It’s a phenomenon that lesbian and gay audiences should have become accustomed to by now. From Fried Green Tomatoes to Midnight Express, gay characters, themes and storylines have been heterosexualised, straightened up and, for many viewers, ruined.
The latest example is the character of John Nash Jr, played by Russell Crowe in the Ron Howard film A Beautiful Mind. Nash won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1994 for his contributions to the field of mathematics and struggled for much of his life with schizophrenia. Although his primary emotional and sexual relationships were with women, in particular his wife Alicia Larde, Nash was arrested in 1954 for indecent exposure in a male public restroom. The biography A Beautiful Mind, upon which the film is based, also details Nash’s presumed sexual relationship with fellow college student Jack Bricker in the 1950s, as well as a number of other intense same-sex friendships.
In the film A Beautiful Mind, all references to Nash’s bisexuality, homosexuality or dabbling have been excised, except for one moment in which Crowe’s Nash stares intensely at another man while on a date with Alicia. The responses from gay journalists, the Gay And Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and seasoned community letter-writers have been ferocious, with arguments on both sides of the debate revealing some very weird assumptions.
Our Russ told Entertainment Weekly that the decision to ignore Nash’s bisexuality was a deliberate one because neither he nor the producers wanted to to imply that there was any possibility that schizophrenia and homosexuality are related. Scott Seomin, entertainment media director of GLAAD, was quoted in The Washington Blade, announcing that Nash was a complex and flawed human being. Part of his complexity is his sexuality and his wrestling with sexuality. The fact that it was ignored by filmmakers is a disservice to all moviegoers -“ gay and straight!
Seomin also claimed that producers at Dreamworks told him that Nash’s bisexuality would add confusion because he was married.
What producers wanted was something simple -“ in a world where shopping mall multiplex cinemas are the epicentre of audience reception studies. It seems that with box office takings of $US37m (and counting), Howard and the producers achieved their goal -“ with reviews in newspapers such as The Los Angeles Times and The Village Voice criticising its simplicity and even reductive clarity.
It is ironic that GLAAD itself has been accused of the same kind of reductive clarity. Gay writer and critic Michael Bronski recently criticised the group for sexual-identity fundamentalism. GLAAD has more in common than not with right-wing, religion-based groups, wrote Bronski, adding that GLAAD may have become the enemy of complex views of queer art.
In his critique of Beautiful Mind Seomin said that audiences recognised that not all portrayals of gay lives would be positive. However what is surprising about these comments is that he recently failed to display a similarly nuanced response to the comedy Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back.
Seomin declared that the puerile rantings of the protagonists were homophobic and horrific and he campaigned against the film. Director Kevin Smith was forced to donate money to gay causes and insert a disclaimer in the film, to declare that the use of anti-gay slurs in real life is not acceptable. Somewhere along the way, the fact that Jay and Silent Bob are inherently negative characters whose opinions are to be laughed at rather than emulated, was lost, as were the director’s lesbian- and gay-friendly (though flawed) flicks Chasing Amy and Dogma.
Concerns about GLAAD aside, there are undoubtedly problems with A Beautiful Mind that could have been easily resolved and which probably would have produced a stronger more sophisticated film as well.
One possibility is already provided in Sylvia Nasar’s biography, the source material that critics and scriptwriters might have read more closely in the first place. Schizophrenia is now considered genetic, yet sparked by psychological stresses which create a catalyst. Nash’s arrest for indecent exposure took place four years before the onset of his schizophrenia, with his first same-sex romantic friendship occurring two years earlier -“ hardly evidence for a link between sexuality and mental illness. Nasar makes a different claim, however, arguing that the shock of the arrest might have provided the catalyst for Nash. Living in a tolerant ivory tower, he [Nash] had been lulled into believing that he could do as he liked, writes Nasar. Now he learned, in a particularly brutal fashion, that the emotional connections he sought threatened to destroy all else that he valued -“ his freedom, his career, his reputation, success on society’s terms. Contradictory imperatives can engender tremendous fear.
Nasar goes on to cite J.C.C. McKinsey and Alan Turing as two examples of homosexual mathematicians who had both committed suicide in the 1950s after facing the wrath of homophobic laws and the authorities. (Turing’s story and sexuality were recently excluded from the film Enigma, but that’s another untold story.) Others, less well-known, less obviously brutalized, had breakdowns that led to their giving up their mathematics and living on the margins of society, writes Nasar.
Nasar asserts that Nash did not think of himself as homosexual, noting that he continued dating girlfriend Eleanor while seeing Jack Bricker. Nash is described by one friend as being very experimental, very try-outish. A Beautiful Mind the film missed an opportunity to capture the innocence of youthful experimentation -“ bravely explored during a dangerous era -“ with nice ‘n’ simple bad guy cops tormenting an awkward genius into a descent into Dali-designed madness. He’s supported by a strong woman, as so many men are, and he’s not necessarily gay or even bi. Sounds simple to me.