By Rodger Streitmatter
A Beautiful Mind tells the story of John Nash, played by last year's Oscar winner Russell Crowe. Nash was a real-life mathematical genius, government code breaker and Nobel Prize winner who struggled with severe emotional problems brought on by the combination of paranoid schizophrenia and bisexuality.
The film makes no mention of Nash's sexual orientation, however, so moviegoers are once again-as has often happened in the past-denied a silver-screen depiction of a noteworthy gay or lesbian character.
At least a dozen major Hollywood motion pictures have, over the years, suffered a similar fate.
One that comes to mind was Fried Green Tomatoes. The Oscar-nominated 1985 movie was based on a Fannie Flagg novel about two women who were deeply and intimately involved, but the movie version depicted the two women as nothing closer than good friends.
The Color Purple was another such film. In Alice Walker's novel, the main character fell in love with her husband's mistress, but director Steven Spielberg trimmed down the lesbian relationship to a single kiss-and then a fade-out.
A Beautiful Mind is a terrific film. It has already won four Golden Globe Awards, including best picture, and it's sure to be a major contender for Oscars. The film has been a big winner at the box office, too, grossing $37 million in its first three weeks. And besides all that, the Dreamworks production is a highly effective look at how a person can co-exist with mental demons.
Despite the picture's many strengths, I have a big problem with it.
Like too many major films before it, this one has been "de-gayed," so to speak, by eliminating any reference to the main character's sexual orientation.
|| Russell Crowe, who plays John Nash in A Beautiful Mind, says the character's homosexuality was suppressed so as not to create a tie between Nash's sexuality and his schizophrenia
In her 450-page book, Nasar documents two same-sex relationships and two same-sex encounters in Nash's life.
The lesser of the relationships was with a man named Ervin Thorson. They spent the summer of 1952 together in Santa Monica, California, and the relationship was an important one for Nash, his biographer writes, because it gave the bookish and socially inept genius "a first taste of intimacy."
Nasar devoted an entire chapter to her subject's second male lover. Nash and Jack Bricker, who were both MIT graduate students at the time, were involved in a sexual relationship, on and off, for almost five years. The biographer quotes one of Nash's friends as saying, "They made no secret of their affection, kissing in front of other people." Another friend adds, "They were always patting each other."
The first of the two man-to-man encounters documented in the book, neither of which could be rightly classified as a full-fledged relationship, was with a friend of Nash's named Donald Newman. "He tried fiddling around with me," Nash's biographer quotes Newman as saying. "I was driving my car when he came on to me." Nash kissed him on the mouth, Newman said, but he laughed it off and kept driving.
The second of Nash's brief encounters with another man, recounted in another chapter in his biography titled "The Arrest," was a turning point in his life-though not in a good way.
In 1950, Nash took a job with RAND Corporation as part of the brain trust behind the American military's Cold War efforts. But by 1954, the brilliant but quirky brainiac was bored with his work at the Santa Monica-based corporation.
| Director Ron Howard (right) with Crowe on the set of A Beautiful Mind
A Beautiful Mind director Ron Howard commits an even more egregious offense because the inspiration for his recent release is real life, not a novel.
The film is based on a biography of Nash written by journalist Sylvia Nasar. That highly regarded book, which was published by Simon & Schuster and nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, documents a series of events in Nash's life that add up, to any reasonable reader, to bisexuality.
So he started spending long hours strolling along the sand in Palisades Park, with his walks often extending well past midnight. The draw for Nash was the chance to ogle the hunky bodybuilders who worked out in the area that was widely known as Muscle Beach-as well as the busiest gay pickup scene in the Malibu bay area.
In the week hours of an August morning, Nash apparently decided to do more than look. He entered the public bathroom on the beach about 2 a.m. and hooked up with a man named John Otto Mattson. It turned out that Mattson was a police officer who was in the business of entrapping gay men who used the men's room for sexual encounters.
Mattson arrested Nash and charged him with "indecent exposure." The officer also telephoned RAND and told Nash's boss about the incident. The corporation's security chief then immediately fired the brilliant mathematician and revoked his top-secret security clearance.
After RAND notified the arresting officer of those actions, the police dropped the charges.
Nash's biographer calls the arrest pivotal in her subject's life because it taught him that the era's rampant hatred of homosexuality "threatened to destroy all else that he valued-his freedom, his career, his reputation, success on society's terms."
And this lesson, Sylvia Nasar continues, could well have played a key role in bringing on the paranoid schizophrenia that sent Nash's life into free fall.
"An individual's vulnerability to schizophrenia, researchers now believe, lies in his genes," Nasar writes. "But psychological stresses are thought to be catalysts." She then quotes two experts on mental illness, one from Columbia University and the other from the University of Virginia, who corroborate her analysis.
Some observers argue that to have included Nash's bisexuality-he was married twice, although only one marriage is depicted in the movie-would have communicated that homosexuality leads to schizophrenia.
Russell Crowe, for instance, told Entertainment Weekly that Nash's sexuality "was relevant to his character, but we didn't want to imply that there was any possibility that schizophrenia and homosexuality are related."
But Nash's biographer doesn't suggest a connection between schizophrenia and homosexuality, but one between schizophrenia and psychological stress. And the catalyst for the real John Nash's stress was not his sexuality but the rabid homophobia that plagued society in the 1950s.
"Homophobia was," Sylvia Nasar writes, "widespread in a society increasingly paranoid and fearful of nonconformity of any kind."
Would it have been difficult for the film to have distinguished between homosexuality as the culprit and homophobia as the culprit? Perhaps.
Could a man as talented and well compensated as Ron Howard have risen to the challenge? Absolutely.
By removing all references to the homophobia that so dramatically damaged Nash's life, A Beautiful Mind failed to educate the American movie-going public about a form of hatred that continues to plague many people today.
In choosing to "de-gay" the film, Hollywood missed an enormous opportunity.
Four out of every five openly gay or lesbian teenagers in the United States reports being cursed at or otherwise verbally abused, and one out of every five has been the victim of a physical attack. What's more, homophobia among American teenagers is so pervasive and so powerful that researchers estimate that gay youths attempt suicide two to six times as often as straight youths.
Hollywood had the chance, through one of the highest-profile films of the year-one that is drawing huge audiences and has a good chance of winning the Oscar for best picture of the year-to educate millions of moviegoers about the high cost of homophobia, in compellingly human terms.
Related Stories from the GayToday Archive:
Rodger Streitmatter and the Voices of Revolution
Queer as Folk: Gay Public Health Pioneer
TV is Crossing a New Threshold
A Beautiful Mind : Official Site
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Rodger Streitmatter, Ph.D. is a member of the School of Communication faculty at American University in Washington, D.C. His latest book, Voices of Revolution: The Dissident Press in America has just been published by Columbia University Press. He is also the author of Unspeakable: The Rise of the Gay & Lesbian Press in America (Faber & Faber, 1995) and Raising Her Voice: African American Women Journalists Who Changed History (The University Press of Kentucky, 1994)