Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Andrew C. Billings: Biographical Omissions -- The Case of A Beautiful Mind and the Search For Authenticity

Biographical Omissions: The Case of A Beautiful Mind and the Search For Authenticity
By Andrew C. Billings
The Film Journal

On March 24, 2002, the Academy Awards concluded with a Best Picture statuette awarded to Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind, a biopic of the schizophrenic mathematician John Forbes Nash. While Nash's real-life story is remarkable, another story of "overcoming the odds" has been built: the story of how A Beautiful Mind survived a whirlwind of negative publicity to gain the Best Picture award. The controversy stemmed from perceptions that Nash's life has been whitewashed for the silver screen, including the omission of (a) Nash's alleged anti-Semitism, (b) his homosexual leanings, and (c) his divorce and ultimate remarriage to current-wife Alicia Nash (Bunbury, 2002; Lyman, 2002; Mcginty, 2002). Detractors argued that A Beautiful Mind was being irresponsible to omit such large issues, yet Universal Pictures stood behind the film, arguing that no one's life can be portrayed in its entirety and that A Beautiful Mind had been as accurate as possible. The studio went on to say that there was clear evidence of an "orchestrated campaign" against the film that had more to do with winning an Oscar than achieving authenticity (Seiler, 2002, p. 4D). Film historian Pete Hammond argued that this was one of the nastiest campaigns in recent memory, stating that "to accuse the subject of a film of being Anti-Semitic when you know that a lot of the people who will be voting on the Oscars are Jewish, well, that's really down and dirty" (Lyman, 2002, p. 1A).

Within the entire battle over A Beautiful Mind, one can extract a larger question prevalent within the debate concerning the responsibility of a film to portray a historical person or event in an accurate way. How far must a director go to ensure authenticity? In the case of Howard's film, the questions became quite complex. Take, for instance, Nash's homosexual leanings. Giltz (2002b) writes that Nash was frequently referred to as a "homo" in college and also was arrested for public indecency in a men's restroom, ultimately losing his job at the Rand think tank because of the arrest. In fact, the book in which screenwriter Akiva Goldman adapted the movie contained over thirty references to homosexuality, yet all thirty instances were omitted for the movie (Giltz, 2002a). Thus, while no one was arguing that A Beautiful Mind was telling outright lies, they did argue the film was guilty by omission. Contrast this with the equally ugly controversy surrounding the 1996 film Ghosts of Mississippi, chronicling the murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers and the subsequent trial to exact justice thirty years later. Critics all agreed that Ghosts of Mississippi was "85 to 90 percent true", but, as Medgar Evers' brother Charles states, "the bigger problem is that other 'true' facts are shunted to the background" (Wiltz, 1997). In the case of A Beautiful Mind, some were even arguing that the film was 100% true, but that the majority of the whole truth was left out. In the case of Nash's homosexuality, it was not even an overt choice, as Brian Grazer and Ron Howard were forced to sign a contract that guaranteed the omission of such leanings. Thus, A Beautiful Mind becomes not a case of a director making choices of what to keep and what to leave on the cutting room floor; instead, A Beautiful Mind can be equated with the television journalist who agrees to requests to keep certain topics "off-limits" before interviewing a major public figure.

Hardt (1993) states that the "question of authenticity remains one of the major issues underlying the critique of contemporary social thought" (p. 49). Yet, one must wonder: could anyone, even Nash himself or his wife Alicia, tell a story that is 100 percent true? More succinctly, is authenticity attainable? The latter question must be answered in the negative, as authenticity is an ideal that is unreachable and that American society should implement a new standard for measuring the "accuracy" of historical film narratives. A Beautiful Mind is just the most recent in a long line of films criticized for not being "accurate enough." The debate has been waged for decades.

It is a common notion within academia that nothing we ever say is truly authentic; everything is borrowed directly or indirectly from someone else. In essence, every story we tell is someone else's depiction or at least someone else's language that has been instilled within us through maturation. For instance, if a person were to tell the story of how their first day of school was, it would be their own story, yet their language would be influenced by their background and through other students' perceptions. Clearly, it is likely that a thousand people could each live the exact same day and still render a thousand different authentic stories. Thus, the moral contact with self that Trilling (1969) describes does not really make a story authentic, but it can make a story true. For instance, people who were present at the assassination of John F. Kennedy would all have a true story to tell that would depict their version of the true happenings. Still, as evidenced in the past 30 years, there were many different sides to the same "Truth", making absolute authenticity impossible, even for eyewitnesses of the assassination.

As a result, Visker (1995) argues that the "subject" of any story should be dropped from any argument pertaining to authenticity; the only important aspect of the story is the author/storyteller's ability to recall or retell the story to the best of his or her collective memory. So, in response to the question proposed in the introduction, Visker would argue that who tells the story in Schindler's List is not important; what is of vital importance is that the person telling the story has the ability to tell the story as closely as possible to collective memory found from witnesses and research. In the case of Spielberg's Holocaust epic, this proved to have obstacles of its own, as critics subsequently learned that key scenes, such as Liam Neeson's great "one more person" monologue, were inserted for dramatic effect rather than for historic accuracy.

Yet, beyond the question of the "right to tell a story" comes the larger question of the need to tell the story accurately, another historical Holy Grail. As previously argued, there is no way any director or film producer can tell a story that somehow is or becomes a historical event. Three hundred factually accurate films about the JFK assassination could be made; still they would have three hundred different contexts, equating to three hundred different stories.

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