The Colors of A Beautiful Mind
Most directors nowadays bank so much on their actors and marketing crew to make successful movies. However, the manipulation of sounds, colors, props, camera angles and interesting cinematographic techniques can create impressions that can further rivet the audience to their seats. These also assist in giving its audience a better understanding of the underlying messages that the scenes are putting across.
A genius’ brain is always at work providing full concentration on a theory while considering everything else that may affect his hypothesis’ strength. Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind (2001), proves to be just as compelling as its subject’s powerful mind as the director combines all aspects of the film to create the world of Professor John Nash, a schizophrenic mathematician.
Schizophrenia is a mental disorder ranking among the top ten causes of disability in developed countries. (Harvard School of Public Health, 1996) Its symptoms include delusions, hallucinations, social isolation and difficulty in expressing and integrating thoughts, emotions and behavior. Producing a film documentary about this disease can be challenging but to give a movie audience a peek into a schizophrenic’s mind creatively can prove even more difficult.
Howard clearly put his brains and every once of artistry into producing a movie that combines a good actor, audio techniques, subtle make-up effects, symbolic colors of costumes, supportive use of props, ingenious camera angles and brilliant lighting to make a movie that gives its audience a piece of a schizophrenic’s very confusing mind.
Russel Crowe’s performance was awesome. His eye movements combined with facial muscle control and vocal intonations profoundly depicted the common expressions attributed to schizophrenics. The scene where Alicia (portrayed by Jennifer Connelly) proposed a dinner date was a great example of how Crowe seemed to have a deep sense of how to transform his eyes from looking stoic to suddenly flattered without overdoing it. His facial muscles remained poised but his hand twitching and heavy body movements were just enough to show his character’s excitement. The tone of his voice also remained consistent with his facial expression. A less experienced actor would have thrown away the beauty of the scene with too many gestures but Crowe’s refined acting created an impact on the scene without upsetting its balance.
Scoring also played a great supporting role in establishing the ambiance of many scenes. The good choice of a singer, audio techniques and the specific timing of dialogues assisted the development of the story very well. John Nash’s transition from the real world to his delusional dimension was marked by a monotonous hymn sung by pop singer, Charlotte Church. Her vibrant, deep but floating voice was daunting and helpful in hinting that Nash was already transcending into another mind level. It gave the audience a sense that something was wrong or that a very important event was about to unfold. The song properly served as an audio bridge to introduce the professor’s first hallucination of his roommate, Charles (Paul Bettany). The appropriate lack of background noise during dialogues of reflection between Nash and Charles also helped support the notion that the professor’s roommate was only a product of his mind. The scene wherein Nash was conversing with his best friend on the balcony of one of the school buildings was silent until John acknowledged the presence of other students below.
In the biographical book from which the movie was based on, John Nash only had audio hallucinations of the three characters made by his mind. It was Howard’s idea to visualize the personalities. However, to remain slightly true to the real story, the director introduced the sound of the character’s voice before showing any visual presence in the scene. This technique of initially establishing the auditory presence of a character before establishing visuals showed the subtle but intricate preparation for the screenplay.
Make-up and costumes also strongly established the time depicted throughout the life of the protagonist. Although the cosmetics used to make Connelly look old was a bit drastic and obvious, the artist who did Crowe’s was excellent. Connelly totally looked different from her youthful appearances because the make-up did not sag her skin enough. It simply gave her a wrinkled look. If not for the camera focus on her, one would not realize that it was the character of Alicia. Crowe’s, however, was subtle and refined enough to show the progression of his age with its additional flesh that matched the slight weight gain that was shown on the film. Part of the actor’s success in portraying a schizophrenic can be attributed to the dentures specifically made for the movie. (The Process Age of Progression, 2002) The slight overbite produced by the dentures helped Crowe render his stoic looks better.
Costumes, particularly the colors used, also became very instrumental in putting the film’s messages across successfully. The colors, black, white, red, dark or light blue and brown held symbolic representations throughout the movie. The manipulation of color enables filmmakers to relate to the emotional content of the scene (“Color-Cinematic Expression,” 2007) and Howard used it to full extent.
Black and white is a combination used in many literary expressions that connote what is right and wrong. In the movie, it was also used to show how a mathematician’s mind operates. For John Nash, everything was scientifically based on logic. There could be no gray areas. Everything is definite and in contrast to another. One of the best props that was used to connote Nash’s view of life was the game of checkers that he and his rival, Martin Hansen, played on the field. The pawns on the game board were either black or white. When John was defeated by Martin, he immediately declared that it was impossible and flawed because to him, everything must fall into proper place. Anything that upsets his predefined notion of logic puts him off balance.
Another use of black was on the costumes. It can be noticed that during the times when Nash felt highly-esteemed, he usually wore black. This can be seen in the scene where he first got involved in the secret service. He was wearing a black suit when he entered the laboratory and the high ranking officials were praising him for his accomplishments in the past. Although there should not be anything strange about him wearing a black suit during the dinner with the governor, it can also be noticed that Alicia also chose to wear a black gown. This may connote that Nash had a high regard for her.
