“BIGGER THAN LIFE”
A maverick of the 1950s Hollywood system, with Johnny Guitar and Rebel Without a Cause already under his belt earlier in the decade, Nicholas Ray’s melodrama Bigger Than Life was perhaps his most structured work when it came out in 1956. Starring James Mason (who also produced) in a uncharacteristic — yet riveting — role, the film was virtually ignored by audiences when it opened, but with its look at American suburbia during the nuclear-era (and a precursor for highlighting the abuse of prescription drugs) it has since become a popular title of critics and cineastes alike.
The film opens with teacher Ed Avery (Mason) finishing up his last day of the school year before running off to work as a taxi dispatcher. Too proud to tell his wife what he’s doing, he’s also hiding debilitating chest pains. Finally overcome by the pain, he’s rushed to the hospital and learns he has a rare condition that may be cared for if he begins going on an experimental drug: Cortisone.
After an amazing montage of Ed tossing and turning in a hospital bed as he works through the pain while Ray inserting a graphic showing the increase of Cortisone and the decrease of pain until it finally settles at “No Pain,” Ed goes home good as new. Maybe too good. And before his wife (Barbara Rush) realizes, Ed has become hooked on the medication, with side affects that has made him a monster to her and their young son (who often wears a bright red James Dean-esque jacket).
What makes Bigger than Life ahead of its time is the way Ray uses not only medicine but the medical system to debilitate his protagonists. With the mountain of bills piling up because of Ed’s condition, Ray shows scenes where Ed or his wife could have contacted the doctor and questioned the treatment, but with fears of more bills they think otherwise. There’s also Ed’s second job and the family’s moderate lifestyle that proves this isn’t Leave it to Beaver.
And how can you not enjoy watching James Mason in a role like this, where his typical dapper demeanor is turned on its ear. One of the best scenes is Mason addressing his students’ parents and going off on why the educational system had failed their kids in his proper British accent while puffing a cigarette.
Though covering tough subjects, there’s still the typical 1950s happy ending to make us feel this is only a movie and in no way could relate to our lives. If it could only be that simple.
Features include a revealing 1977 TV interview with Ray, interviews with author Jonathan Lethem (Chronic City) and Susan Ray, as well as a essay by critic and video maker B. Kite.
The Criterion Collection releases the disc today.