Film/New logo

"A Beautiful Mind"

Directed by Ron Howard with Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Ed Harris, Christopher Plummer, color, 129 minutes, 2001

Based on the book, "A Beautiful Mind," by Sylvia Nasar, Simon and Schuster, 1998, $25

The Triangulations of Pidgeons

Cover of the Simon and Schuster hard-cover edition of "A Beautiful Mind," published in 1998, $25

By Michele Leight

For many, the upper reaches of mathematics are not easy, indeed they can be maddening.

Ron Howard's movie based on the life of a mathematician who descends into madness but eventually wins a Nobel Prize in 1994 for economics, therefore, would not seem like a typical Hollywood blockbuster.

The movie is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of John Forbes Nash Jr., by Sylvia Nasar, a reporter for The New York Times, first published by Simon and Schuster in 1998 and then reissued by Touchstone to coincide with the opening of the movie and featuring the star of the movie, Russell Crowe, on its cover.

The movie takes a lot of liberties with the book and Nash's life, but it is, nonetheless, a serious and interesting study of obsessed and eccentric genius and a very praiseworthy attempt to deal with difficult subject matter, helped in great part by a very strong and fascinating performance by Crowe, one far better than his Oscar-winning performance in "Gladiator" the previous year.

John Dryden (1631-1700) knew all about it when he wrote, in Scene 1 of Act II of "The Spanish Friar," the line "there is a pleasure sure in being mad which none but madmen know."

Dyrden was not making light of the agonies of mental disease. He sympathized with those who undergo the mental gymnastics required in the creation of great things, because they suffer the agony and the ecstasy - and extreme behavior - the world calls "madness." We now know that there are clinical and hereditary causes for several mental illnesses instead of generic "madness," although clearly we do not know enough.

Many of the world's most famous writers, poets and artists battled mental illness throughout their lives: Michelangelo, Lord Byron, Coleridge, T.S. Elliot and Robert Lowell amongst many others. Van Gogh, Hemingway and Virginia Woolf committed suicide because of it. In her book "Touched with Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament," (Free Press Paperbacks/Simon and Schuster, New York, 1993) Johns Hopkins Psychiatry professor Kay Redfield Jamison gives fascinating insight into manic depression and its hereditary links. Schizophrenia is also linked to hereditary factors, but unlike manic depression, which can be treated now with medication, there is at present no cure for schizophrenia. It remains perhaps one of the most devastating and isolating of mental illnesses, but current research is encouraging.

Nash may have had schizophrenia in graduate school, but because the bar for eccentricity is much higher in the field of math than any other, it went unchecked.

The high math content of the book proved to be far more fascinating and easy to understand than anticipated, thanks to the uncomplicated explanations of Ms. Nasar. While his youth showed no indication of math genius (besides a B- in math in high school) Nash passed a difficult qualifying exam for a scholarship to one of a number of prestigious colleges. The chosen one, Carnegie Technical Institute, (now Carnegie Mellon) was powered by some of the finest scientific and mathematical minds in the world, and he was encouraged specifically toward mathematics by savvy professors. The next step was Princeton, which won out over other institutions by offering Nash more money. They wanted him that badly. He was to join a cast of the greatest scientific and mathematical minds of the 20th century.

Early in his career, Nash showed amazing ambition and tenacity when his curiosity was peaked. In her book, Ms. Nasar recounts the following: "During his first fall in Princeton Nash sometimes took a slight detour down busy Mercer Street to catch a glimpse of Princeton's most remarkable resident. Most mornings between nine and ten, Einstein walked the mile or so from his white clapboard house at 112 Mercer Street to his office at the Institute. On several occasions Nash managed to brush past the saintly scientist wearing a baggy sweater, drooping trousers, sandals without socks, and an impressive expression on the street. He imagined how he might strike up a conversation."

This was not enough for the young undergraduate: "It was a measure of Nash's bravura and the power of his fantasy," Ms. Nasar continued, "that he was not content merely to see Einstein in his office in Fuld Hall. He told Einstein's assistant that he had an idea that he wished to discuss with Professor Einstein." Once inside the large, messy office, Nash was ushered to a meeting table by Einstein's assistant, "John Kemeny, who would later invent the computer language BASIC, become President of Dartmouth College, and head a commission to investigate Three-Mile-Island." He was at that time a chain-smoking logician at Princeton. Einstein's handshake, noted Nash, ended in a "twist."

