February 7, 2002
Making a ‘Beautiful Mind’
When Akiva Goldsman was growing up in Brooklyn Heights, his playmates were the mentally ill children who lived in the group home his parents had founded in their rambling old brownstone. The children suffered from autism and schizophrenia -- weeping and raging were de rigeuer -- but Goldsman, the only child of Jewish psychotherapists, regarded them as "just my peers."
The 39-year-old screenwriter drew upon those memories to write "A Beautiful Mind," the unsettling portrait of a schizophrenic mathematician that won him the Golden Globe Award late last month. It will almost certainly make him an Oscar contender.
"The truth is, I didn't know you weren't supposed to dream when you were awake," Goldsman says of his early childhood. "I didn't know that at a certain age everybody was supposed to have begun talking. The children gave me a keen vision of the very thin line between what's real and what isn't."
Goldsman ("A Time to Kill," "Batman Forever") criss-crosses that line in "Mind," based on Sylvia Nasar's biography of Princeton mathematician John Forbes Nash, Jr. (Russell Crowe). Speaking in a rapid-fire staccato, he says his goal was to depict schizophrenia "from the inside out."
"With the rarest of exceptions, one finds oneself going to movies [about mental illness] and having an experience that is not unlike going to the zoo," he adds. "There is the person with the disease and there is the normal person's surrogate, but that doesn't allow us to empathize with the mentally ill person. I wanted to close the gap."
It's a kind of cinematic tikkun olam Goldsman learned from his parents, Tev and Mira, who viewed their work as a way of carrying out the Jewish value of repairing the world.
Inspired by the high drama of the group home, Goldsman aspired to become a writer around the time of his Reform bar mitzvah. He wrote every day for years, but received only boxfuls of rejection letters.
Meanwhile, as a teen he was distancing himself from the disturbed children who "seemed to get more of my parents than I did." That changed when at 16, he "fell in love" with an autistic 5-year-old boy he met at his folks' summer camp and decided to enter the family business. Eventually, Goldsman founded a psychological-consulting firm while earning his master's degree in creative writing from New York University.
His career crisis came one day when he was 28. "I was lecturing at Harvard, and I looked across the room and realized that I had spent the better part of a decade telling parents what to do with their children, but I didn't have any children, so what if I was wrong?," he says. "Then I thought, 'I have become my mother.' And while I love my mother, I didn't want to be her."
Goldsman shut down his consulting firm and penned a screenplay, "Silent Fall," about an autistic boy who'd witnessed a murder. He describes that period in his life as "terrifying and heartbreaking," but writing what he knew paid off. Goldsman's screenplay became a 1994 Bruce Beresford film and led to a gig adapting John Grisham's novel, "The Client," for director Joel Schumacher.
Around 1999, he read an excerpt of Nash's biography in Vanity Fair and knew he'd found a story that would allow him to return to a subject close to his heart. When he learned that Imagine Entertainment's Brian Grazer had bought the movie rights, he says he "scampered over there and actually begged [Grazer] to hire me." When the go-ahead came, he says his intention wasn't to write a biopic but "to evoke what it felt like to be John Nash."
Some have criticized Goldsman for taking broad liberties with Nash's life story and for omitting juicy details, such as the scientist's alleged gay liaisons. The screenwriter counters, "even a biopic is fiction. You can't really tell a life in less than a life."
Goldsman's life is currently bicoastal. The divorced screenwriter maintains homes in Los Angeles and New York, where his mother continues to live in the old family brownstone. When asked about about his Jewish identity, he cites Mira's Holocaust experience, stating "That is my identity."
He says he didn't know the specifics of her story until she broke her lifelong silence and told all the day he turned 34. "It was my birthday present," says Goldsman, who now struggles with whether or not to transform her harrowing journey into a screenplay.
The writer felt he was honoring both his parents the night he won the Golden Globe for "A Beautiful Mind." While he was "utterly shocked" when his name was called (his hands violently shook as he read his acceptance speech), the moment was more than gratifying. "For me, the film is a tribute to my mother, my father and every one of those [mentally ill] children I had ever known," he says.