The Invisible Man

For someone who’s been famous for so long – he became a TV star at 6 and remains eerily boyish at 47 – Ron Howard still manages to stay surprisingly anonymous, even when he’s strolling through Grand Central Terminal at rush hour. He’s just another casually dressed baby-boomer commuting to work in sneakers, blue corduroys, and an NBC baseball cap. One would never guess that Howard is one of the most successful filmmakers in the world – only a handful of other producer-directors, like Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis, can even give him a run for his money. Few of the New Yorkers in Grand Central this morning – even if they happen to work in the film business – realize that he’s been living and making his films right here since 1985. He used to commute in from a house in Greenwich, Connecticut, often on Metro-North, but now he and his wife divide their time between a home in Westchester and a place in the city. “My kids are older, and we finally bought an apartment,” he says, “so I’m out and about a little bit more.”

He may be out and about more, but the media types who spotted him lunching at Michael’s last month still assumed Howard was just visiting from the coast. Possibly it’s just too hard to think of Howard as a New York auteur. After all, his reputation rests on being the quintessential Hollywood director: a genial craftsman with great commercial instincts and a flexible, almost invisible style. He prides himself on his ability to switch from light comedies like Splash to thrillers like Ransom and intense dramas like Apollo 13, and to succeed at all three. Real New York directors – guys like Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese – are supposed to make deeply personal, critically acclaimed flops, with the odd, unexpected hit only now and then. They’re supposed to be edgy realists, not self-effacing jacks-of-all-trades whose last project was the Christmas confection Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas, a film that earned Howard the worst reviews of his career and his biggest box-office success. No wonder that after sixteen years, people are still surprised to see him in the Grand Concourse.

“Hey, man, you’re Ron Howard, right?” A man extends his hand and Howard smiles and shakes it. “Thanks for Born on the Fourth of July,” the guy enthuses, blithely unaware that Oliver Stone directed it. “Great film.”

Howard laughs it off as he walks away. “Rob Reiner always complains that he gets thanked for Parenthood,” he says, “and I always tell him that I get credited with Stand by Me.”

But Howard doesn’t need to prove his New York filmmaking credentials. He preps all his films here, and he does all editing and post-production here. When possible, he likes to shoot here as well. His two early breakthrough comedies, Night Shift and Splash, were both set in the city, as were The Paper and Ransom. He also holds up the New York end of Imagine Entertainment, which produces all of Howard’s films, plus blockbusters like The Nutty Professor and Liar Liar. His partner in Imagine is the L.A.-based producer Brian Grazer. They seem like polar opposites, but the two have been friends and allies for almost twenty years. The price of co-running a huge movie company from New York is that Howard spends a ridiculous amount of time talking to Grazer and others on the phone, usually listening in on marathon conference calls that often last for hours. To pass the time he makes ornate large-scale doodles, like stained-glass windows, first sketching in black ink then painstakingly filling them in with sets of colored pencils that an assistant always keeps handy. (“That’s my left brain,” he says, a touch embarrassed. “They’re a little weird.”)

Yet like Spielberg before Schindler’s List, Howard still hasn’t gotten the critical respect he deserves. After the success of Apollo 13 in 1995, there was a sense that he had reached a new level of maturity as a director, but the follow-ups – the disappointing EDtv and the bloated Grinch – did nothing to further his cause.

“For a long time,” he says, “I was trying to display unexpected range. That was much more of an issue. But in the last four or five years, I kind of worked in all the genres I expect I ever will work in. There was a certain turning point.”Next week, he releases his 16th film, A Beautiful Mind, and it’s not the Ron Howard film anyone’s been expecting. A Beautiful Mind stars Russell Crowe as John Forbes Nash Jr., the real-life Princeton mathematician who fought a decades-long battle with schizophrenia before winning the Nobel Prize in 1994. Crowe is the volatile center of the film, and his mesmerizing performance is certain to earn him another Oscar nomination.

But Crowe has given Oscar-worthy performances before. It’s Howard who is breaking new ground here with a film that’s dark and difficult and doesn’t fit into any conventional genre; and though it manages to deliver plenty of crowd-pleasing moments, it does not sugarcoat the ugliness of Nash’s mental illness. For a director who is proud of his “invisible” style, A Beautiful Mind also has several bold visual and narrative surprises. Much in the film is not what it at first seems – suffice it to say that the trailers and TV commercials are being a bit coy, even intentionally misleading, about the film’s content.

