A Beautiful Mind remembered
At a mere 14-years-old when A Beautiful Mind was released, to say I was familiar with the life and times of Professor John Nash would be a gross lie. It would be equally fraudulent to claim that on its release in 2001, I turned to my friends outside the Odeon cinema one Friday night and said “You lot go enjoy The Fast and the Furious, I’m gonna catch this 140 minute biopic about a troubled genius.”
In fact, it wasn’t until a few years later that I actually got round to watching Ron Howard’s award-winning triumph properly. On the night before my university finals of all things, where – undoubtedly in a desperate bid to do anything bar revision – I’d flicked it on, perhaps subconsciously trying to channel some much-needed inspiration.
Two and a half hours later, with my text books still lying around me untouched, and blinking back the odd tear (not just at my imminently approaching 9am exam), I reflected on what still remains one of the best bits of cinema I’ve ever seen.
Today, both the book and film, A Beautiful Mind exist as a vicarious reminder of its now famed subject, nay – subjects; John Forbes Nash Jr and his wife Alicia, who were tragically killed in a car crash in New Jersey last weekend.
In the immediate aftermath, Nash’s peers, colleagues, and innumerate legions of professional admirers have cited the legacy he cast in mathematics (and later economics) as the true substance of the man’s existence, but the epitaph Nash and his wife left to millions detailed a far more humane struggle.
Russell Crowe’s powerhouse performance in 2001′s A Beautiful Mind
Born and raised in Bluefield, West Virginia, Nash pre-eminence in his field saw him pegged early in his career as one of the most promising mathematicians in the world. Setting the foundations for what’s now known as the ‘modern game theory’ (the highly complex mathematics behind decision-making), Nash’s star, already on the rise at Princeton University, soon began to command the attention of the scientific world during his time at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It was here that he would meet Alicia, a young physics major who would ultimately turn out to be his savior.
However, it was after Nash’s work toward the American military effort in the late 40s and early 50s, that his mind – previously his sole source of inspiration and catalyst for success – began to lose its grip on reality.
Sliding inexorably into the terrifying mental waters of schizophrenia, Nash could longer distinguish between what was real and what was imagined. He became acutely paranoid, his psychosis ranging from accusing people of stealing his work to delusions of hearing alien messages.
In the end, it was his new wife, Alicia who had Nash involuntarily committed several times in those early years, subjecting him to the archaic and ghastly treatments that were used on patients with mental ailments in the 50s. Each time he came out, any promise shown was quickly quelled with a relapse, and he was returned to treatment against his will. The repetitive and heart wrenching process soon became too much for Alicia and John, and they divorced in 1962.
“I thought of the voices as … something a little different from aliens. I thought of them more like angels. It’s really my subconscious talking … I know that now”
Despite being clearly demonised by these mental afflictions, Nash continued to teach, both pursuing and passing his life’s work on in the form of various temporary positions and research jobs. He did this for almost twenty years, eventually with his son and former wife – who had refused to give up on him – stood resolutely by his side.
And then in the late 70s, the darkness that had so comprehensively shrouded Nash genius, began to lift.
The paranoia shifted. The voices quietened. Some even left, others didn’t; lingering as ghostly reminders of what would be a perennially troubled mental state. Suffice to say, there some scars that never heal, but with Alicia at his side, John Nash could function almost normally, and perhaps what mattered most to him, professionally.
For a man so consumed by the recognition of his peers and his industry, Nash’s resurrection was galvanized in the most fitting fashion, when – at 66-years-old – he was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his work at Princeton almost 40 years prior. Seven years later, John and Alicia would remarry.
Of course, we must not forgot that A Beautiful Mind is only a film. And as such, it is as susceptible to the usual doses of artistic licence, pathos and beautification of characters as any other. But the resonating message of the piece cannot be disputed. It lovingly documents the struggle and subsequent triumph over the most difficult adversary of all, nature. The forces out of our control that threaten to derail potential greatness, whether mental afflictions like Nash, or physical – as documented so well in the recent Stephen Hawking biopic, The Theory of Everything.
It’s seeing these cruel twists of fate overcome on the road to glory, whether by medicine, love or something else entirely, that keeps cinema audiences captivated, leaving them whooping or weeping in the aisles.
And it is this story that we should remember of John and Alicia Nash. That they should die together, side by side, serves as a poignant, almost bittersweet denouement to their own modern love story.
And while the real life Nash may never have uttered the quote below in his actual Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1994, it summaries what the man perhaps may not have had the capacity to phrase . If nothing else, it provides the appropriate sentimentality to a life and story that won’t soon be forgotten…
“My quest has taken me through the physical, the metaphysical, the delusional – and back. And I have made the most important discovery of my career, the most important discovery of my life. It is only in the mysterious equations of love that any logic or reasons can be found”