Bigger Than Life (1956) Nicholas Ray

Ozzie Nelson goes bonkers in Nick Ray’s drug induced destruction of a “perfect” 1950’s American family. James Mason is a well liked, though a self confessed, straight laced “dull” person, that is until he is diagnosed with a rare disease and the only known cure is the then new miracle drug cortisone. When he begins to abuse the medication, Ozzie, I mean Ed Avery, turns into an egotistical know it all, spitting out strange child rearing theories at a PTA meeting. At home, he brow beats his son, withholding meals until his homework is done correctly. From there his delusions only get worst, until one day, he pronounces God was wrong when he spared Isaac. Ed is even willing to surrender his family in a biblical sacrifice. In “Bigger Than Life,” Nick Ray tears down the walls of the phony 1950’s facade of white picket fences and elegant worry free suburban living. He also takes a hard look at the abuses of prescription drug use long before it was ever considered a problem. Ed Avery is a gentile well liked school teacher living out the American dream of a nice home in suburbia with a beloved wife and son. To keep up appearances, after work, he takes a second job at a taxi cab company as a dispatcher. It’s a job he keeps secret from his wife (she would think it is beneath him), as he does the painful stomach contractions he’s experiencing, that is, until one day after work when he collapses. A series of medical test reveal an incurable disease that will kill Ed within a year. His only recourse is taking cortisone, back then, a new not fully tested drug. Ed seems to make a full recovery, only as time goes by his personality seems to change. Congenial Ed suddenly is haughtier, more arrogant at work and at home. Lou (Barbara Rush), Ed’s wife, becomes concerned over his careless treatment of their son while teaching him to catch a football. His erratic behavior includes demeaning the milkman, for purposely and annoying, banging the milk bottles together. He berates school students on parent’s day and the educational system in general. He begins to talk about himself in lofty terms.  When Wally (Walter Matthau), a fellow teacher and good friend, begins to believe Ed has been abusing his intake of cortisone more trouble begins as Ed then insinuates something is going on between Wally and Lou. Ed illusions of grandeur reach biblical proportions as he begins walking around the house like a mad preacher, bible in hand. He draws on the story of Abraham and Isaac as justification for punishing his son and is willing to go to the extreme of “sacrificing” the young boy in order to save his soul. When Lou frantically tells him that God stopped Abraham, he tells her “God was wrong,” and locks her in a coat closet. “Bigger Than Life” was extremely radical for its times destroying illusions that drug addiction and psychological breakdowns were limited to inner cities and “other” people.  It was a daring reconstruction of suburban America weaned on “Father Know Best “ and not prepared for or having any desire to know these problems existed. Subsequently, the film died a quick death at the box office. For Nicholas Ray this was his second take at breaking America’s illusions about post war suburban life in America. The previous year Ray had released “Rebel Without a Cause.” The film was based on a true New Yorker magazine article called, “Ten Feet Tall,” about a Queens, New York school teacher who experienced damaging side effects to cortisone, then a new drug. The article was written by Berton Roueche with a screenplay by Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum. Nick Ray, James Mason, Clifford Odets and Gavin Lambert all contributed to the final work. James Mason produced (one of six times during his career) the film attempting to keep a tight rope on the rebellious Nick Ray with the script. It was Ray who brought in Odets and Lambert to help with the dialogue.

 

This post is part of the CMBA Fabulous Films of the 50’s Blogaathon. Check out other great contributors by clicking on the link below.

http://clamba.blogspot.com/2014/05/cmba-blogathon-fabulous-films-of-50s.html

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24 comments on “Bigger Than Life (1956) Nicholas Ray

  1. KimWilson says:

    You picked a pretty radical film for the blogathon, John. I’m pretty sure this film was too edgy for 1956 audiences. I would love to be transported to 1956 and hear what audiences said during and after watching it. James Mason gives one of his finest, but lesser known, performances here. The story is so compelling. Nice choice.

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    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Kim. Oh yeah, the film died at the box office when it was released. Apparently, few folks were wiling to face the music this film was presenting. Mason is superb, I agree. Thanks!

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  2. This is such a disturbing film (and that it’s based on a true story makes it more so). I wonder if Mason’s behavior was also meant to cast a light on Fascism and fascist behavior (as the country has recently been through a world war fighting it); his monomaniacal behavior sounds dictatorial. So much was going on behind those seemingly perfect Ozzie-&-Harriet facades of the 50s.

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    • John Greco says:

      GOM, Yes, it is a disturbing film to watch. Mason disintegrates and his treatment of family and friends is a horror. Maybe, a little too real life for some. That’s what makes the 1950’s so fascinating. On the surface, America was doing fine with the white picket fences, listening to Patti Page and Perry Como on the radio and so on. But underneath things were boiling. Rock and Roll music was coming into its own, The Beats were writing about a different kind of America. There was an underground that would reveal itself in the next decade. In his own way, this is what Ray was presenting.