“There’s no question it’s the most challenging thing I’ve done,” Howard says. Early handicapping within the industry already puts him in the front-running for an Oscar nomination. He’s never been nominated before. If he wins, then no one will ever be able to say he’s not a New York director. Shot all over the city and in New Jersey, A Beautiful Mind is challenging, disturbing, claustrophobic, and original. What more can the guy do?

A few days before Thanksgiving, Howard is overseeing a team of ten sound and picture editors as they put the finishing touches on the film. They’re all on the eighth floor of Sound One, the editing and post-production facility on West 54th Street where Howard completes most of his films. In the large mixing studio, they adjust the music and effects tracks for a crucial scene where Nash’s long-suffering wife, played by Jennifer Connelly, discovers that her husband has not been taking his medications. It’s a turning point in the narrative, and in recent test screenings, Howard sensed that “the moment didn’t quite have the intensity that it had earlier,” so he’s tweaking the music cues and the sound effects, making everything a bit louder.

But in a subsequent scene, the music was swelling too loudly – so they dial it down a bit. “It was a little too much,” Howard explains. “It felt too manipulative, tugging a little too hard. In some films that could be exactly what you want, but in this film” – he hesitates, as if aware that he’s comparing this to his own previous films – “it’s so well acted and the story carries itself.”

Over the years, Howard has had several projects about mental illness in development, drawn to the difficult challenge of portraying a chaotic interior state in a medium that focuses entirely on exteriors. That interest led him to the script for A Beautiful Mind, which Brian Grazer had already been developing with screenwriter Akiva Goldsman (A Time to Kill, Practical Magic). “This is one of the few movies I’ve ever done where there really is a single, central character. Usually it’s more of an ensemble. But in this case he’s both the protagonist and the antagonist – or at least his mind is – which is why it’s such a great title.”

Howard is such a pleasant, unassuming guy, it’s hard to believe he’s one of Hollywood’s four or five most powerful directors. But living on the East Coast has given him a partial antidote to Hollywood vanity. “Of course I’m vain,” he insists, “but in my day-to-day living in the East, I’m not encountering people in the business unless I specifically come to work. And I think there’s something very liberating about that, being constantly reminded that even if what you’re doing is important to you, it’s not the be-all and end-all. When you’re in L.A., it’s the be-all and end-all.”

Modesty makes for good collaborations. It may explain the long partnerships Howard has maintained with Grazer, whom he’s worked with since 1981, and with his wife, Cheryl, whom he’s been married to for 26 years. Howard’s self-effacing style, his openness, and the calm confidence that comes from years of success allow him to create an environment where others – actors, writers, editors, cameramen – don’t feel overpowered by someone else’s vision. That, in part, is what attracts an actor like Russell Crowe to the project.

“A couple of things surprised me about Russell,” Howard says, watching as another of the actor’s big scenes is cued up. “He had read the book and the script and was very well prepared for our first meeting. I felt that his bullshit detector was going to be valuable. Hanks has a great bullshit detector, and it was very valuable on Apollo 13, and I felt a similar kind of thing with Russell. He’s charismatic, but he also displays intellect and physical presence and vulnerability all in the same package. What really surprised me, though, was the physical transformation that he makes, a complete physical embodiment that has little to do with Russell.”

Howard watches as the editing team plays and replays one shot where Crowe shuffles up some steps on the Princeton campus, clutching a briefcase and an umbrella, looking nervous but resolute. “He had an ongoing dialogue with the property master,” Howard says. “Everything was important, the newspaper, everything. Each prop in that shot is something that took him a half-hour to work on.”

Crowe didn’t meet the real John Nash before shooting began, but Howard did. Nash is 73, and he still works at Princeton. “I spent a great day with him in his office,” Howard says, “and I videotaped it for Russell. Nash gave me a sort of lecture, kind of explaining his work, which I never could quite get, beyond the broad strokes. But it was great to see this man in his seventies kneeling down on one knee to get at the last corner of the chalkboard because he’d filled it all up. He’s not particularly fond of simplifying his ideas so they’re more digestible, but he was very polite and hung in there for a couple of hours.”

It’s easy to see why an actor would want to take on the role of a lonely schizophrenic genius who battles himself and the world to establish the value of his mathematical theories. But what was it about the story of a misfit like Nash that attracted a well-adjusted man like Howard to want to spend eighteen months of his life bringing it to the screen?

He thinks about that for a second. “I’m a little bit isolated and a little bit quiet,” he says. “I keep to myself, so I connected to that. And though I’m not a genius, unfortunately, I’m ambitious and I think I can do better. Nash believed there was something that he needed to prove.” Howard, apparently, does, too.

The Invisible Man