A Beautiful Journey to Professional Nirvana

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's a balmy Tuesday night in West Hollywood. And no one's enjoying it more than the mid-size guy who's ambling up Sunset in navy T-shirt and chino pants, hands in pockets, looking like he might be mentally whistling a happy tune. Akiva Goldsman, Oscar-nominated author of the screenplay for "A Beautiful Mind," is about to realize a dream.

As a child in Brooklyn, Goldsman never hankered for Academy Awards. His constant fantasy, his singular goal, his absolute most steadfast ambition since he was 8 years old, was to someday see his name on a book. To be the author of "something good." Now 39, he is that and more. Here at the rambling, cluttered Book Soup--a West Hollywood literary hub--he is about to perform the first book signing of his life. He will autograph copies of a new paperback, the film's screenplay (Newmarket Press, $17.95). No fanfare, no cameras, no tickets sold. He is greeted outside by a store representative. "I'm ready to sign," he says. "First you'll speak for a while," she says. "Who, me? I didn't know I was speaking. OK, I can do that."

About 40 people have waited quietly on little brown folding chairs for almost an hour. One is there because her mother has acute paranoia and schizophrenia, she says. Another says she has been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism found in people with normal or high IQs. Some say they are working screenwriters, who want to hear Goldsman "discuss the craft." Others are hopefuls just starting out.

Craig Rimmerman, an author and professor at Hobart College in Geneva, N.Y., has come because he's filled with admiration and indignation. He found the film "riveting," but wants to know why Goldsman left out the fact that John Nash was bisexual for much of his life. Katharine Kramer, daughter of producer-director Stanley Kramer, is there to see Goldsman because "his is my favorite movie of the year." They are old, young, thin, fat, some highly groomed and buff, others not. There is reverence in the air, as more people filter in and stand silently at the back. Goldsman takes the measure of the crowd, and appears moved. He launches out:

"I am the son of two therapists," he starts. He outlines an early life with parents Tev Goldsman and Mira Rothenberg, pioneering child psychologists who ran one of the earliest group homes for emotionally disturbed kids.

"They were kids with diagnoses that don't even exist any more--infantile autism and childhood schizophrenia," he tells the crowd. "These were children who never knew you were not supposed to dream when you were awake. I lived in a household with five or seven of these kids." They hung him out the windows, used him as a ball, generally made him mad. Worse yet, whatever he needed from his parents, whatever problems he had, paled in comparison to the problems that plagued the other kids. "By the time I was 10 or 12, I realized they had taken my parents away from me. I wanted nothing more to do with that world. I wanted to be a writer. I had a fantasy that someday I'd see my name on a book."

Goldsman graduated from high school at 16--"I still had hair." In the summer of 1983, before starting Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., he visited his mother at the camp where she was clinical director. His first evening there, the staff was celebrating. They'd taught a child who'd been terrified of the water to love it instead, Goldsman recalls. "In the middle of that night, the little boy went to find that which he had learned to love. The water. He was 8. He drowned."

Goldsman says he stayed on at the camp for weeks and ended up beginning what turned out to be a 10-year career working with autistic and schizophrenic youngsters, much of it at his parents' pioneering Blueberry Treatment Centers. (To this day, he always wears the symbol of the Blueberry centers somewhere on his person, he says.) He had an intense connection with one autistic boy named Eric: "I met him when he was 5, and lying on the ground, emitting an extraordinary, deep, agonized wail. I worked with him for the next five years. I toilet trained him. I loved him.... " Goldsman's voice falters, fails, he is near tears.

He has been speaking seamlessly, to a mesmerized audience, for half an hour. They remain soundless as he composes himself and goes on. For a few years, he ran one of the children's mental health facilities, he says. Then he went on to create a training model for others working with such children.

All that time, he kept alive the fantasy that one day he would see his name on a good book. He went to NYU postgraduate school, where some of his writing teachers were E.L. Doctorow, Gordon Lish, Margaret Atwood, Russell Banks. He amassed a shoe box impressively full of rejection slips from all the best publications. One day, after he'd won a debate at Harvard University against a guy who advocated mandatory mainstreaming for troubled children, he asked himself: "What have I won? I have no kids....I had nothing I really wanted at that point." So he enrolled in a screenwriting course that "provided me with rules and structure--which are wildly elusive commodities."

