This site now acts as an archive only. For the latest news, opinion, blogs and listings on disability arts and culture visit disabilityarts.online.

Disability Arts Online

Back to postings list | Add a comment

film still in which actor Russell Crowe is portrayed looking anxiously through a set of blinds

Russell Crowe stars as mathematician John Nash in Ron Howard's biopic 'A Beautiful Mind'

A Beautiful Mind (2001) starring Russell Crowe

Despite the fact that this movie was very well received, including winning the Best Picture Oscar at the 74th Academy Awards Ceremony (2002), the film’s representation of mental illness is not dissimilar to 'Benny and Joon'. Both films depict sentimental and condescending portrayals of mental illness.

‘A Beautiful Mind’ opens with a dramatic and slightly eerie score, which propels the audience into the mind of Nash, as played by Russell Crowe. The film is a biographical account of Nash’s life story and follows him from his days at Princeton University in 1947 as a student until he wins a Nobel Prize for economics and is teaching at Princeton in 1994.

At university Nash is judged for being different and eccentric, but also because he is there on a scholarship. However, it is unclear at this point that he is mentally ill. It is only after he leaves university that he is diagnosed as ‘suffering’ paranoid schizophrenia. The audience is given the experience of Nash’s delusions of being a spy for the FBI, detecting codes put there by Russian/ Communist spies. This also gives the viewer a perspective on Nash’s disorientation when he discovers his visions are not real. The film also portrays his fear of the mental institution, especially during scenes when he is strapped down in a bed and given electric shocks and injections of insulin. The barbarity of these ‘treatments’ is explained as the best thing for Nash, in the long run, and shows that this is what he needs to get better.

Like Benny and Joon, the film endorses the mental health system, focussing on the necessity of Nash’s medication and the supposed strength it gives him to deny delusions and accept reality. Russell Crowe gives a method performance, based on body movement and mannerism, rather than giving a true emotional connection with the character.

Another weakness of the film is its lack of courage in portraying the huge prejudice towards mental illness at the time of Nash’s time in a mental institution in suburban America in 1959.

‘A Beautiful Mind’ also portrays Nash’s wife Alicia, (Jennifer Connelly), simply as a stand-in for 1950s suburban ideals of what a long-suffering housewife should be. Alicia is a very smart woman who studies maths at Princeton University. However as the ‘perfect wife’ she is completely self-sacrificing. Instead of the film showing how wrong it was to let this woman waste her Degree and suffer in silence for the sake of her husband’s career, she is made a martyr; a role model for all women. The film insists upon a ‘calm down and carry on’ attitude; damaging to women affected by mental illness, who are made to feel guilty.

The score to the film is equally sentimental – and typical of Hollywood – seeks to manipulate the viewer’s emotions to feel sympathy and to be inspired by Nash’s story. Instead the result is insincerity and a total lack of connection.

At the conclusion, Nash sees the people of his delusions. His wife asks him if there is anything wrong and he replies: “Nothing, nothing at all”. So the viewer is given the impression that he is completely untroubled by his illness, or if he is he is unwilling to share his troubles with anyone else and it is simply brushed under the carpet. So like Benny and Joon, the film ties up the negative experience of mental illness in a positive spin. The viewer is meant to believe that Nash has recovered, thanks to the ministrations of the psychiatric system. However, the real John Nash experienced difficulties his whole life. He had to keep on fighting mental illness, due to the poor mental health system of the time.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 30 May 2012

Last modified by Anonymous, 11 December 2012