A history-making double standard

March 31, 2002|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON - The Oscars are all tucked into their new homes and the red carpet - OK, the cranberry carpet - is rolled up for another year. But before this event recedes into the History of the Academy Awards, could we take one last look at the history of history?

In the run-up to the glitzy event, many in Hollywood described 2002 as the year of the smear. A campaign, or so they said, was launched to discredit A Beautiful Mind on the grounds that the John Nash on the screen was not the John Nash in real life.

Well, there were some broad and brutal attacks on Mr. Nash as an anti-Semitic, homosexual adulterer. But for the most part, the movie and its makers were "smeared" by, um, facts. By omitted facts.

A Beautiful Mind is a stunning, grown-up movie about math and madness. But the adaptation from the biography left out ... where to begin?

It left out Mr. Nash's first son and the boy's mother, who were, in his biographer's phrase, plunged into "Dickensian realities" of poverty and neglect. It left out Mr. Nash's arrest in the men's room in Palisades Park in California that cost him his job and maybe greased the downward spiral into paranoia. It left out divorce from the marital love story. It left out his second son's schizophrenia. That's just the beginning.

I understand that a movie is not a documentary. In this case, the "cinematic license" came from both the subject and the biographer, Sylvia Nasar, whose paperback now bears Russell Crowe's picture, not John Nash's, on its cover.

But when does biography - personal history - become so distorted that it is a fraud? When do we care about history? And when do we not?

I suppose I'm sensitized to history because these days historians are being treated like, well, politicians. It began when we discovered that Joseph Ellis made up his own autobiography, including exploits in Vietnam that never happened, and was deservedly placed on leave from his teaching job at Mount Holyoke.

Then Stephen Ambrose was accused of cutting and pasting from other authors in his family's bookmaking shop. And then, as if we needed the third strike, we have the unrelenting attack on Doris Kearns Goodwin for a 15-year-old case of sloppiness.

I know. The motion picture academy and the "academy" of university scholars are as different as apples and oranges, or Oscars and Ph.D.s. But that's the point. We don't have a single or even a double standard of truth for history; we have more standards than there are movie ratings. The "crimes" and the "punishments" awarded these hardback historians are bizarrely varied. They've spun off their own strange subset of tales.

Joe Ellis is humiliated in private but a success on the best-seller list. Now, after writing a book review in The New York Times, he's well into reputation rehab.

Stephen Ambrose, who has a meager apology on his Web page, was most recently attacked by Charles Colson in Christianity Today for "dealing in deceit." But Mr. Colson's column, according to the Los Angeles Times, was actually written by Anne Morse, one of his full-time employees.

And Doris Goodwin, whose mea culpas have been public and extensive, was taken to task again by Lynne McTaggart, who discovered her own words in Ms. Goodwin's book on the Kennedys.

What was Ms. McTaggart's first reaction? "I wrote a kind review, then hired a copyright lawyer." Huh?

Meanwhile, back on the West Coast, Akiva Goldsman, the screenwriter who literally created Mr. Nash's finest moments, is awarded the Oscar for best adaptation of a book. And Ron Howard, the director/producer who unabashedly chose entertainment over biography, takes home two Oscars and a clear conscience.

I confess that I am struggling with these mismatches because I regard Doris Goodwin as a fine historian, a generous friend and a person of good character who just screwed up. How far out of hand is the criticism?

For Ms. Goodwin, sloppiness is cast as a career breaker. For Mr. Howard, a deliberate distortion of biography is a career maker. In one academy, a bad mistake is a capital cause; in the other academy, editing and rewriting truth into falsehood is "just a movie."

What an odd, upside-down, unbalanced sense of what's right and wrong and important. It reminds me of how John Nash - the real John Nash - described his return to reality: "I became disillusioned with some of the delusions."

This is the award-winning message: In Hollywood, the moviemaker was smeared with the truth. And won anyway.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her e-mail address is ellengoodman@globe.com.

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