A Beautiful Illusion

Alan Stone, distinguished Harvard psychiatrist, considers John Nash and the Hollywood romance with mental illness:

“If I were a Hollywood actor, I would be calling my agent to be on the lookout for roles in which I could play a mentally troubled character. Kathy Bates earned her Oscar playing a madwoman in Misery in 1990; the next year, Anthony Hopkins earned one for the role of cannibal Hannibal Lecter; in 1993 Holly Hunter was the mute heroine of The Piano; 1994 produced Tom Hanks as the strange but winning Forrest Gump; in 1995 there was the alcoholic Nicholas Cage of Leaving Las Vegas; Geoffrey Rush won the Best Actor award for his 1996 performance as schizoaffective pianist David Helfgott; 1997 was Jack Nicholson’s turn for doing obsessive compulsive disorder; James Coburn picked up his Oscar as the sadistic paranoid father in 1998’s Affliction; and in 1999, Michael Caine was a narcotics addict and Angelina Jolie co-starred as the sociopath of Girl, Interrupted. That’s ten Oscars in ten years and I am not counting the borderline cases like Jessica Lange who is half mad in most of her movies and has already collected two Oscars.”

Stone’s comments about the Russell Crowe portrayal (or was it the script?) capture some of the discomforts I felt with the film’s view of schizophrenia, patients with which I work every day, as well:

Life is uglier and more complicated than movies. The screenwriter did find an imaginative way to capture Nash’s claim that he cured himself with reason. There is a moment in the movie when Nash suddenly has the insight that his roommate’s niece never gets older—a logical proof that allows him to recognize that his mind has been playing tricks on him. He is a problem-solver and so he solves this problem slowly—to use his analogy—like an overweight person who sticks to a diet. The other half of his cure—the movie myth that his wife’s love rescued him—is also fiction and the emotional high point of the movie. In an imagined Nobel speech, he is shown speaking to dignitaries gathered from around the world. He explains that he has explored the physical and the metaphysical, logic and reason, but what is real is love, and he learned that from his wife. This Hollywood redemption speech puts the face of humility on Nash’s unyielding egocentricity and arrogance. It brings tears to ones eyes, even when one knows better.

Boston Review