"The late morning light streaming through the bay window produced a sort of aura around Einstein. Nash, however, quickly got into the substance of his idea, while Einstein listened politely, twirled the curls on the back of his head with his finger, sucked on his tobacco-less pipe, and occasionally muttered a remark or asked a question. As he spoke Nash became aware of a mild form of echolalia: deep, deep, interesting, interesting," Ms. Nasar wrote. No such exchange takes place in the movie, which is a real pity. Echolalia is the repetition of phrases, either immediate or delayed, made by other persons. For the outcome of their discussion, read the book!

Some of the most beautiful scenes in the movie are of Nash "strutting his stuff" at Princeton, brilliant and admired. Ms. Nasar gives further insights: "The young genius from Bluefield, West Virginia, handsome, arrogant, and highly eccentric burst onto the mathematical scene in 1948. Over the next decade, a decade as notable for its supreme faith in human rationality as for its dark anxieties about mankind's survival, Nash proved himself, in the words of...Mikhail Gromov, 'the most remarkable mathematician of the second half of the century. Games of strategy, economic rivalry, computer architecture, the shape of the universe, the geometry of imaginary spaces, the mystery of prime numbers all engaged his wide-ranging imagination. His ideas were of the deep and wholly unanticipated kind that pushes scientific thinking in new directions.'"

The movie attempts to capture the awesome abstractions of higher math and the fierce competitiveness of its practitioners, but unfortunately it stops short and glosses over much of its intellectual subject matter, perferring to focus on the human and emotional side of the story. While it does not trivilize the subject, it is sufficiently superficial that few viewers will be able to fully explain Nash's contribution and theories based only on the movie. Despite such caveats, however, the movie is very absorbing and the real criticism of it is that it is too short, especially towards the end. Howard's direction and Crowe's performance are so riveting that the viewer's interest never lags and is actually whetted.

The enigmatic face on the cover of the 1998 Simon and Schuster edition of Nasar's book was of John Forbes Nash Jr., with the caption: "A legend by the age of thirty, recognized as a mathematical genius even as he slipped into madness, John Nash emerged after decades of ghostlike existence to win a Nobel and world acclaim." Being mathematically unsound, I had reservations about the high math content of the book, but I could not put it down after the first couple of pages.

It was difficult to imagine that Nash's story would be willingly embraced by media moguls and spun into celluloid without some or a great deal of tampering. To put it bluntly, it is an all-American story, but not the heartwarming kind with which Ron Howard is usually associated, and definitely not standard Hollywood fare. It is a great and important story, and Howard, intuitive as always, is a genius for selecting it. When the "re-vamped" paperback flooded bookstores with Russell Crowe's face on the cover with the caption "Now a Major Motion Picture" it gave some idea that a Hollywood fairytale was about to be unleashed. Of his 15 films to date, director Ron Howard is best known for highly successful and wonderful - "family" movies like the "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," "Splash" and "Apollo 13." Scriptwriter Akiva Goldsman is best known for flotsam like "Batman and Robin," "Deep Blue Sea" and "Lost in Space."

The raw material of "A Beautiful Mind" probably left both director and scriptwriter with a major headache, wondering how they could turn schizophrenia, illegitimacy, possible bi-sexuality, divorce, institutionalization and more schizophrenia into palatable blockbuster fare for the entire family. Akiva Goldsman must have been instructed to re-write Nash's life, which he does extremely well, and it is this version which is the movie of John Nash's life. It is more than possible that Nash prefers the Howard/Goldsman version! In reality, however, there is nothing remotely humorous about a man's struggle with one of the most punitive, and incurable, mental illnesses.

Ron Howard has been described by Walter Moseley in "Writers on Directors," (conceived and photographed by Susan Gray, Watson-Guptil Publications, New York, 1999, see The City Review article), as "one of the most important directorial voices of our age." Moseley mainted that Howard "speaks to the heart and to the future of film in America."

If the movie had not been marketed as "based on a true story" it might have avoided serious critical fire and controversy. For those who have read the book and are expecting a faithful re-creation of it at the movies, buy a big bag of popcorn and be warned! The cast, acting and the movie are superb and Sylvia Nasar, the author of the biography, "A Beautiful Mind," said the movie was great, even if it did not follow the book. Ms. Nasar is wiser than we are in the ways of Hollywood: however Tony Scott, movie critic at The New York Times panned the movie, calling it "entirely counterfeit" even though both he and Ms. Nasar work for the same paper. It is not clear if John Nash gave his consent to Ms. Nasar's biography.