Black and white were also dominant colors during his hallucinations of being a cryptologist. Parcher (Ed Harris), his immediate boss in the imaginary secret service missions, never wore anything else but his black suit with white inner shirt. This character was the representation of Nash’s perception of the world. It was an extreme view that everything must have logic and that any violation to this rule puts him in danger. The clothes of the persons he thought were after him were also all in black and white. This conveys the message that his wrong notion of the world as defined in every aspect haunts him and distorts his perception of reality.
White, on the other hand, was also a color used to highlight the scenes where John lost his control. One of the scenes that showed Nash wearing white was when he had to teach a calculus class. He did not want to teach because he felt that it was a distraction from his more “important” work but he had not control over the matter because it was an obligation he had to fulfill in return for getting his office. White was also what he was wearing when Alicia first asked him for a date. His control was obviously lost when he realized that a beautiful woman was asking for his attention. The time when he was first asked to decipher codes showed him taking off his black coat. When he was already analyzing the numbers, he was simply wearing his white shirt which connotes how much he has really gone out of reasoning. The scene when he was already in the hospital was almost all white, too. The walls, floors and costumes of the hospital staff could have been another color (green or light purple have a calming effect on people) but white must have been chosen to depict Nash’s loss of control over his destiny.
Red was also a color that stood out in many of the important scenes. This color depicted Nash’s physical attraction to the opposite sex. The woman in the bar who he was supposed to flirt with wore a very bright plain red sweater while Alicia was garbed in a striking red dress when she asked Nash for a date. During their evening with the governor, Alicia wore a black gown with a very big bright red design at the back.
Red, in the film, also signifies reality. Nash’s attraction to women was more real than any of his hallucinations. The red seat by the window and his maroon bonnet during the scene when a student approached him to discuss mathematical problems, all point to the fact that he was finally able to come to terms with reality slowly. The blood that was all over his arm when he tried to find the chip he thought was embedded on his wrists also spoke volumes on how harsh reality was beginning to bite at him.
Instead of using gray to depict scenes where the protagonist is in deep thought (whether towards reality or his fictitious life), the film makers decided to use brown. The woman that made him suddenly think of the game or equilibrium theory was wearing a deep shade of brown. During the time when he almost lost total control and hurt Alicia, he was wearing a combination of white and brown clothes. His clothes during the scene wherein he stopped Alicia from driving off by saying he already believed that he is truly sick were also basically brown. Both John and Alicia were wearing shades of brown during the time when he and Alicia were talking to Dr. Rosen (Christopher Plummer) about why he stopped his medications. During his speech for the Nobel Prize, the professor was also wearing a light brown get-up. This scene was when he acknowledged that life was not always predictable, a realization that ultimately sums up one of the basic messages of the film.
Blue was the chosen color to depict who was in better control of a situation. When Sol and Bender (portrayed by Adam Goldberg and Anthony Rapp respectively) convinced Nash to go to his calculus class, the two obviously had more control over Nash’s reasoning. Subtle as it was, Sol and Bender were wearing light blue shirts while Nash was wearing white (the color of helplessness over the situation). During the times when Alicia had a clearer mind, she was also wearing deep blue clothes. An example was the scene wherein they first met in the calculus classroom. Nash, wearing white, was irritated by the noise of the construction workers outside of the building so he decided to close the windows despite the heat. Alicia, wearing a navy blue dress, re-opened the window and simply requested the workers to wait for 45 minutes so that they can have the necessary scholastic atmosphere. Nash acknowledged her for thinking of a better way to solve the problem. Both Dr. Rosen and Alicia were also wearing dark blue clothes while Nash was wearing white during the first scene in the psychiatric ward. This established Nash’s loss of freedom over his own will while Alicia and Rosen were in a more reasonable state. Alicia was again wearing deep blue clothes when she realized that John was having another bout of hallucinations right after she discovered the small cabin at the back of their house. She also drove a light blue car when she was trying to escape from Nash. The blue of her dress and car contrasted by the brown clothes of Nash while he stopped the car shows how his realizations can stop someone else from taking full control of his life.
Orange and yellow were rare in the film but also held symbolic meanings. Yellow is the sign of intellectual energy and happiness. (”Color Yellow Meaning,” n.d., par. 1-2) In the film, it was used to connote hope, too. Alicia was wearing an orange and yellow sundress while she and Nash were having a picnic. Nash was then, wearing a light blue shirt. The color choices were already predicting how Alicia would be able to bring hope into John’s life while supporting him in finding self-control. The scene in the library where the old professor was interrupted by a student shows the pupil wearing a bright yellow shirt. This scene was the turning point for John’s life from being ridiculed to respected.
A prop used that held all the colors of the rainbow was the prism. This symbolized how John was actually transferring control of his life to Alicia for after the scene, she would already be the one in proper reasoning to make the decisions for them both.