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  3. Harrowing subject matter. So insidious. Mason and Ray are to be applauded for stretching and pushing that accursed envelope.

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  4. Fascinating, and one I’ve never seen but will surely be on the lookout. We have a rather bland and comforting view of that era, largely due to the TV shows you’ve mentioned and other films that took a different road–but there are glimpses by daring filmmakers from time to time that tell us they could be just as skeptical and cynical as we are today. A very good and interesting choice for the blogathon.

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    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Jacqueline! The 50”s did have an underground that rebelled against the idealized view of the American Dream. Ray, at his best, was a visionary.

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  5. The Lady Eve says:

    I’ve seen “Bigger Than Life” and found it intriguing, though wasn’t that taken with Mason in the leading role. Nick Ray didn’t back away from much, did he? A film on his own life would be a wild ride into some pretty harrowing territory, I think.

    You picked an interesting outlier for this blogathon, John, great job!

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    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Eve! Ray’s life was one of rebellion and living on the edge. He liked to stir the pot. Would love to see a film of his life. Patrick McGilligan’s biography of Ray is a must read.

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  6. Wow – this sounds like a pretty edgy film. It would be interesting to see James Mason in this role, because I really enjoy his performances as conflicted/complex characters.

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  7. Aubyn Eli says:

    I’ve seen Bigger Than Life twice and both times, I was riveted. Getting away with images like that onscreen in 1956 was absolutely gobsmacking. Well, to the extent that they did get away with it–1956 audiences didn’t exactly flock to the multiplex to see James Mason call for the blood sacrifice of his son. I think it was ahead of its time.

    Some critics don’t really like Mason in the role and truthfully, he is miscast as a suburban dad who used to be a football hero. But what does that matter, when the performance is so electric? “God was wrong!” Can’t think of any other actor in the ’50s that could have made that line so terrifying.

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    • John Greco says:

      Yes, the film did die at the B.O. so not too many filmgoers were upset as only few actually saw it at the time. I agree what you say about Mason as a football hero but overall, he’s powerful. His performance borders extremely scary.

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  8. doriantb says:

    John, I’m not surprised that BIGGER THAN LIFE wasn’t a box-office smash; this film wasn’t going to be The Feel-Good Movie of The Year, especially in the 1950s! Happily, if cortisone was giving anyone delusions of grandur back then, there was indeed treatment for it. Still, James Mason’s chilling performance is memorable, to say the least! And of course, you know that Mason’s son was played by young Christopher Olson, who also played James Stewart and Doris Day’s kidnapped son Hank in THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH in our Fabulous Film Films of of the 1950s Blogathon! 😀 BRAVA to you on an excellent blog post, John, and have a great Memorial Day Weekend!

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    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Dorian and a nice plug on your own entry (LOL) which I will be over to visit. Actually, I did not know about Christopher Olson playing the son in both these films. Thanks for pointing that out.

      Hope you and the family enjoy the rest of the holiday weekend!

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  9. Rick says:

    John, I haven’t seen BIGGER THAN LIFE, but it sounds most intriguing–especially with that cast.

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  10. Another one I’ve got to check out, John, thanks for selling it some for me. I kind of force-feed myself Nicholas Ray–sometimes I think he’s overrated, on better days I just think he’s not to my tastes–but his stuff does kind of sneak up on me over time and call me back for more, so that’s something!

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  11. Page says:

    John,
    Very interesting backstory and I had no idea it was based on the short story, Ten Feet Tall.
    While I’m a huge fan of Walter and his comedic films, this was a nice break. A serious film, topic that I’m glad Ray took a chance on. Grateful for him and the Spike Lee’s of the world that we get a glimpse into the not so perfect but real life struggles that so many can relate to.

    Not surprised it wasn’t a big hit at the box office given the time as you point out here.

    I’m glad you chose this film for the Blogathon. You’ve certainly pointed out in beautiful words why it needed to be included. I hope if others haven’t seen it, they’ll give it a chance.
    I hope you’re enjoying your holiday.
    Page

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    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Page! Matthau did a lot dramatic work early in his career. I think I first saw him in the Elvis film King Creole where he played a gangster. This film is not a fun entertainment for sure. But it’s an important film showing a dark side of life.

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  12. Aurora says:

    What a great read and interesting story, John. I’ve never seen this. Now added to my “must” list.

    Aurora

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    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Aurora! I know my own must see list always grows no matter how many films I catch up on. Hope you get to see it.

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