John Nash has added his two cents to the controversy surrounding the film by flatly denying his schizophrenia to film-maker Benita Raphan. He is entitled to his opinions and maybe he does not relish the publicity his trials have generated. Raphan, who is an expert on Nash, showed her short film about John Nash called "2 + 2" five times at the Sundance Film Festival to sold-out audiences. After e-mail contact with Nash for the past 14 months, an incredulous Raphan says: "He hasn't seen our film. He's in denial about his schizophrenia." It would be interesting to know if John Nash has made any money out of the book or movie, as the box office and publishers coffers fill up. For more check

The movie fast-forwards past Nash's West Virginia childhood, which was solitary, awkward and academically impressive enough to get him a scholarship to Carnegie Institute, and then to Princeton. We come in on a very properly attired Nash Crowe in bow-tie and tweeds speaking in a soft Southern drawl to a group of fellow undergraduates. It is not long before Nash lets everyone know that he is arrogant, opinionated and does not like to lose. It is also very clear to all the mathematicians concerned that he is a genius because he follows the triangulations of pigeons and tries to rationalize their movements into a coherent theory. Despite a nerdy twitch and awkward mannerisms, Nash is good-looking and muscular enough to attract females. In a wonderful scene in the movie he tries to cash in on the advances of a beautiful blond at a bar, but blows it by alluding to sex immediately - and receives a hefty slap from the bombshell in front of all his buddies.

The one woman who buys Nash's brand of romancing is Alicia Larde, a beautiful South American physics student at MIT, where Nash winds up teaching. What we are not told in the movie is that Nash had been involved with a nurse for some time and that she had his illegitimate child while Nash was courting Alicia. Nash takes time out from his theorems, theories and blackboard, and window, scrawls to eventually propose to Alicia, wondering if this will be an "advantageous" decision in his life, because he is a rational mathematician and not a howling romantic. Crowe as Nash on his knees proposing inquires how he could be "certain" (as in "proof") that their love was of the deep and lasting kind that warrants marriage. Alicia gives him the universe as an example of knowing something is there without it ever having been definitively "proven."

Alicia turned out to be the most "advantageous" person in Nash's life because she was the Rock of Gibraltar. The nurse, meanwhile, became solely responsible for their illegitimate child, had to give up her job, go on welfare - and in the end Nash married Alicia. The movie avoids the abandoned mother and child. The Nash's marriage was amazing, but far from ideal, and the movie does not allude to their eventual divorce. They remarried thirty years later, when Nash's schizophrenia went into remission and after he received the Nobel.

The "movie" relationship is watered down, and Alicia is shown as a doting, not particularly bright, cutely dressed wife when she did have a PhD in Physics in the 50s - when women were not swarming all over college campuses. In the movie she is the only woman in the classroom. Jennifer Connelly is wonderful, even though she has been deprived of all the "true grit" Alicia possessed in real life. She had a baby at the very time that her brilliant, adored Nash was unraveling mentally and eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia. Connelly quietly conveys the agonizing "moment of truth," when she understands that life will never be the same for them, as she and Nash's psychiatrist Dr. Rosen, played by Christopher Plummer, witness from a glass partition the fallen genius receiving electric shock treatment at McLean (called McArthur in the movie) mental hospital. She asks him "How many times?" and learns that her husband has this treatment five times a week.

In a conversation with Sol, a concerned friend, Alicia rebuts his calling Nash "lucky" for having her to love him. Her response, however, is that he was "so unlucky" because of what schizophrenia had done to his life. There is a reverberating sense of "Why Nash?" "Why the most brilliant one of the bunch?" Ron Howard is fine at unearthing the most fundamental and universal questions. In a chilling episode, Nash, covered in blood, digs away part of his arm with his nails to pull out an imaginary implant; the despairing psychiatrist Dr. Rosen sadly observes the tragedy of the situation with his staff. He is a highly qualified clinician at one of the top institutions in the world, but he is as helpless as Nash.

