Bigger Than Life: Criterion Collection
March 19, 2010
Bigger Than Life (1956) is an intriguing work in director Nicholas Ray’s fascinating filmography. He got his start in progressive theater and radio and an interest in social commentary manifested itself in his Hollywood debut assisting Elia Kazan on A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945). Bigger Than Life is a scathing critique of middle-class suburbia, anticipating films like Blue Velvet (1986) and American Beauty (1999).
Ed Avery (Mason) is a school teacher that moonlights as a part-time taxi cab dispatcher, unbeknownst to his wife, to help pay the bills. He and his wife Lou (Rush) live in a nice house with their son Richie (Olsen) in the suburbs. After hosting a dinner party for friends, Ed blacks out and collapses. He just assumes that he’s tired but continues to experience blackouts. So, he checks himself into a hospital and undergoes several tests in order to determine what’s wrong. The doctor’s tell Ed that he’s suffering from a very rare inflammation of the arteries and they figure he has a year left to live. However, they’ve had some success with a new experimental drug called cortisone. The more of the drug he takes, the less pain he feels.
Eventually, he feels good enough to come home. The doctors give him strict orders for taking the drug and tell him to let them know if he has any adverse reaction to the medication. Ed is reunited with his family and initially everything seems fine. Normally sensible about spending, he buys his wife several expensive outfits and his son a new bicycle. Does Ed have a new lease on life or is something else going on? He starts off like the liberated Lester in American Beauty but becomes someone more akin to the monstrous Leland Palmer in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992). Ed starts acting oddly impulsive and James Mason does an excellent job of portraying a man trying to prevent himself from gradually coming apart at the seams. There’s a moment where he stares into a fractured bathroom mirror, damaged by his wife in frustration, which hints at the schism created in his personality. With the euphoric highs come devastating lows and Mason conveys these opposite ends of the emotional spectrum brilliantly.
Like he did with Rebel without a Cause (1955), Nicholas Ray presents a far from idyllic picture of middle class suburbia. He takes a pillar of the community like Ed and shows how his mental disintegration alienates the man’s friends and family. There is a surprising amount of complexity in the themes that Ray explores. As the sole provider, Lou just can’t have her husband committed. Who will pay for Ed’s medication? Who will support them? In the ultra-conservative 1950s, it wasn’t as easy as the wife going back to work and so Lou is conflicted with caring for her husband and maintaining the facade that everything is alright. But everything isn’t alright and Bigger Than Life examines the unhealthy reliance on prescription medicine as a “miracle cure,” eerily anticipating the abuse of drugs like oxycontin in today’s society. In a time when we are faced with the sad destruction of celebrities like Heath Ledger, Michael Jackson and Corey Haim with the reliance on and abuse of prescription medicine, this film is more relevant than ever before.
There is an audio commentary by film critic Geoff Andrew, author of The Films of Nicholas Ray. He regards this film as Ray’s masterpiece. He briefly touches upon the origins of the film – an essay in The New Yorker that the director read while promoting Rebel without a Cause in Europe. Andrew also talks about the production and does a good job analyzing the film’s themes. He points out how the look of the film and the performances enhance its themes. Andrew also puts the film in the context of Ray’s career.
“Profile of Nicholas Ray” is a 1977 television interview. Naturally, he talks about Rebel and what drew him to it. He also talks about how he ran with a gang while doing research for the film and how he met James Dean.
Novelist Jonathan Lethem (Chronic City) talks about his love of Bigger Than Life. He points out the attention to detail and how the Avery house just barely qualifies as middle class. Lethem builds a convincing argument for Ray’s film addressing the notion of economic class.
Nicholas Ray’s widow, Susan, talks about her husband and the film. She speaks about his philosophy on film and also touches upon his working methods.
Finally, there is the theatrical trailer.