Cast & Crew
Schoolteacher Ed Avery is a devoted family man who moonlights as a cab dispatcher to support his wife Lou and young son Richie. When Ed begins to experience excruciating pains pulsing throughout his body, he tries to hide his condition from Lou until one night, after a bridge game, he collapses in agony. Upon learning that Ed has been enduring these spasms for months, his physician, Dr. Norton, calls in a specialist, Dr. Ruric, who puts Ed through a battery of tests that reveal that he is afflicted with a rare, deadly blood disease. When Ruric concludes that Ed's only hope lies in taking the experimental drug cortisone, Ed begins treatment under hospital supervision. Several weeks later, Ed is released from the hospital, and Norton cautions him that his drug dosage needs to be closely monitored and that he should immediately report any unusual symptoms. On his first day home, Ed ebulliently ushers Lou to an expensive dress store and insists that she purchase two frocks they can ill afford. When Ed begins to experience drastic mood swings that veer from manic depression to delusions of grandiosity, Lou suggests that he consult Norton, but he protests that he cannot afford to be sick again and begins to increase his dosage of cortisone. At a PTA meeting, Ed deliberately insults both the parents and their children, causing his good friend, gym teacher Wally Gibbs, to become concerned. When Wally visits Lou to tell her about her husband's strange behavior, Ed makes a snide remark about Wally's interest in Lou, then declares that he is tired of petty domesticity and his marriage. After telling Lou that she is his intellectual inferior, Ed relents and agrees to stay married for the sake of his son. Having consumed his entire prescription of cortisone, Ed poses as a doctor and forges a new prescription at a drug store. While playing football with Richie, Ed pushes the boy beyond his endurance, frightening Lou. Soon after, Wally shows Lou an article describing psychosis as a complication of cortisone consumption, but Lou fears that Ed will die without the drug. As Ed's condition deteriorates, he continues to torment Richie, browbeating him about mathematical problems late into the night and driving him to tears. At dinner, Ed launches into a paranoid rant against Lou. Desperate to stop his father from taking more pills, Richie raids the medicine cabinet, but Ed catches him and calls him a thief. As Richie cowers in his bedroom, Lou phones Wally for help, but is forced to leave a message because he is not at home. Decreeing that Richie considers himself above the law, Ed reads a passage in the Bible about Abraham sacrificing his son Isaac. When Lou begs Ed to spare Richie, he declares that they will all die together. After Lou tries to stall Ed, he locks her in a closet, turns up the volume on the television set and then charges up the stairs to Richie's room, scissors in hand. When Ed begins to hallucinate, Richie slips out the door just as Wally bursts into the house and wrests the scissors from Ed's hands. After Wally knocks Ed unconscious, Lou phones the doctor, who heavily sedates Ed in the hospital. Explaining that Ed is suffering from a psychosis induced by an overdose of cortisone, Norton warns that he may never return to normal. After stating that Ed will recover only if he remembers what has happened, Norton agrees to allow Lou to see her husband. In his hospital room, Ed awakens, disoriented, but soon recognizes Lou and Richie, and recalling the disastrous events of recent weeks, gratefully embraces his family.
W. D. Flick
Harry M. Leonard
Edward B. Powell
Stuart A. Reiss
Walter M. Scott
Jack Martin Smith
Lyle R. Wheeler
Bigger Than Life
Forget the cortisone - Ray regretted even mentioning the drug by name, because to do so limits the film to its day and age, and limits the domestic hellfire that transpires to being merely the result of a pharmacological misjudgment. It's not. The film's not a thriller, but its Hitchcockian MacGuffin is just as incidental as the wine bottles in Notorious (1946) or Miss Froy's "secret information" in The Lady Vanishes (1938). Bigger than Life has bigger fish to fry - here is an incredibly complex portrait of middle-class American society, so sure of its own sanctity and strength, attacked from within by its own discontentment. James Mason, who also produced, plays Ed Avery, a mid-American elementary school staffer who, in Ray's hyperbolic, wide-screen world, is an unconvincing Everyman. Devoted father and lovey-dovey husband (to wife Barbara Rush), Ed tries way too hard, even lying to his unjudgmental wife about moonlighting as a cab dispatcher. (Financial anxiety permeates the film like a disorder.) The darkness comes - remember to think about everything metaphorically - when Ed begins suffering mysterious attacks and fainting spells. Eventually he is diagnosed with some rare, terminal arterial inflammation, and his only hope is a new, untested drug, which returns him to chipper health in no time. The megadose he's receiving, however, not only produces an addictive hunger to increase dosage, but also imbues Ed with a snowballing psychosis.
But it's not quite like any other cinematic slide into madness you'd care to remember. Ed becomes god-like in his own mind, practically bursting out of his own skin, and the movie's transgressions merely begin with a speech he gives, smiling and smoking, at his school's parent-teachers meeting, telling the '50s moms and dads that their kids are intellectually on par with gorillas, and that "childhood is a congenital disease and the purpose of education is to cure it." Ed's rollercoaster ride on the Megalomania Express ropes in a grandiose idea about a pedagogic TV show, rails against his family's "petty domesticity," and has him tossing all economic concerns out the window. (The only predictable bump on the path is Ed's jealousy, in regards to colleague Walter Matthau's ministrations toward a worried Rush - although, as author Jonathan Lethem convincingly suggests in a video supplement to the DVD edition of Ray's film, Matthau's character might be the subtlest depiction of a closeted gay man in mid-century America ever put on film.)