Crowe, crouched on the floor of his cell, is so good in this scene that it is almost unbearable to watch. The blood looks fluorescent against the wrap-around clinical whiteness. Howard's direction communicates the barbaric toll mental illness can exact on the patient. Schizophrenics are more likely to inflict harm on themselves than on others. While this event was fictionalized, it really thumps schizophrenia down like a gavel on the consciousness of the audience.

In the book, Nash gets so out of control that Alicia had to make one of the toughest calls in life - to have him committed to a mental institution for proper care. Not a pretty decision, and not a popular one with anybody at the time, including Nash. Sylvia Nasar writes: "She wanted the world to know that Nash was mad. She worried that if she came to harm that he'd be treated like a common criminal, so she wanted everyone to be sure that everyone knew that he was insane. Furious controversies broke out (at Princeton) over whether Nash was truly insane or merely eccentric, and over whether, insane or not, anyone had the right to rob a genius like Nash of his freedom."

In the book, Alicia is worried senseless that her husband would harm her, their child or himself. She did not know that her husband was acting crazy because he had schizophrenia until he was diagnosed with it. It was a hideous "bolt from the blue." The movie does not make any clear statement about her decision to have him committed, and shows one fictionalized scene of Nash almost drowning the baby by mistake in the bathtub, and does not allude to his travels abroad where he was also institutionalized. When he was virtually homeless, Alicia made a place for him in her home, but by then they were officially divorced.

Alicia was the backbone of Nash's life, but her more controversial, and desperate, actions, which come through so forcefully in the book, have been smoothed over in the movie, diluting the potency of truth. Such glaring omissions, which are crucial to the story, might have weakened the fabric of the movie irrevocably had it not been for the great performances all around. It is a sobering thought that the real subject matter of Nash's life - mental illness and its ravaging effects - is considered by Hollywood to be more threatening to movie audiences than the seemingly endless stream of sex, drugs and gratuitous violence in the form of blood - which is par for the course these days. Again, however, Howard is making a point. It is time for the taboo and stigma to be lifted on mental illness because a staggering number of people suffer from it.

Russell Crowe does an amazing job in a complex and very different role, and the accolades are well earned. Expectations run high for an actor who has already impressed audiences with his performances in "L.A. Confidential," "The Insider," and "Gladiator." The man has the ability to dissolve with grace into any character, like Equal in a cup of coffee. He has made public references to Nash's bi-sexuality, and he acknowledged his indebtedness to the Nash family and to Sylvia Nasar's book in his acceptance speech at the Golden Globe ceremony in early 2002. Without him, the movie would not soar.

The rest of the cast is also "prime": Ed Harris can do no wrong even in the strange role he plays as a CIA operative/spy, who literally haunts Nash in a very natty hat; Christopher Plummer is impressive and dead serious as the shrink who disentangles Nash from his mental briar patch.

Another important omission in the movie is that Nash's son, John Charles Nash, was diagnosed with schizophrenia in his teens: quite a different picture to the movie portrayal of a handsome Harvard undergraduate in black tie and tails at the Nobel ceremony in Stockholm. His son went to Rutgers. One fact that is known about schizophrenia is that it is hereditary. Their son Johnny lives with them now and has been medicated with drugs like Clozaril, Risperadol and Zyprexa, which, according to Sylvia Nasar, "have enabled him to stay out of hospital but have not given him a life."

Nash's son is often angry and occasionally violent and Nasar writes that "Life with Johnny is a tremendous strain on Nash and Alicia." Nash, Nasar relates, calls it being "perturbed," "tyrannized," and he is often preoccupied with "the drift and danger of degradation." "We are at out wit's end," said Alicia recently, according to Nasar, adding that "You work so hard and then he's out of it. The Nobel hasn't helped Johnny at all."

In her biography, Ms. Nasar tracks Nash's reconciliation with his first-born son: "John Steir took the first step in ending his twenty-year estrangement from his father, mailing him a copy (anonymously) of the June 1993 Boston Globe column that speculated on Nash's chances of winning a Nobel. Two months after his triumph in Stockholm, Nash boarded a shuttle bound for Boston to spend a weekend getting reacquainted with his older son." John Steir was a babe in arms when Nash married Alicia. Sadly, the movie did not go into the real-life drama of a very meaningful reconciliation. Nowadays, John Nash is reportedly spending much more time on friends and family, and is a devoted father to both his sons. His new role includes family therapy.

