by Ed Symkus
Child actor-turned adult director Ron Howard has never been nominated for an Oscar, even though the list of films he's made includes Apollo 13, Parenthood and Cocoon. But the Golden Globe folks recently gave him the nod for his newest, A Beautiful Mind, and if the people who fill out the Oscar ballots have any sense in them, they'll soon follow suit.
The film is based on events concerning the mathematician John Nash, who made his mark at Princeton in the 1940s, moved his brilliant career up to MIT in the '50s, and spent most of his life -- in a tight relationship with his wife Alicia -- battling inner demons that would have destroyed a lesser man.
Because the film, which stretches over nearly five decades, has so many surprising twists and turns to its heartbreaking but hopeful story, Howard would like it if viewers go in not knowing much about it.
"Mostly, I'd like them to know that it's an unusual film in that it deals with a character who's an outsider in many ways, who endures a great deal in his life but ultimately discovers the value of human connectedness," says Howard. "And that we as an audience are going to be able to sort of go on this experience with him."
In a film so chock-full of emotional ups and downs -- not to mention sequences that range from gun fights to equation-solving -- Howard's success at telling it from Nash's point of view, actually seeing many of the events through his eyes, is one of its stronger points.
"That idea evolved in the early drafts of the screenplay, and then I took it and pushed it further," he says. "I thought that it was a very interesting way to present the movie and to make it experiential, which is something I had luck doing, say, with the fires in Backdraft or the capsule in Apollo 13. But here was a psychological journey, so it was a little bit trickier. But I had confidence we could offer some additional insight. It was difficult, but exciting. I knew I could always bail out and shoot it in a more conservative way, but I began to see it working."
Of course it didn't hurt to have actors with the strength and conviction of Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly in the leads, and Ed Harris and Christopher Plummer in supporting roles.
Asked about his working relationship with the reputedly stormy Crowe, the soft-spoken Howard sort of dances around answering the question of whether Crowe challenged him on the set.
"Not in a bullying, unnerving way," he says. "But he does challenge everyone, because he asks smart questions. Tom Hanks challenges me in a similar sort of way, so did Jim Carrey doing The Grinch. You know, smart people are going to challenge each other. And I hope that, along the way, I managed to challenge them from time to time as well."
Howard describes Connelly's work in the film as an incredibly courageous performance. He had already met with her last year to discuss A Beautiful Mind, after which he caught her searing performance in Requiem for a Dream.
"To see her in Requiem, which didn't have anything to do with our character, but needed to be played with this total abandonment and courage, that made me feel Jennifer would be exciting as Alicia, and be more than ready to be in these scenes with Russell. And I felt the two of them could really make sparks."
And they do. More than anything else, this is a movie about the power of love, about how these two individuals came together for each other.
"I think this is the story of a great test," says Howard. "It's not the kind of test that either character -- John or Alicia -- is facing voluntarily. It's not guys who want to go to the moon who then have a problem. It's that he thinks he's on a path, he thinks he knows what his dreams and goals are, and suddenly the rug is pulled out from under him. She thinks she knows the kind of marriage she's getting into, then the rug is pulled out from under her. That's the real character test. And I think that's what's so ultimately emotional and powerful about their story."
To aid his actors in getting the story told, Howard chose the almost unheard of and usually cost-prohibitive approach of shooting the film in continuity.
"It's more difficult and a little more costly," he says. "But Russell Crowe is a huge proponent of it, and he felt it would help him a lot. The studio was rather brave in the first place to take this movie on. The so-called above-the-line folks -- the producers and me as the director and Russell as the main star -- we helped; we took pay cuts to make the movie. But it was still a big investment. When we explained it to the studio, they gave us the additional money. And I made a few compromises to help free up some money."
Depending on what trade magazine or gossip column you read, Howard will next direct either Curious George, a remake of The Alamo or a funeral home drama, The Burial.
"Curious George is something that our company is working very hard to make," he says. "We've been trying for five or six years and have been unable to come up with a screenplay. I think we may finally be on the right track. Our fingers are crossed. The Alamo is something John Sayles is writing right now, and I have high hopes for that. And Doug Wright, who wrote Quills, is writing The Burial, which is also good. But they're all in development, so I have no idea what I'm doing next."