THE BEST PICTURE PROJECT – ‘A Beautiful Mind’ (2001)

In 2002, the 74th Academy Awards ceremony was held at the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles. Honouring the films released between January 1, 2001, and December 31, 2001, the awards were held on March 24. For the fourth and final time, the ceremony was hosted by Whoopi Goldberg, tying Goldberg with Jack Lemmon for the third highest number of hosting duties. Clocking in at four hours and 23 minutes, this ceremony was the longest in Oscars history.

The Oscars moved into their brand home, the 3,300 seat Kodak Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. The theatre was designed with the Academy Awards in mind, including a gorgeous display of Art Deco columns in the lobby which display the names of past recipients of Best Picture, with blank spaces left for future winners. The entrance staircase was also purposely designed to feature shorter steps to make life easier for actresses entering wearing extravagant dresses and high heels. This was the first time since 1960 the awards were held in Hollywood itself. The theatre is just one block away from the Roosevelt Hotel, home to the very first Academy Awards in 1929, and adjacent to Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, home to hundreds of lavish movie premieres over the last eight decades. The awards are still held in this location to this day.

After decades of seemingly ignoring a beloved and popular genre of film, the Academy finally made the decision to honour feature-length animated films with their very own category. The inaugural Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film was won by Shrek. After 15 unsuccessful nominations, legendary songwriter Randy Newman finally won his first Academy Award, taking home Best Original Song for “If I Didn’t Have You” from Monster’s Inc.

With Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress nominations for their work in Iris, Judi Dench and Kate Winslet became the second pair of actresses in Oscars history to be nominated for portraying the same character in the same film. Ironically, Winslet was one half of the first pair of actresses to receive this rare honour, for her performance in Titanic.

Veteran actor Sidney Poitier became only the second black actor to receive an honorary Academy Award. The records for recognition of black performers didn’t stop there. With his upset win for Best Actor for his performance in Training Day, Denzel Washington became only the second African-American actor to win this category. Ironically, the first was Poitier. And with her surprise victory for Best Actress for her performance in Monster’s Ball, Halle Berry became the first African-American actress to win this category.

Leading the way this year with an incredible 13 nominations was Peter Jackson’s epic blockbuster The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. But the night ultimately belonged to Ron Howard’s inspiring biopic A Beautiful Mind. The film won four Academy Awards from its eight nominations for Best Picture, Best Director for Howard, Best Supporting Actress for Jennifer Connelly, and Best Adapted Screenplay. This marked the third consecutive Best Picture winner for DreamWorks, standing as only the second time in Oscars history one studio was responsible for three consecutive winners.

The nominees:
A Beautiful Mind
Gosford Park
In the Bedroom
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Moulin Rouge!

The winner:
A Beautiful Mind

Based on Sylvia Nasar’s book of the same name, A Beautiful Mind is the story of a brilliant man tortured by a crippling disease. From the heights of notoriety to the depths of depravity, John Forbes Nash Jr. (Russell Crowe) experienced it all. At Princeton University, Nash struggles to make a worthwhile contribution to serve as his legacy to the world of mathematics. He finally makes a revolutionary breakthrough that will eventually earn him the Nobel Prize. After graduate school he turns to teaching, becoming romantically involved with his student Alicia (Jennifer Connelly). Meanwhile the government asks his help with breaking Soviet codes, which soon gets him involved in a terrifying conspiracy plot. Nash grows more and more paranoid until a discovery that turns his entire world upside down.

Why did it win?
After their shameful treatment of Apollo 13, the Academy owed Ron Howard a do-over. It took him six years to get there, in which time he made some rather bizarre choices including 1999’s woeful Edtv, but he was finally back with a genuine awards contender in A Beautiful Mind. Standing in Howard’s way was the first chapter in what would become one of the biggest movie trilogies in history. But, with its bold and unique production and release strategy of filming all three chapters at once and releasing one film per year over three years, the Best Picture chances of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring were somewhat dashed before the Oscar race had even begun.

When New Line Cinema announced their full plans for the release of the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, Hollywood could essentially see what was still to come from Peter Jackson’s epic undertaking. While they heavily-nominated the first film, it was widely assumed the Academy would ultimately wait until the final film to give Jackson his directing prize and the big one of Best Picture, as a way of rewarding and acknowledging the entire series. It was a risky move, given no one could imagine what other films may be in competition two years from now, but it made the run of The Fellowship of the Ring for Best Picture almost impossible.

