"A Beautiful Mind" is often described as a film about Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Forbes Nash's harrowing journey into schizophrenia.
But the film, which earned eight Oscar nominations Tuesday, is also the culmination of an intensely personal journey for screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, whose script was nominated for best screenplay adaptation.
I've probably been writing this story my whole life," says Goldsman, 39, whose parents founded one of the first group homes for childhood schizophrenia in the late 1950s in Brooklyn Heights. "I was familiar with schizophrenia before I could even pronounce the word. I'm terrified of many things in life, but mental illness is not one of them. If you put somebody in a raging delusion a couple of inches away from my face, I feel like I've come home."
Goldsman was in Germany promoting the movie with the "Beautiful Mind" cast when he learned of his nomination. "Upsettingly for a writer I didn't know what to say," he explained. "All I could think was, 'This is not what happens to me. Oscar nominations are things other people get.'"
With its bouquet of nominations Tuesday, the Ron Howard-directed movie has emerged as a leading Oscar best picture contender, despite complaints that it takes broad liberties in sculpting Nash's personal life. It also represents a huge career leap for Goldsman, who is best known in Hollywood for writing crowd-pleasers like "Batman Forever" and "The Client." In person, Goldsman is easy to underestimate; he comes off like a neurotic Jewish comic, constantly joking about his fears and phobias. His track record is equally easy to undervalue. In the past, most critics have dismissed him as a writer-for-hire.
"You get paid a tremendous amount of money in Hollywood, so you can't complain about bad reviews," he explains. "I'm proud of my [John] Grisham films like 'The Client' and 'A Time to Kill,' which I think are credible, grown-up movies. But it's true that I also got farther and farther away from recognizing myself as a writer. Writing 'A Beautiful Mind' was a way of honoring my mother and father and the kids they worked with."
Goldsman admits he found it difficult growing up in a home surrounded by mentally disturbed children. When he was 9, he told his parents he didn't want anything to do with the kids they were working with. "I was furious that they'd taken so much of my parents' time away from me," he recalls. But the experience clearly shaped him as a writer. "For me, writing has always been an attempt at structuring a predictable environment out of what often seemed like an unpredictable universe."
By the time Goldsman went off to college at Wesleyan, he was working with his parents again, eventually starting a consulting firm that helped mental health workers create comprehensive treatment environments. When he was 28, he found himself at Harvard's Kennedy School, debating the merits of mandatory mainstreaming for mentally and physically challenged children. "I was reasonably convincing," he says. "But I thought, 'What if I've become my mother?' I love her, but I don't want to be her."
Goldsman had been writing all along but with little success. He boasts of having a stack of rejection notices from the likes of the New Yorker's Roger Angell and novelist Kurt Vonnegut. His thesis advisor at Wesleyan "looked at my writing and told me to give it up." And despite his success in Hollywood, Goldsman was far from anyone's first choice when Imagine Entertainment acquired the rights to Sylvia Nasar's biography of Nash, also titled "A Beautiful Mind."
Imagine almost didn't get the project. Company founder Brian Grazer had first heard of the book when his friend, Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, told him about an excerpt he'd published in the magazine. Grazer was taken by the story but couldn't get the Nash family to sell the rights. Months later, the family members changed their mind, but by then rival producer Scott Rudin was pursuing the rights too.
Both producers pitched their take on the book to the family. Grazer eventually won out, paying the family and Nasar roughly $1.5 million for the movie rights. While Nasar's book had speculated about Nash's homosexual relations, the movie rights agreement stipulated that the subject of homosexuality would not be included in the film.
The book attracted a host of writing talent, but Imagine Film's co-chairman Karen Kehela lobbied heavily for Goldsman. The writer came in with an irresistible visual pitch. I told them, "Imagine being in a mental hospital with no roof, so we would first see Nash in a room, talking to someone, and then see someone in every room in the hospital, talking to someone who wasn't there."
Goldsman got the job, but he almost lost it when he was slow to deliver a first draft. "Honestly, this script was fueled by terror," he says. "I was trying to write my way back to the writer I thought I should be, and I had no excuse if I [messed] it up." After months passed with no sign of a script, Grazer was furious.
"I said, Akiva's supposed to be so hungry to do this, where's the [expletive] script? It made me nuts," Grazer recalls. "It took almost a year just to get an outlineand then that didn't even reflect Akiva's pitch, which made me really mad. That's when I started telling everyone I was going to fire him."
Goldsman conquered his writer's block and soon turned in a first draft that was so "profound," as Grazer puts it, that Imagine soon had a string of A-list directors lined up to do the film. Imagine initially went with Robert Redford, but when Redford was delayed by scheduling problems, Grazer encouraged Howard, his partner at Imagine, to take the reins.
Goldsman says Howard worked closely with him on shaping the script, especially in creating a strong emotional bond between Nash and his wife, Alicia (played by Jennifer Connelly, an Oscar nominee along with Crowe). "Ron wanted to make sure their relationship had primacy throughout the whole story. The scene where Nash proposes to her wasn't in the original script, but Ron felt we were missing a key moment, and he was right."
Still, critics have complained that the film overly romanticizes the Nash marriage, which ended early on in divorce (though they were remarried last June). Goldsman contends that the script accurately reflects their emotional ties. "They were divorced," he says. "But when John was ill, Alicia took him in and supported him for decades. She was his tether, she kept him going. I don't believe John would've lived long enough to get better without her."
Goldsman is particularly unhappy with critics who say his script sanitizes Nash's life by omitting several messy details, including Nash's having fathered a child with a previous lover and his possible sexual bonds with men.
"The movie isn't about Nash's sexuality, and to say he is gay is to politicize his sexuality," Goldsman argues. "In the 1950s, homosexuality was considered a mental illness and to tie those things together in a movie made today does a disservice to Nash or anyone else."
For Goldsman, the most important acclaim for the film has come from the critic he holds in highest esteem, his mother, Mira Rothenberg, who at 80, still sees patients in private practice. "She is a Holocaust survivor, so she's seen the real monsters that people are running from in their minds," he says. "It meant a lot to me that she enjoyed the film, because what's up there on screen comes from what I learned from her. If nothing else, it honors what she's been working on her whole life."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times