Stephen Hawking and the Search for a Hollywood Genius

Stephen Hawking - H - 2007

Geniuses rock the system, buck convention, shatter our most fundamental notions about the world and even the universe. They’re the last kinds of people you want toiling in a well oiled machine.

Hollywood has always been fascinated with geniuses. Over and over again, it’s used them as the subject of films, from A Beautiful Mind to The Theory of Everything to Genius — the Geoffrey Rush series about Einstein. Some are well made, some not, but almost none succeed in explaining what it really means to be a genius.

Most movies about geniuses shun the “genius” part of the equation, usually with a deft side-step. The focus of Beautiful Mind was mental illness; its most original conceit was the revelation that the “bad guys” are neither bad nor guys, just figments of our hero’s paranoid imagination. That’s an impressive bait-and-switch, but it altogether avoids what’s going on inside the heart and mind of a genius. (I can only think of one movie, in fact, that made me understand that: Darren Aronofsky’s Pi, perhaps because the movie was so complicated, I’m still trying to figure out what it’s all about.)

I thought about the nature of genius when I heard that Stephen Hawking had died. The Cambridge physicist, who passed away March 14 at the age of 76, has been the subject of not once but two recent biopics: Hawking with Benedict Cumberbatch, and Theory of Everything with Eddie Redmayne. Both are pretty good, with solid scripts and stellar performances. But did I emerge from either one with an insight into genius? No. I learned a lot about relationships and the creeping, crawling horror of Lou Gehrig’s disease; but genius itself remained elusive, as it has been ever since, as much a mystery to me today as when I first watched Russell Crowe scrawling numbers on a window pane, as if somehow that were proof of brilliance.

The problem is this: it would take a genius to explain a genius. And geniuses in Hollywood are in short supply.

Within the corridors of power, inside the studios and especially in the agencies that thrive on hyperbole, the word “genius” is bandied about almost as frequently as I’d imagine the word “huge” is in the White House. But even the actors and writers and directors thus described take the flattery with a pinch of salt, they know it won’t last, that the rhetoric will fade at precisely the same pace as their box office and awards.

There’ve been few geniuses in Hollywood, if any. Irving Thalberg was famously dubbed a genius (when he wasn’t being called a boy wonder), and among the many characters who endlessly draw me back to Hollywood’s past, he seems as worthy as any. F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was well placed to observe him while slumming as a not-very-successful screenwriter, was so mesmerized by the executive, he built a whole novel around him, the heavily fictionalized Last Tycoon.

But genius? Thalberg was skilled with script, clever with talent and marvelous when it came to shaping his posthumous image; but a genius is more than that — a man or woman who makes us behold the world afresh, who changes our most fundamental ideas about life and death and everything in between.

Orson Welles is another candidate. I remember seeing him, years ago, propped up by the entrance of Ma Maison, the “in” restaurant of the day where he could be found with startling regularity, beadily eying each newcomer and especially any executive who had the temerity to walk past him. Some stopped, many chuckled nervously and slapped his back; none ever financed his films. Welles was enormous, swathed in black to hide his bulk, as intimidating as he was intriguing. It’s hard to deny his preternatural gifts. He acted, directed, wrote, made at least one masterpiece (Citizen Kane) and arguably several more. But did he alter our thinking so profoundly there’d be a cultural black hole without him? Call it heresy, but I’d say no.

John Ford. Francis Coppola. Martin Scorsese. Take your pick. Their work is deeply original, so much that we need only mention their last names and people understand immediately the vision we’re describing. But geniuses? Not quite.

For years, Steven Spielberg was hailed as a genius by his admirers, though he’s slipped a bit in the popular imagination of late. That’s something I regret; he’s an extraordinary filmmaker, and pictures like E.T. and Close Encounters have the primal power of The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind, and will haunt viewers for just as long. Spielberg has a narrative fluency and almost epic approach to the most intimate of things that we’d be foolish to underestimate, an innate sense of drama, a direct pipeline to the human heart. Still, a genius? That’s a different league.

James Cameron, Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino, David Lynch — I could go down a long list of contemporary filmmakers whose work I respect, acknowledging everything that makes them exceptional. Same with writers (Robert Towne) and actors (Meryl Streep). Our world would be emptier without them. But a genius is a genius; there’s only a handful each century — and in this business, none at all.

Because the truth is, deep, down, Hollywood hates geniuses.

No matter how much it pretends to revere them, it loathes and fears them, every one. Geniuses rock the system, buck convention, shatter our most fundamental notions about the world and even the universe. They’re the last kinds of people you want toiling in a well oiled machine.

As much as the powers that be may obsess over genius, thumbing through books like Walter Isaacson’s Einstein: His Life and Universe and Leonardo da Vinci: The Biography, they want their geniuses safely trapped within cardboard covers, with none of the danger they pose in real life.

Because no matter how much the studios sell their movies as something new and different, they know what works best is what’s essentially the same. We may think we worship the new, but we really crave the old, wrapped in shiny paper. The last thing audiences want is to be picked up by the collar and shaken so hard that the dust of their old ideas goes flying off — which is precisely what a genius does. Study Einstein, and you can never go back to the Newtonian universe; look at a Picasso, and you’ll never see two-dimensional painting quite the same way again.

There are great artists whose work I revere, who border on the genius and perhaps even qualify for that title. Charlie Chaplin. Jean Renoir. Federico Fellini. Their films will last as long as film itself. But all, significantly, worked outside Hollywood — or at least, in Chaplin’s case, in a Hollywood that was still inchoate, still forming after the Big Bang of Thomas Edison’s invention.

That was before the rules kicked in, before the fortresses had been erected and their feudal lords had exiled anyone who dared deviate too much from the norm.

Only when the structures of Hollywood collapse will a true genius have the chance to thrive at the heart of the motion picture business. The good news is, that may not be as far away as we think.