He sold the first screenplay he wrote--a film called "Silent Fall" (about an autistic youngster who's the only witness to his parents' bloody murder). Then Joel Schumacher hired him to write "The Client, " he says. Goldsman skips over the next few years of film writing ("Batman Forever," "A Time to Kill," "Batman & Robin," to name a few), often in association with Schumacher--except to tell the audience that he suddenly became "a very fancy person. God, was I fancy. I didn't know it really didn't go that way."

He soon realized it was no longer enough to write just anything--"that if I don't write something very particular to me, I will have squandered this enormous opportunity."

After reading "the excellent biography of John Nash by Sylvia Nasar," he says, he was inspired to reflect on the great man's life: "From genius to madness to Nobel Prize." He noticed that what was "entirely missing from the book was Nash's inner life. Nash didn't talk to Nasar for the book. His madness was entirely absent from it."

Goldsman says he decided to write the film. But producers he pitched "were thinking biopic and genius. I was thinking no biopic and madness."

He began to "build this construct of delusions. I made them up. I had to. John Nash doesn't remember his delusions." The delusional characters in the film, Goldsman says, are his own attempt to illustrate to an audience how people with schizophrenia experience delusions. "To show how people in this mental state do not know what to believe any more, the total betrayal that sufferers experience--a betrayal of their own minds."

He asks the crowd to imagine how they would feel. "You know for sure that you are sitting in a store called Book Soup, and you are hearing Akiva Goldsman talk. You come back to this very street tomorrow. You learn there is no store called Book Soup. Never has been one. And Goldsman never talked. How would you feel?"

He says his script was written with "blatant disregard for fact--I threw biography out the window." He did that in order to uncover what was the more essential truth of Nash's illness, and of his life, he says. He took his script to the Nashes, "and they said they loved it." They told him "it was true to the spirit of our journey." Goldsman pauses. "I think it is true. It is not their journey, but it is true to the spirit of it."

From then on, Goldsman's little talk coasts all the way. He tells the crowd that Universal green-lighted his first draft; Ron Howard said he'd like to direct. The year he spent making the movie was in New Jersey, near his childhood home and his mother, now in her 80s. "My mom is in the last scene of the film," he says. "It was a coming home in the greatest sense ... it was all that I wanted to be in life. Now I am kind of done." Unburdened, he stops talking.

The crowd forms a queue that wends all the way out the door. Goldsman begins signing paperbacks, posters, original working scripts cadged by insiders from the studios, a poignant, enlarged color photo of a woman and her schizophrenic mother. The college professor, at first irate that Nash's sexual ambivalence was left out of the film, now stands in front of the screenwriter. "I thought I'd have a lot to ask you, but I don't. After hearing you speak I completely understand why you left some things out," he says. "I will be able to explain this to my students."

"I left out his first wife, his first son--I was reckless in an intentional way," Goldsman tells him.

The next man asks him to sign the paperback "To my former teacher.... " Goldsman looks up, says, "Oh, my God, it's my high school English teacher from Saint Anne's in Brooklyn." He rises from behind the desk to embrace Mark Haefele, now City Hall columnist for the L.A. Weekly paper. He asks for Haefele's phone number, says he wants to get together. "Jennifer Connelly [who plays Alicia Nash in the film] went to the same school," Goldsman tells a bystander.

Goldsman is alternately adorable, compassionate, comedic--depending on the person at the table. For the young woman diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, he suggests "a really smart guy at UCLA who might help answer some questions"--and then spells the doctor's name slowly. A Nigerian woman learning Hebrew asks him to sign in that language. "Don't know how, but I'll do it in English," he says with a smile. Another person asks him to write "To a beautiful mind."

"I don't know you well enough to write that," he says with a chuckle, as he writes "Good luck" instead.

A tall, slim woman has positioned herself at the very end of the line. Deliberately. When it's her turn at the table, she slants her body toward Goldsman, shakes her auburn curls, and whispers that she too is from New York, that she too is not scared of talking to people she doesn't know.

"You were so charming tonight, so self-effacing, so bright," she says in a low, husky voice. "I hope you don't find me too forward, but I'd really like to get together some time and talk." She hands him her card, a Goldsman groupie. Suddenly, it's clear we are back in the heart of Hollywood.

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