But it's when Ed focuses his Nietzschean mania on his son (the moderately convincing nine-year-old Christopher Olsen), things get much worse. Two of the film's most unforgettable set-pieces are iron maidens of domestic crisis: the single-shot, lurid horror-film-within-a-film in which Ed verbally tortures and starves his son over his homework (the composition is positively Germanic, and Ed's contorted shadow on the wall is one of the decade's qualmiest visuals), and the scorching, faux-Rockwell dinner scene, in which the boiling-over patriarch attacks his son for drinking an extra glass of milk and tongue-lashes his numb wife until there hardly seems to be a marriage left to save. Even so, that all pales beside the eventual moment when Mason's dazed and dazzling homunculus hits the Old Testament, and realizes the solution to his family problems might lie in the story of Abraham and Isaac... Is this the first authentic Dad-on-the-rampage film? If so, it bursts out of its conformist decade like a rocket, and bruises all the more for it. Shockingly, what Ray fashioned often scans like a '50s, non-horror version of The Shining (1980), and it's hard to imagine that Stanley Kubrick was ignorant of Ray's film. (Kubrick cast Mason in Lolita  six years later.) Ray leaves few stones unturned in his dissection of this meltdown, and as usual the physical spaces of the film - that staircase, that living room, that house complete with cheap travel posters and rusty kitchen water tank - are limned so thoroughly you feel intimate with the place yourself. (The staircase is practically a cast member, and its centrality became one of Hitchcock's trump cards a few years on in Psycho, 1960.) If Bigger than Life is a horror film, of sorts, the monster in question is not only the nuclear family's lynchpin gone screwy, making the entire enterprise terrifyingly unstable. (The instability created by a modest teaching salary may be the movie's primal crisis, because everything, including life and death, hinges upon it.) No, Mason's Ed is also a booming amalgamation of all kinds of horrible reactionary political ideas, from implied eugenics to Ayn Rand's objectivism to plain old reactionary xenophobia, all stewed together in a big pot of dissatisfied fearfulness and control-loss. You usually have to dig deep in horror films for a political reality behind the creature, but Ed is practically a manic radio pundit already, bellowing about "discipline!" and lamenting the world of amoral idiots he's forced to live in. But the film goes further still - when Rush's wife objects in a feverish panic that God told Abraham not to gut their son Isaac, Ed barks, scissors in hand, "God was wrong!" This is 1956? With its iconic use of '50s decor (that TV, with blaring carnival footage playing at exactly the wrong time), hair-yanking hyperbole, and resonating vision of the dark heart of postwar America, Bigger than Life is a larger influence than anyone has ever guessed. David Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986), three decades later, seems almost like a sequel, and in the same sense, every movie that has dared to plumb the distraught underbelly of what everyone thought was an idyllic 1950s America owes it a debt of courage and invention. Ray was an outsider wandering around inside the machine, and that's the reason his best films, and particularly Bigger than Life, resolve themselves but cannot truly find resolution. The family is rejoined in the end, as if it were all a bad dream. But we know that Ed's disease will not abate, and more vitally, the angry soul of the shamed and frustrated American dad will not be appeased.
Producer: James Mason
Director: Nicholas Ray
Screenplay: Cyril Hume, Richard Maibaum (screenplay and story); Berton Roueché (article); Gavin Lambert, James Mason, Clifford Odets, Nicholas Ray (all uncredited)
Cinematography: Joe MacDonald
Art Direction: Jack Martin Smith, Lyle R. Wheeler
Music: David Raksin
Film Editing: Louis Loeffler
Cast: James Mason (Ed Avery), Barbara Rush (Lou Avery), Walter Matthau (Wally Gibbs), Robert Simon (Dr. Norton), Christopher Olsen (Richie Avery), Roland Winters (Dr. Ruric), Rusty Lane (Bob LaPorte), Rachel Stephens (Nurse), Kipp Hamilton (Pat Wade).
by Michael Atkinson
Bigger Than Life
The working title of this picture was One in a Million. The Variety review misspells actor Renny McEvoy's name as "Henry." According to Hollywood Reporter, The New Yorker story on which the film was based was written from the actual case history of a Long Island schoolteacher. According to a July 1956 Newsweek article, the pharmaceutical company that produced cortisone, the drug featured in the film, expressed consternation over the possible effect of the picture on the public. The same article quoted a chemist declaring that Berton Roueché's article was "a reasonably fair approximation of the situation which existed at the time  when cortisone was first marketed."
By the time of the film's release, new formulations had cut down the required dosages, eliminating many of the dangerous side effects that occurred in 1948. Portland Mason, who played "Nancy" in the film, was James Mason's daughter. Bigger Than Life marked Barbara Rush's first starring vehicle for Twentieth Century-Fox. A modern source adds that director Nicholas Ray hired British film critic Gavin Lambert to consult with him on the story. Other modern sources add that playwright Clifford Odets worked with Ray on the story.
Released in United States 1983
Released in United States February 1996
Released in United States Summer August 1956
Shown at MoMA (The Martin Scorsese Collection) in New York City February 22-27, 1996.
Released in United States 1983 (Shown at FILMEX: Los Angeles International Film Exposition (James Mason in Person: A Retrospective Tribute) April 13 - May 1, 1983.)
Released in United States Summer August 1956
Released in United States February 1996 (Shown at MoMA (The Martin Scorsese Collection) in New York City February 22-27, 1996.)