Ron Howard is at his best when he’s directing award contenders. “Oscar bait” would be the cynical way to label them, but the sincerity of Howard’s movies makes it difficult to approach them with that type of mindset. As much as I love Night Shift and Parenthood, those movies were sometime ago, and since then, Howard has jumped from making lightweight entertainment to audience-friendly dramas.
After the Robert Langdon movies and The Dilemma, I hoped to see him make more movies like A Beautiful Mind. He’s now returned to that territory with Rush. What makes Howard’s take on material like the Formula One rivalry work is the amount of fun he brings to potentially heavy drama. He certainly achieved that balance with A Beautiful Mind as well. The movie may deal with mental illness, but the espionage segments of the film are as exciting as a Bond movie, and there’s genuine joy to be found in the romance.
For the release of Rush, I gave a listen to an engaging Howard with the commentary he supplied for his 2001 Best Picture Winner. Here’s what I learned.
A Beautiful Mind (2001)
Commentator: director Ron Howard
1. They wanted to start off with an overture by James Horner, so all the companies involved allotted Horner a minute and a half at the beginning of the film to set a sophisticated tone.
2. Russell Crowe is a huge Judd Hirsch fan.
3. Ron Howard loves Russell Crowe’s eyes, believing they tell you everything you need to know about the “complicated man” John Nash.
4. The visual motif of Nash playing games with puzzles and shapes is meant to show how creative geniuses see the world differently.
5. Howard related to the character’s creative journey.
6. Delusions generally begin as auditory, which is why all delusions are introduced with sound. For example, when Parcher (Ed Harris) first appears, we see him through Nash’s point-of-view before he steps into his own point-of-view, as if he’s entering a new world.
8. Charles was originally not written as an Englishman. Brian Helgeland recommended Paul Bettany after working with him on A Knight’s Tale.
9. It took nine takes for the actress playing the woman Nash offends at the bar to slap Crowe just right. “You have to hit me harder, hun,” said Crowe.
10. There’s flashes of light whenever Nash comes up with an idea. That’s called subtlety, people.
11. Clint Howard — a typical fixture in his brother’s movies — made a vocal cameo in one of the bar scenes.
12. Howard wanted the film to take on a colder Noir-like palette when Nash enters The Pentagon. He wanted that darker sensibility to battle with the more “romantic” side of Nash’s personal life, at least for the second act.
13. Nash’s work with the government was classified, so nobody knows the specifics of his research. Not even Ron Howard.
14. Russell Crowe and Ed Harris worked together right after they were both nominated for best actor. Crowe won for Gladiator, while Harris was nominated for Pollock.
15. None of the government technology Nash sees is of its time period. Howard wanted all the tech to seem “too good to be true.”
16. Jennifer Connelly found the early flirtatious scenes the trickiest since they featured personal traits she doesn’t respect. Another scene that made Connelly worry was when her character Alicia lashes out in the bathroom. Connelly tried to convince Howard to change it, but to no avail.
17. There was a PG-13 love scene between Alicia and John that was cut.
18. When Charles’s imagined niece chases after the pigeons on campus, they don’t flyaway, serving as another clue to Nash’s disease. Once again, Howard was concerned it would be too much of a giveaway.
19. Howard compliments one of the many great pieces of Horner’s score that plays during the car chase for portraying Nash’s sense of despair instead of intoning a standard action scene.
20. Howard wanted the “cold war look” when Alicia initially witnesses Nash’s delusions.
21. Ron Howard’s wife, Cheryl, has been in all of his movies, even back when he was making Super 8 films as teenager. Apparently, she didn’t appreciate her character’s look as an administrator in this film, but he needed her as his “good luck” charm. Howard sure is a romantic.
22. Bryce Dallas Howard can also be spotted as Nash is taken away to the psychiatric hospital.
23. Ron Howard was nervous about showing the film to the real-life Alicia and John Nash. Alicia found the film moving. Howard doesn’t discuss Nash’s take, but only that he had to look away during the insulin shock therapy scenes. When it came to shooting those scenes in the hospital, it was Crowe doing all the shaking. Nobody was jerking the bed around.
24. In real life John Nash once disappeared for months. Alicia didn’t know if he was alive or not, so she filed for divorce. When he returned, Alicia took him back. Howard found it frustrating he couldn’t include that part of their lives in the film, but wanted to allude to it.
25. Howard knew the movie was coming together when he saw Russell Crowe and Josh Lucas rehearsing a scene together.
Best in Commentary:
- “CGI pigeons behave the way you want them to. I love them.”
- “I lost sleep the night after we shot this. I was so certain this would be the absolute giveaway. Come on, people, radium diode planted on people’s arms? Decaying isotopes? I didn’t have one person complain, so that was good news.”
- “You hope, you plan, and you believe…sometimes you’re right, but sometimes you don’t know what you’re movie is until you take it to the editing room. It’s all guess work before you put it together and show it.”
- “My favorite kind of scene to shoot: good writing, good actors, and loose.”
- “That line of dialogue, ‘Suddenly everyone likes that one,’ is something I’ve heard Billy Wilder say in conversation. I told him I had just seen Sunset Boulevard again and I said, ‘What an incredible film.’ He said, “‘Suddenly everyone likes that one…’ He told me, at the time, it was a source of frustration and disappointment for him. We worked that line into the movie.”
- “My hope is the next time someone sees someone talking to themselves on a corner they won’t find it silly or funny, but understand that it’s an individual engaged with something terrifying.”
Anyone who still sees Ron Howard as a simple journeyman director will find themselves proven wrong by Ron Howard’s commentary and, of course, this year’s Rush. He shows real insight, especially as a visual storyteller and how he rigorously stuck to his own rules on A Beautiful Mind.
Howard never acts pretentious over all those nooks and crannies on display; he either describes them “simple” or gives credit to Roger Deakins’ elegant cinematography. There’s a modesty to both Howard’s filmography and the man himself, making his commentary for A Beautiful Mind a welcoming delight.
Buy A Beautiful Mind on Blu-Ray from Amazon.