Yesterday morning I was startled by the news that John Nash, age 86, had been killed in a taxi crash on the New Jersey turnpike. It was a strange, violent end to a life that had contained more than its share of strangeness. Nash was the mathematical genius whose academic career was derailed by decades of schizophrenia. He once declined a plum faculty appointment, saying he was about to be named Emperor of Antarctia, and for years Princeton students remembered him wandering their ivy-covered halls, scribbling gibberish. Miraculously, Nash recuperated. He went on to win the 1994 Nobel Prize in economics for his contributions to the science of game theory.
Riding with John Nash in that fatal taxicab was his wife, Alicia, age 82. I’m moved by the fact that John and Alicia died together. Those who know their story, as depicted by Sylvia Nasr in a 1999 biography that became an Oscar-winning Hollywood film, understand how important their relationship was to John’s recovery.
When A Beautiful Mind was adapted from page to screen, various inventive cinematic shortcuts were taken. Screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, whose parents were pioneers in the field of child psychology, had literally grown up side by side with youngsters suffering from schizophrenic delusions. Goldsman chose to use Nasar’s prizewinning biography as a point of departure, reasoning that “within this perfectly detailed exterior life, I could build an inner life, and in so doing give the audience a window into what it might feel like to suffer from this disease.” That’s why he devised a plan to trick the film audience into accepting as real the delusional world of the mentally ill.
For movie purposes, time also had to be compressed. That’s why a key period in the Nash marriage was elided. The movie shows an overwrought Alicia walking out on an ailing John, but then returning soon thereafter. In reality she divorced him in 1963, but took him back in 1970 when he had nowhere else to go. The two remained a devoted couple, remarrying in 2001. Director Ron Howard, who finally put his Opie image to rest when A Beautiful Mind was released in 2001, was particularly attracted to the “really compelling adult love story” within Goldsman’s screenplay. Howard has insisted, “This is the kind of love that lives are built on. And in this particular case I think a life was saved by it.” One of his proudest moments as a director is the scene in which Jennifer Connelly (as Alicia) expresses to Russell Crowe (as John), simply but powerfully, her need to believe in the power of love to overcome all obstacles.
Howard passed many sleepless nights while making this challenging film. Still, he was quite willing to face the pressure of having the real John and Alicia Nash visit his set. From his brief conversations with Nash, Russell Crowe was able to glean mannerisms, some dialogue snippets, and ideas about how to integrate Nash’s own puckish sense of humor into the film. Howard himself went so far as to invite Nash to be videotaped while explaining the findings that had helped him earn his Nobel Prize. Watching Nash at the blackboard, Howard discovered a seventy-three-year-old man who was “really vibrant, really alive, interested,” a far cry from the more guarded figure with whom he’d chatted earlier. Nash’s zest for life made Howard appreciate more fully “the miracle of his recovery.” He was also deeply moved by Alicia Nash, saying that the script of A Beautiful Mind “continued to evolve and grow as I got to know the strength of this woman.”
RIP John and Alicia Nash. And a sad farewell to the invaluable Eric Caidin, B-movie lover and proprietor of the Hollywood Book & Poster Company. Appropriately, he was fatally stricken in Palm Springs, while attending a Film Noir convention. Here’s his L.A. Times obit.