Bigger Than Life (Ray, 1956)


The moment that caught my attention in Nicholas Ray’s 1956 melodrama Bigger Than Life is when Ed Avery (James Mason) walks in on his son watching television. At first he appears to have a slight, almost sociological interest, then asks the boy, “Doesn’t that bore you?” Followed by, almost to himself, “It’s always the same story.”Perhaps part of why that moment stood out for me was that I found myself thinking both during and after the film about audience expectations and the division between entertainment pieces and other types of movies. It’s cliche that we have a skewed view of the 1950s in our movies; here, I found myself thinking about our view of movie audiences of the 1950s. Who was this movie for? Who watched it? Did audiences at the time take it seriously on it’s own terms, looking at it the way we might think of Leaving Las Vegas or Requiem for a Dream? Or was it like a “Kelli becomes an addict” story arc on 90210–a serious topic integrated into what the audiences understand is a melodrama?

The film, beautifully restored, played at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as part of their retrospective “James Mason on Film.” The screening notes excerpted generously from Paul Brunick’s review in Film Comment (January/February 2009). Brunick’s argument, which I certainly find convincing, is that: “The central thematic question [of the film] is one of causality: does the cortisone treatment create the psychotic impulses that transform Mason’s Ed Avery from a mild-mannered schoolteacher to a petty Fascist? Or does it merely amplify the psychic forces of a mindset deeply ingrained before the first pill is popped?”

I vote for the latter, not merely because the use of one more comfortable narrative to point to a subtext that can’t be talked about more openly seems apropos of other Ray films that I have seen. As I mentioned in an earlier review of The Flying Leathernecks, Ray said of Bigger Than Life that he thought he made a mistake “involving his audience in the pros and cons of one particular medical discussion, rather than […] the fallacy of believing in any magical solution to a human problem” (326).

Is the film merely about a medical problem; or is it about something more?

Having now seen the film since I read that quote, the phrase that jumps out to be is “human problem.” It’s quite clear in the film that Mason is prescribed the drug for a medical condition. (The insistence of the doctors at the end that there is nothing wrong with Cortisone as long as Avery doesn’t abuse it smells more like studio worry than auteur sentiment.) In some ways, the film does suggest or embrace the notion of Cortisone as a “magical solution”–after all, the alternative to taking the drug is death–so it doesn’t appear to be fallacious to think that drugs can’t be solutions to specific medical problems.

No, the use of the phrase “human problems” suggests to me that Ray is acknowledging that Avery has some problems the precede the drug’s side-effects and that while there may be a pill for one symptom or specific manifestation of the life Ed leads, the latent anger he feels at his wife, son, and self for being part of a life so suffocatingly normal.

Ed’s trajectory will be familiar to anyone whose read a profile of a murder/suicide killer in a John Douglas book or seen more than one episode of Law and Order: SVU. By that do I mean that all such killers are catalyzed by some drug-induced psychosis? Of course not. What I do mean is that the film suggests that such impulses may be latent in more people than we think–in so-called “normal” people and not just some minuscule category of inevitable sociopaths. We know more today about the specific side-effects of various drugs than we did decades ago, but the differences between those who have the latent ability to be a monster in them and those who become monsters is as little understood now as it was in 1956.

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