For the last few months, Universal Pictures has been juggling a live grenade, hoping it won't go off. In the public eye, the studio's Ron Howard-directed film, "A Beautiful Mind," has been viewed as one of the favorites for this year's best picture Oscar. But behind the scenes, the studio has carefully been managing a campaign to prevent the movie from becoming a target of media attacks for the broad liberties it takes recounting the personal life of Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Forbes Nash.
When a studio sells a movie during the crowded Oscar season, it's always looking for the money quote that eloquently establishes its film as the must-see movie of the moment. So when Universal Pictures Vice Chairman Marc Shmuger opened up his copy of Newsweek earlier this month, he could barely control his excitement.
Weeks earlier, the magazine's film critic, David Ansen, had dismissed "A Beautiful Mind" as having turned "a fascinating life into formula." But, lo and behold, here was Newsweek political columnist George Will practically gushing over the movie's portrayal of Nash's wrenching struggle with schizophrenia.
"We all read the column Monday morning and went, 'My God, this guy gets it. This is exactly what we've wanted to convey to everybody,' " Shmuger recalls.
Better still, the praise came from someone whose intellectual credentials and name-brand recognition would not only appeal to Oscar voters but could also bolster the film's credibility in the eyes of potential media detractors.
By that Friday, the studio had dropped its more conventional plaudits from ABC Radio and "Good Morning America" and made Will the centerpiece of a new set of nationwide print ads for the film.
"A breathtaking movie about a beautiful mystery," the Will blurb read. "It imagines the almost unimaginable: how the intersection of a woman's love, a cluster of caring individuals and one man's will contributed to something extraordinary."
Of course, that's not exactly what Will said. With the columnist's permission, Universal altered Will's original concluding phrase, which originally read: "... a sick man's will contributed to something extremely rareremission from a disease that is almost always irreversibly degenerative."
The fact that Universal dropped any reference to Nash's illness is hardly a shocker; studios tidy up critic quotes all the time.
It's worth noting because the trailers and TV spots created by Universal and the film's producer, Imagine Entertainment, have all along avoided any mention of Nash's mental illness. Universal and Imagine believe it would be a hard sell for moviegoers and would spoil the conceit of the film, which relies on audiences not questioning Nash's view of the world.
The studio has instead stressed the emotional bond between Nash and his wife Alicia, played in the film by Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly.
When it became clear that women strongly responded to the film's portrayal of the couple's relationship, the studio revamped its print ads, replacing a pensive image of Crowe with an intimate shot of Crowe and Connelly, their hands intertwined as she whispers in his ear and caresses his cheek.
The careful marketing has paid off. "A Beautiful Mind" has emerged as the adult movie hit of the holiday season. In only three weeks of wide release, the film has already taken in about $74 million at the box office, won four Golden Globe Awards and earned a pole position in this year's wide-open Oscar derby.
"We're still anxious, but things are looking good," says Imagine's Brian Grazer, who has done his own audience research, sitting in the front row of theaters, looking back at audiences to see if they were crying or not. "This has been really different from the way we've marketed a movie like 'Grinch' or 'Nutty Professor.' There's no Coca-Cola or Happy Meals tie-ins, no easy merchandising hooks to help the film. This is a movie where you go for the emotion."
As recently as early December, the outlook for "A Beautiful Mind" wasn't so promising. Early press screenings got mixed reactions, an indicator that reviews wouldn't be uniformly good. Most worrisome of all, the film was inspired by (and took its title from) Sylvia Nasar's National Book Critics Circle Award-winning 1998 biography of Nash, putting it squarely in the troublesome biopic genre.
Biopics have not only done poorly at the box office, but they also have frequently been undermined by divisive media debates over the issue of accuracy and authenticity.
Universal knew all too well how easily these public squabbles could capsize a film. The studio's top 1999 Oscar candidate, "The Hurricane," had been irrevocably damaged by a lengthy media-fueled brawl over its portrayal of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter as an man wrongly imprisoned for murder.
