Bigger Than Life (1956)

Rated NR 95 minutes

Based on an article in the New Yorker, Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life stars James Mason (who also produced the film) as elementary school teacher Ed Avery. A thoughtful, gentle, educated man, with a loving wife, Lou (Barbara Rush), and a young son, Richie (Christopher Olsen), who loves him, Avery is also successful in his work, respected by his principal and colleagues, and well liked in his community. But he is also over-extended in his pursuit of the American dream -- he secretly works a second job to earn extra money, and, much more seriously, doesn't dare break stride, despite the increasingly painful physical spasms that he suffers. He finally collapses one day, and after an extended series of tests the doctors inform him that he is suffering from a serious arterial disease. His doctors (Robert F. Simon, Roland Winters, Lewis Charles) tell him that he may well have less than a year to live, but also offer him one possible hope, with treatment using cortisone, which was then a new, not fully tested drug. Avery jumps at the chance and makes a gradual but seemingly full recovery. He returns to work a few weeks later, but it soon becomes clear that he's not the same -- the first sign of a problem is his new, cavalier attitude toward money, and then Lou becomes alarmed over his expressions of rage over seemingly insignificant annoyances and slights. And then he starts expressing himself in grand, exalted terms, first to Lou and then to his colleagues at school, including his closest friend, Wally Gibbs (Walter Matthau); he couples this with a belittling attitude toward the students and, worse yet, their parents, and the goals of the school and of education in general. Avery's job is now in jeopardy, which is the only reason Lou and Wally keep quiet, lest they make matters in the Avery home worse than they already are. But matters only get worse when Wally determines that it is the cortisone -- which Ed has been taking in far greater doses than prescribed -- that is making him act this way. Presented with this information, Ed now expresses delusions of persecution concerning his best friend and his wife. And his obsession with forcing Richie to live up to his full potential soon turns into a much darker fixation, coupled with a grim twist in his mind on the Biblical sacrifice of Abraham. Lou finally tries to reach out for help before it is too late for all of them. Director Ray later offered regret over having used cortisone by name, as it was still not standard treatment and its benefits and drawbacks weren't known. But this did lend the movie a verisimilitude that was essential for what appeal it did hold for audiences. (Seven years later, screenwriter William Read Woodfield would incorporate Bigger Than Life's cortisone plot device into his script for the Voyage To The Bottom of the Sea episode Mutiny). Bigger Than Life's more immediate problem at the time lay in its broader plot -- with a story that brought addiction (of a kind) and fact-based psychological unhingement into a suburban American setting, it was a fairly daring subject for its time, for which audiences were unprepared in 1956. It was also one of a group of offbeat pictures that Mason produced as well as starred in.~ Bruce Eder, All Movie Guide

Film Credits

Director: Nicholas Ray

Writer: Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum

Cast: James Mason, Barbara Rush, Walter Matthau, Robert F. Simon, Christopher Olsen, Roland Winters, Rusty Lane, Rachel Stephens and Kipp Hamilton

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