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.