This almost made A Beautiful Mind the frontrunner by default. Much like Braveheart in 1995, the film was the only true contender that ticked all the boxes for what constituted a Best Picture winner over its rivals, by way of nailing the key nominations and precursor stats. As we’ve seen, The Lord of the Rings was ruled out by way of voters wanting to wait. So too were In the Bedroom and Moulin Rouge!, after they both failed to receive Best Director nominations for Todd Field and Baz Luhrmann, respectively. And while Gosford Park may have received a Best Director nomination for Robert Altman, he had failed to receive a nomination with the DGA, and only two films in history had won Best Picture without this key precursor nomination. Either some heavy rules were about to be broken, or the default option would take home Best Picture, once again. This is the Academy, and they don’t like to break rules, so we know what happens in these situations.

That’s not to say A Beautiful Mind didn’t have anything else going for it. It was another inspiring and uplifting biopic, highlighting a brilliant man most people had never heard of, portrayed by a huge Hollywood star, no less. After the uproarious success of Gladiator, Russell Crowe was now one of the biggest names in the business, not to mention the fact he’d just won an Academy Award for Best Actor. Yes, he’s about to almost capitulate his career with his anger management issues. But prior to that infamous phone-throwing incident, he was beloved and admired by all, and genuinely standing on the possibility of becoming only the third performer to win back-to-back Best Actor trophies.

But it wasn’t an easy run for A Beautiful Mind. The film was subjected to one of the most vicious and aggressive smear campaigns in recent times, widely believed to have been started by, you guessed it, Harvey Weinstein. Once the film began to firm as the favourite to take home Best Picture over Miramax’s contender In the Bedroom, A Beautiful Mind was immediately met with the kind of backlash which had all the hallmarks of Weinstein’s typical dirty tricks. After a report surfaced of Nash displaying anti-Semitic behaviour in his past, as well as insinuations of his homosexuality or bisexuality, the film was labelled historically inaccurate by deliberately hiding these less than favourable aspects of Nash’s life in the film. Never mind the fact the reported anti-Semitic behaviour took place while Nash was in the grips of a debilitating mental illness. Or the fact no proof had ever been established as to any form of homosexual behaviour in Nash’s past. The backlash was so severe, DreamWorks hastily organised a 60 Minutes interview with Nash, where he vehemently denied these allegations.

Somehow, Academy voters could see through this pathetic and desperate smear campaign. The negative gossip ultimately did nothing to affect the film’s Oscar chances. Nor did it damage its impact with the public. On a moderate budget of $58 million, A Beautiful Mind would earn a staggering $171 million at the U.S. box-office to end the year as the 11th highest-grossing film of 2001. The film would earn a further $142 million internationally to bring its worldwide figure to $313 million, making it the 12th highest-grossing film worldwide of 2001. For a simple drama, this kind of box-office result is rather astonishing, and only helped strengthen its Oscar campaign.

Adding to the film’s box-office success, A Beautiful Mind received positive reviews from critics, with many calling Crowe’s performance the best of the year. Variety hailed the film as “consistently engrossing as an unusual character study and as a trip to the mysterious border-crossing between rarified brilliance and madness,” USA Today called it “among the most affecting ever made about co-existing with mental demons”, while the Washington Post praised the film for making “you understand what it feels like to have a serious breakdown in powerful, empathetic ways that no movie has ever done before.”

The precursor season for A Beautiful Mind was a rather mixed-bag of results. It failed to capture any of the critics’ prizes for Best Picture, which were instead shared by Moulin Rouge!, In the Bedroom, and the shamefully not-nominated Mulholland Drive. The film didn’t become a true contender until the Golden Globes, where it took three major prizes including the all-important Best Motion Picture – Drama category. Surprisingly, A Beautiful Mind failed to take the PGA, which went to Moulin Rouge!. But when Howard won the DGA, the film took home Adapted Screenplay with the WGA, and it scored nominations in all the key Oscar categories, it became the unstoppable frontrunner, and sailed to victory.