In a televised interview with Charlie Rose, Howard said he originally felt that he needed an actor with "intelligence" in his eyes, and he was concerned that Russell Crowe had no formal education. This is a story about a truly brilliant man, and Crowe applies the same integrity in conveying Nash's phenomenal mind, his eccentricity and quirkiness and his attractiveness to women with great success. At the Golden Globe prize ceremony, Crowe made a point of praising his directing and the atmosphere of trust and freedom he creates for his actors.

Crowe's intuitive and sensitive personality (perhaps fostered and nurtured by the absence of formal education) plays up another very important trait which Nash possessed and which Sylvia Nasar eloquently describes in the book: "Nash's genius was of that mysterious variety more often associated with music and art than with the oldest of all sciences. It was not merely that his mind worked faster, that his memory was more retentive, or that his power of concentration was greater. The flashes of intuition were non-rational. Like other great mathematical intuitionists - Georg Friedrich Bernhard Reimann, Jules Henri Poincaré, Srinavasa Ramanujan - Nash saw the vision first, constructing the laborious proofs afterward."

Russell Crowe also made pointed references to the Nashes, the book and its author, Sylvia Nasar, in his Golden Globe acceptance speech, which was appropriate. He expressed his gratitude to Ms. Nasar for her insights, which included such vivid descriptions of Nash as this: "No man was more obsessed with originality, disdainful of authority, or more jealous of his independence. As a young man he was surrounded by the high-priests of twentieth-century science - Albert Einstein, Jon von Neuman, and Norbert Weiner - but he belonged to no school, became no one's disciple. He thumbed his nose at the received wisdom, current fashions, established methods. He almost always worked alone, in his head, usually walking, often whistling Bach. Eager to astound, he was always on the lookout for the really big problems. Even as a student his indifference to others' skepticism, doubt and ridicule, was awesome."

In addition to conveying Nash's genius, Crowe forces the viewer to "feel" the disease as it begins to possess Nash, like an invisible strangle-hold, a physical vice, blocking him from what he loved to do. There is a scene where he is holding his baby, oblivious to his son's screams, because he does not hear them. He fights hard but the hallucinations, delusions and voices remove him from reality, cloud his mind, and tragically, his mathematical abilities. Crowe transforms into a spacy, catatonic Nash with awesome precision; his defeat is expressed in drooping shoulders, slovenly dress and pathetic dejection.

If Nash had been homeless but left with his mental faculties, Crowe's acting implies that he would have been OK. It is the void in his mind where his genius once reigned that means total loss. This is the first role in which Crowe plays helplessness; even in the "Insider" there was a sense of fighting back, but the harrowing effects of electric shock treatment - wipe out masculinity, dignity and individual freedom. This was back in the 50s and 60s, before researchers concluded that such treatment was not very effective or constructive for the schizophrenic. It is deeply disturbing to watch. It is not used to treat schizophrenia today.

The convulsed, imprisoned Crowe as Nash, at the mercy of the procedures of a mental institution, bring back memories of Jack Nicholson in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," in which the hero is subjected to ECT in equally harrowing scenes. Both movies capture the chilling reality (given the medications and methods available today) that treatment inevitably results in the dehumanization of the mentally-ill person as part of the process of getting well, as in "normal."

The directing and acting in these scenes is inspired because they draw from a life under siege - as it must feel for anyone in the grip of mental illness. Howard, who gets to the heart of things, has taken the lid off a pervasive and growing statistic in our society: a staggering 2.4 million have schizophrenia in the United States. Millions more suffer with some form of mental illness in this country and worldwide. In the West, mental illness is recognized as a clinical condition and patients are treated accordingly. In a newspaper headline in 2001 in India, the subject was the death of all the inmates of a mental "facility" burned to death as fire swept through the compound at night. They were shackled to their beds and could not run anywhere. In February, 2001, a front page article in The New York Times revealed that some political activisits in China were being treated as mental patients and there is obviously a degree of concern about wrongful incarcerations where people are hidden away because they are perceived by some "authorities" as "mad." The director who has brought us the heroism of astronauts has put his finger on the pulse of the lonely fighter of mental disease. The stigma persists even in countries where there is greater understanding.