Universal had been careful to position "Beautiful Mind" as a movie "inspired by" events in the life of Nash. Last spring, the studio invited the New York Times to visit the film set in Princeton, N.J. The subsequent story gave filmmakers a chance to distance the movie from Nash's life story. "It is certainly not factual and doesn't pretend to be," screenwriter Akiva Goldsman explained in the story. "Most of the things that happen in the movie didn't happen in John's life."
Nonetheless, by Christmas week, controversy was brewing. New York Times critic A.O. Scott criticized the film as an "almost entirely counterfeit story," detailing the messy aspects of Nash's life that had been left out of the film.
These included Nash's having fathered a child with a previous lover, his apparent sexual bonds with men and his divorce and years of separation from Alicia Nash, who is portrayed as the steadfast love of his life in the film. (The couple remarried last June.)
The day after Christmas, USA Today published an article headlined: "It's Beautiful but Not Factual." The piece quoted Crowe as saying, "The most interesting parts of [Nash's] life are not going to be part of our movie" and said mental health experts were worried that the film's "fanciful depiction of Nash's mental illness could have severe social consequences." Other pieces recounting the film's omissions appeared first in the Drudge Report and later in Variety and the Web site of prominent essayist Andrew Sullivan.
Believing that "The Hurricane" controversy spiraled out of control because its filmmakers waited too long to respond to media jabs, Universal's marketing staff discussed potential problem areas with the "Beautiful Mind" filmmakers before the film went into production.
"We wanted to make sure we knew ahead of time what would be an issue and how we would respond," says Universal publicity chief Terry Curtin. Curtin had Nash biographer Nasar ready to support the film in various press articles, including one in the Los Angeles Times. When Variety called, Curtin supplied statements defending the picture from Alicia Nash's lawyer.
When Curtin heard Miramax was trying to get reporters to follow up on the Drudge Report story, she phoned a Miramax publicist, who said the report was untrue. A Miramax spokeswoman said, "We were delighted that Universal was diligent with the facts instead of being swayed by innuendo."
To bolster the film's credibility, Universal also held early screenings for mental heath experts, including Constance Lieber, president of the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression, who wrote an op-ed piece in USA Today supporting the film. In recent weeks, Howard and Goldsman have been doing interviews and speaking after screenings, articulating the creative choices they made.
When asked at a Directors Guild screening why the film didn't explore Nash's implied homosexuality, Howard explained: "It wasn't central to his life. I asked Sylvia Nasar, 'Did you ever talk to one of his lovers? Did you ever read one of the letters he wrote?' And she said no, that [her reporting] was all based on what other people thought. And the more I learned, the more I thought it would be irresponsible to pursue something that may not have been true at all."
The studio had Nasar call me to defend the film as well. She acknowledges that her material is largely from secondary sourcesthe 73-year-old Nash never agreed to a formal interview -- but she argues that detractors have "jumped to conclusions I didn't make. I wanted the biography to be as comprehensive as possible, so these emotionally intense relationships seemed relevant. But I never conclude whether he was homosexual or bisexual."
The filmmakers' choices were complicated by the fact that Nash adamantly denies being gay. If they had portrayed him as having homosexual liaisons, their own subject might have taken issue with the film's veracity.
So far, the authenticity debate hasn't caught fire. One reason, besides Universal's aggressive defensive measures: Moviegoers are genuinely moved by the film's version of Nash's life story. Universal's exit polls have been sky-high, with 95% of filmgoers giving the movie either an "excellent" or "very good" rating.
Another reason is pretty obvious: The issues in Nash's life are less politically fraught than those in Carter's. The questions about "Hurricane's" veracity cut deep: Was the movie distorting the circumstances involving a man who might have been a murderer? As a man struggling to regain his sanity, Nash is a far more vulnerable and inherently more sympathetic figure. Moviegoers prefer to believe the romantic version of his life.
David McCullough's recent best-selling biography "John Adams" has detractors who say the historian presents an all too glossy portrait of our second president. Those charges didn't stick either. I don't hear anyone complaining that "Black Hawk Down" has recast the military's 1993 debacle in Somalia as a triumph of soldierly fortitude.
After all this country has been through in the last few months, we've got a serious craving for heroes. And if anyone deserves to see his life neatly gift-wrapped with a gauzy happy ending, you'd have to put John Forbes Nash near the top of the list.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times