Did it deserve to win?
It’s hard to overlook the historical inaccuracies and bending of truths found within A Beautiful Mind. While the accusations of anti-Semitic and homosexual behaviour by Nash may have had no real basis in reality, the film does fail to mention several key events in Nash’s life which may have painted a more accurate depiction of his life. Before meeting his future wife, Nash was involved in a relationship with a nurse called Eleanor Stier. When Stier accidentally fell pregnant in 1953, Nash abandoned her and his future son, deeming her social status beneath him, and wanting nothing to do with the child. The film omits this entire chapter of his life. The very next year, Nash was arrested for indecent exposure in a sting operation targeting homosexual men. Although the charges were later dropped, Nash was subsequently stripped of his high-level security clearance with the U.S. government and fired from his position with the RAND Corporation. The film also emits this scandal.

But the most baffling twist of history involves his relationship with future-wife Alicia Nash, nee Lopez-Harrison. Firstly, Alicia is of El Salvadoran descent, migrating to the United States with her family when she was 11. However, in the film, she’s played by a white actress, with no mention of her Hispanic heritage whatsoever. The film also bizarrely chooses to omit Alicia’s divorce of John in 1963, instead portraying the couple as having a difficult but never-broken marriage to each other, over the course of several decades. While it’s true the couple would later reunite, and ultimately remarry in 2001, they were apart for many years. If you watched this film, you’d never know this. They seem like the perfect couple. They weren’t.

Look, I understand a biopic cannot possibly show every single detail of someone’s life. There’s simply not enough time, especially in a film like A Beautiful Mind which only runs for 135 minutes. But these are major aspects of John Nash’s life we’re talking about. To exclude them feels like audience manipulation, so as to make us love Nash, and never once think negatively of him. It makes the narrative entirely problematic. The best cinematic characters show their flaws, mistakes, and downfalls. It humanises them further, and we, as an audience, generally connect with characters who are more three-dimensional and all-rounded. While it’s obvious seeing Nash abandon a pregnant woman, be arrested for lewd behaviour, and be divorced by the supposed love of his life would affect the positivity of his story. But that’s life. Life is not always positive. It’s rather shameful for a film to sweep Nash’s mistakes under the carpet and seemingly pretend they didn’t happen.

Maybe total accuracy is asking too much of a piece of cinema. Personally, I think there’s a fine line between artistic interpretation and downright falsities. If you aren’t aware of the truth-twisting A Beautiful Mind is guilty of, the film is probably completely fine, in your mind. And I’m not saying it’s a bad film, by any means. It’s a perfectly charming film, mainly due to Howard’s impressive direction, Roger Deakins’ criminally-underrated cinematography (I’d moan about him failing to be nominated, except he’s that good, he was nominated this year for something else), and the sublime performances of Crowe and Connelly.

It’s a damn travesty Crowe didn’t take home his second Academy Award for A Beautiful Mind. One of the most baffling and frustrating acting losses of recent times. In a shameful case of politics over performance, Crowe’s public persona killed his Oscar campaign, and gifted the Oscar to Denzel Washington instead. Washington’s performance is great, and it was terrific to see him become only the second black Best Actor winner. But at the expense of awarding the masterful performance of Crowe was utter nonsense.

His portrayal of mental illness is so beautifully subtle and nuanced, never one falling into caricature or farse. Crowe depicts Nash’s mannerisms and quirks with such expert skill, and his performance is downright masterful. His chemistry with Connelly is electric, and her performance shines brighter in her scenes with Crowe. As a wife and mother, desperately trying to remain by her husband’s side, while he spirals further into mental illness, Connelly is a revelation. And at least she got to take home her richly-deserved Oscar, even if Crowe couldn’t.

Even with its accuracy issues, A Beautiful Mind is a, well, beautiful film. It’s a tear-jerker. It’s inspirational. It’s moving and captivating. And it’s beautifully crafted. Was it the most deserving film of the year? Well, no. As a huge The Lord of the Rings fan, who holds the first film as perhaps the finest of the trilogy, this should have been the Best Picture winner. Or even Moulin Rouge!, a film which flipped the script on the musical genre, and crafted something so dazzlingly unique and fresh. But hey. These things happen. A Beautiful Mind is far from their worst decision. We’re getting closer to that with each day…