Another prop that became very symbolic was the use of glass. There were many shots taken beside or before windows with clear glasses. Glasses are crisp and brittle so it was used to signify John’s mental state. When he was totally frustrated, he pushed his desk forcefully out of the window signifying how his hallucination of Charles was already shattering his perception. The door to Martin’s office used frosted glass which indicated how uncertain Nash felt in asking for his help.
Aside from color, lines and patterned designs were greatly used to strengthen scenes through props and the settings. During the period when John Nash was so absorbed in thinking that the world was totally logical and predefined by contrasting concepts, one would note that most the settings were composed of straight lines. Curves were used to signify the difference between how John rigidly assessed life while other people were more lenient. For example, the windows and doors in the first part of the film were all basically built with strong straight lines. In the scene when John was going to get rejected by a blonde haired girl for his being too explicit about sex, the opening shot was focused on different colored billiard balls that, of course, were round. This seems to preempt John’s failure with the girl since it was not aligned with his very straight perspective of relationships. During the time when he was going to unwillingly lecture to calculus students, the room number was 101. The lines of the number, one, signify his straight view of life while the zero placed between preempts the introduction of a character (Alicia) who would break his very rigid perspective. In the scene where John and Alicia looked out of the window to see the construction workers, there was a notable difference in the props held by the men. When John was the one who looked at them, the plywood and other props were all aligned in straight lines. However, when Alicia was the one who looked out of the window, the plywood planks were already in different angles and the hose was disheveled into a curve. This simply showed the differences of the characters’ perspectives. The scene when Dr. Rosen was explaining schizophrenia to Alicia, the shots opened to a setting with very straight lines. At first, Alicia herself was in denial about John being sick. However, when Alicia was already beginning to believe Dr. Rosen, the camera started to zoom in closely to show that the straight lines of the wired background were actually made up of curved lines. This was a very subtle way of showing how Alicia was almost convinced of John’s own perspectives until she realized that what he was telling her were not real all along. The design of the blanket during John and Alicia’s decision-making about whether or not Alicia should stay or leave also enhanced the message of the scene. The blanket had thin stripes for its design but because it was disheveled, the straight lines became curved. This conveys how John is already giving up on his perspectives while Alicia was there to help him lessen the rigidity of his reasoning.
The use of patterned designs also indicated how the characters were coming to grips with the real situation. When John woke up from being tranquilized for the first time, the first thing he saw was Dr. Rosen’s starkly patterned maroon rug. This implies that he is forced to face reality now that he was under psychiatric care. The windows on all the scenes before psychiatric care were also made of more straight lines with only a couple of handles that showed any curve. However, when he was already back in Princeton trying to become part of a community again, the windows shown were already etched with designs. Nash can also be seen wearing printed clothes only after his hospitalization.
The combination of camera angles and lighting techniques used to portray the messages of the scenes were also very well chosen. When the professor is too absorbed in his hallucinations, arc shots were used to show the audience how fast his mind was thinking. The camera angles also highlight the transcendence and down fall of the characters. When Dr. Rosen, for example, was already running after John, the camera was tilted up. Rosen was viewed as coming from a well-lit background while John was running down the stairs.
The use of close-up shots and chiaroscuro also strengthened many scenes. The shots taken while John was in complete absorption in deciphering the first codes given to him were close up shots that got tighter as he became more focused in what he was doing. This helped the audience also understand how the hallucination left little room for John to view things realistically. During the car chase scene where Nash thought that they were being shot at, used focused lighting to show only his eyes. Like the scene mentioned above, this only shows that Nash was too wrapped up in his hallucinations to see beyond what his mind was feeding him. Chiaroscuro shots was used to show how Parcher could lead John into a worse state. The scene when Parcher was convincing John to stay in the service ended with Parcher going to a dark corridor. When the door was opened, the light provided such a great contrast before he suddenly disappeared when the door was shut. These shots imply how John would get into more trouble and dark times if he followed Parcher.
Light slightly flickering or flashing also used to indicate major realizations in John Nash’s life. During the scene when he started formulating the equilibrium theory, light flashed swiftly on the woman’s face. This also happened during the scene wherein he proposed marriage to Alicia. During the scene when John was pointing the starts to Alicia, the shot was taken from a distance and the reflection of the fountain was flickering. These simply indicate the major illuminating events in the professor’s life.
A Beautiful Mind is a very intricate and moving film that captures the complication of life that most of the time goes beyond reason. It is a film full of symbolism and creativity which can be seen in the many cinematic art forms used to produce each scene. It has a powerful true story but the script was fully supported by every possible way to help convey its messages. In the end, whether or not one noticed the hard work and aesthetic value of each aspect of the movie, a viewer will find success in taking a peek into a schizophrenic’s beautiful mind.
“Color-Cinematic Expression.” (2007). Light Extreme. Retrieved 18 November 2007 from
“Color Yellow Meaning.” (n.d.) Emily Gems. Retrieved 06 December 2007 from http://www.
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“The Process of Age Progression.” (2002). A Beautiful Mind DVD Featurette.