One of the most moving scenes in the movie shows a sloppily dressed Nash relegated to house-husbandry in a tiny clapboard house by the railway tracks in Princeton Junction when his schizophrenia is in remission. Like a lost toddler, he asks his wife, who is washing dishes, "What do people do?" The man cannot fathom an existence without a mental arena in which to thrust and parry, a stage on which to play out his problem-solving genius. The disease has severed him from what he loves most.

As Nash acquiesces to his new life, the hallowed halls of Princeton and the campus so glowingly and beautifully portrayed through Howard's lens - where he once dazzled along with the greatest mathematical minds of the 20th century - now seem part of a hazy dream. His peers, the keepers of the mathematical flame, are gone; he is lonely beyond belief because he has lost the companionship of his mind. The electric shock treatment and medications have destroyed his concentration and his sharpness. Well-intentioned friends read his incoherent attempts at work and are dismayed. Nash is on the other side of an invisible fence and dialogue does not progress beyond the mundane.

One of the most inspirational things about this story is the way the academic communities of Princeton and MIT remained steadfastly loyal to Nash. At Princeton, the scene of his former glory, Nash was granted access to the campus, the library and cafeteria and eventually given a class to teach and a small office. Alicia, unable to bear the sight of her husband moping around the house all day, suggested he re-connect with his former colleagues at Princeton, a stone's throw from their home. He was far from easy to deal with, lurked in passages and hallways, and talked to imaginary companions constantly. Nash was affectionately known as the "phantom of Fine Hall." Despite all of this, the respect and awe for Nash's past achievements held on campus throughout his 30-year battle with the most unyielding of mental illnesses, with no guarantee of a positive outcome, which came after 30 years.

It was in the library at Princeton - so long a sanctuary for Nash - when the first signs appeared that the dark cloud of schizophrenia was lifting. He began communicating coherently with a group of enthusiastic undergraduates gathered round him. The movie brilliantly captures the effect these young, vibrant minds and spirits had on a broken man who so desperately wanted to become mentally vital again. There is more than a hint in the movie and the book that it was his connectedness to his family, his academic peers, and the admiration and acceptance of a new generation of young minds and hearts that helped Nash overcome schizophrenia, or at least keep it from consuming him. It is this spirit and support that Ron Howard so effectively played up in the movie with lasting and deep effect.

After being informed that he has won the Nobel for his Equilibrium Theory, created 30 years earlier, Nash whimsically remarks "Ah, suddenly everyone likes that one." A new generation had jumped on his Equilibrium Theory and run with it into areas that even Nash said he had never imagined, such as anti-trust cases, while he was battling schizophrenia.

When mental illness kicks in with Nash, while working at the Rand Corporation think-tank, his problem-solving genius is replaced by sinister instructions from a spy, played by Ed Harris, about encoded messages in newspapers and magazines and disturbing hallucinations involving his one-time English roommate at Princeton and his adopted daughter (not in the book). The movie does not let on to the viewer for a very long time that the spy is a halluciation and by then one can almost imagine the green, smirking Grinch skulking round a corner with the admonition "Enough with the spy already!" The spy halluciation is quite convincing and Howard's decision to not let on to the viewer that it is unreal for such a long time is a rather daring bit of movie-making that does have the effect of letting the viewer see the world through Nash's paranoid, frightened eyes.

There are certain additions that could have made the movie even greater, like Nash's much valued association with Robert Lowell, the brilliant Nobel Laureate, who was his companion at McLean, the mental institution to which he was committed. The institution itself had a list of patients that reads like a "who's who" of the intellectual and creative world, an important point to remember for those diagnosed with mental illness:

"McLean," Nasar observed, occupied 240 acres of "rolling lawns and winding lanes, a precise copy of a well-maintained New England college campus of late-nineteenth-century vintage. Many of the smaller buildings were designed to resemble the homes of wealthy Boston Brahmins, long the bulk of McLean's clientele. Upham house, a former resident recalled, had four corner suites per floor and on one of the floors all four patients turned out to be members of the Harvard Club. McLean was and still is connected to Harvard Medical School. So many of the wealthy, intellectual and famous came here - Sylvia Plath, Ray Charles and Robert Lowell among them - that many people around Cambridge had come to think of it less as a mental hospital and more as a kind of sanatorium where high-strung poets, professors and graduate students wound up for a special kind of R & R."

