracity ought to check the poster: if it doesn't say "Documentary," then don't expect it to BE a documentary.

MyTwoCents104 said...

How about the fact that Alicia Larde was Latina and she had an accent??? Talk about some classic Hollywood white washing. Jennifer Connelly did a good job but, Penelope Cruz or Salma Hayek could've played that role. Given all of the added characters and ommitted characters and events in John Nash's life, Ron Howard should've made it a point to at least represent one of the most important people in John Nash's life correctly.

Anonymous said...

Ah, identity politics rears its head once again.