The greatest minds frequently tip over the edge of this thin gray line, like daring pilots ignoring the sound barrier, because they push the boundaries of intelligence or creativity. Great intelligence or creativity is a risky business: Van Gogh slicing off part of his ear and sending it to Gauguin would make headlines today - and he would have been institutionalized. One of the most gifted artists of all time spent the better part of his life voluntarily committing himself to mental institutions because he could not cope with his manic-depression - it was that unbearable. Eventually, he committed suicide.

Nash, calling himself "the prince of peace," refused to sign the "voluntary papers" commiting himself to McLean. At that point Alicia was low on money, worried senseless about Nash's outbursts and about to give birth to their child. Nash's mother, Virginia, could offer no support because her grief and pain at the downturn in her brilliant son's circumstances almost caused a nervous breakdown. Nash was transferred to Bowditch Hall, a locked facility for men. Two weeks later Robert Lowell joined him. The poet immortalized Bowditch Hall and his numerous stays there in his poems "Waking in the Blue" and Lowell entered McLean five times in less than ten years.

Lowell and Nash - kindred spirits in the realm of intuitive genius - spent a lot of time together.

Nasar provides the following commentary about a visitor Nash once had:

"He found fifteen or twenty people crowded into Nash's narrow shoebox of a bedroom. In what turned out to be an oft repeated scene, Lowell was sitting on Nash's bed, surrounded by patients and staff sitting at his feet or standing against the walls, delivering what amounted to a long monologue in his unmistakable voice 'weary, nasal, hesitant, whining, mumbling.' Nash was hunched over beside him,' recalled Mattuck, 'Basically he was holding forth on one topic after another, and the rest of us were appreciating this brilliant man. Nash said very little, like the rest of us.'"

Nash was lucky that he was born a mathematician, that he has a wife like Alicia, and that the academic community of Princeton nurtured him through thirty years of struggle with schizophrenia. Nash was extraordinary: but he was sustained, even saved, by ordinary, loving and kind people, the kind director Howard obviously admires.

While the most spectacular scene in the movie is the Nobel ceremony in Stockholm, where Nash receives the recognition he has longed for all his life, it is the images of Nash's fighting spirit, in the grip of a merciless illness, which linger. Few of us will reach the heights or depths of John Forbes Nash, but we can all relate to the struggle.

The book is a keepsake, a story of love, courage and a quiet heroism drawn from daily life, and of the vicissitudes of genius. It is a very American story. Nash is now a loving family man, devoted to his wife and two sons, and he makes time for his friends. The arrogance has gone, his work includes matters of the heart. Perhaps right now all four Nashes are seated around a table playing a board game invented by Nash while the Nobel looks on approvingly.

Movies like "The Snake Pit" and "Suddenly Last Summer" and "Spellbound" and "Freud" have memorably tackled the agonies of the mind but were from another era with relatively neat and tidy endings. "A Beautiful Mind" poignantly recognizes that not all nightmares have been vanguished yet and despite the movie's flaws Russell Crowe's performance is likely to make many more people sensitive to other's sensitivities, imaginings and bold mental leaps.

In a television interview on ABC, Crowe was asked if he was now ready to "pack it all in" and retire to his ranch in Australia which he loves. With characteristic modesty, he replied, "No, because I haven't yet done a performance I really like."

Resources on Mental Illness

NMHA (National Mental Health Association)

1021 Prince Street,

Alexandria, VA 22314-2971

Phone: 1-800-969-6642 or (703) 684-7722



NARSAD (National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression)

60 Cutter Mill Road, Suite 404

Great Neck, NY 11021

Phone: (516) 829-0091



NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health)

Office of Communication and Public Liaison

Information Resources and Inquiries Branch

6001 Executive Boulevard, Rm.8184, MSC 9663

Phone: 301-443-4513

Fax: 301-443-4279


Fax back system: Mental Health FAX4U at 301-443-5158

Web site address:

To learn more about the genetic basis for schizophrenia:


Click here to order the Touchstone edition of the book, "A Beautiful Mind," by Sylvia Nasar, at for $9.60

"Harvest of Innocence," a book on coping with risky behavior by Michele Leight, is available at and

Use the Search Box below to quickly look up articles at this site on specific artists, architects, authors, buildings and other subjects


Use the Search Box below to quickly look up articles at this site on specific artists, architects, authors, buildings and other subjects


Home Page of The City Review

©The City Review Inc 2002. Written permission to use any part of this article must be obtained in writing from The City Review or Michele Leight