Prescribed Viewing for Ray Fans
Director Nicholas Ray's 1956 drama "Bigger Than Life" is a movie which was ahead of its time, not in the sense that it told some futuristic storyline but it told a storyline which people at the time weren't ready for. In simple terms "Bigger Than Life" is a story about addiction, in this case addiction to a prescribed drug, but in reality is about all sorts of addiction and the effect it has on people from those who are addicted to those who are close. As such "Bigger Than Life" is dramatic, it is emotive and at times uncomfortable as we watch repressed feelings exhibit themselves under the freedom of being under the influence and it is because this movie basically rips into the illusion of perfect domesticity as repressed feelings come to the surface it was more than post war America could handle. But watching it now it is far easier to appreciate not only the brilliant story and Ray's quality direction but also James Mason's brilliant performance.
Ed Avery (James Mason - 20000 Leagues Under the Sea) is an amiable sort of man, he has a lovely wife and a good son and he enjoys his job as a school teacher, his only issue are constant bouts of severe pain. When he blackouts at home he ends up in hospital where he discovers he not only has a very rare condition but also only months to live. To try and stave of death Ed agrees to take an experimental drug and after a stay in hospital it seems to be working, he goes back home and seems to be embracing his second chance. But the drug has a strange side effect and Ed starts abusing his medication to keep the feeling it gives but it starts turning him into a monster with wild mood swings and radical thoughts to the point he even thinks his wife Lou (Barbara Rush - Hombre) is having an affair with his best friend Wally (Walter Matthau - JFK).
Approaching "Bigger Than Life" from just a piece of entertainment it works, you will miss out on a lot of depth but this tale of addiction is compelling. As such we are drawn into the strained life of Ed Avery, an amiable sort of fellow, typical man whose pride leads him to work a secret second job at a cab company to supplement his earnings as a teacher, despite being ill. And we are drawn even further in when he is diagnosed with a fatal illness which only experimental medication can control. The reason we are drawn in because we see how his prescribed medication, cortesone tablets, alters him becoming to start with a fun loving character but as he takes more and more he becomes gripped by the way they make him feel turning him into a monster. All of which puts pressure on his marriage and relation with his son building to what is a thrilling ending as Ed becomes basically delusional.
Now all of this works it makes "Bigger Than Life" an entertaining drama but I can see why back in the 50s audiences struggled because this is a movie which rips into society. And the first thing it rips into is how addiction can affect anyone even a respectable school teacher who is on prescribed drugs. Watching how Ed basically starts abusing his medication because he likes how it changes him is so true and so is the way he becomes more and more edgy almost paranoid with massive mood swings. Yes some of this is to do with drug abuse but this is also a look at addiction as a whole, how it affects the individual as they go from highs to lows whilst also affecting those close to them. And as such we all so see how Ed's problem affects his wife Lou who in typical fashion wants to try and keep this problem in the home whilst protecting their son from the truth.
But whilst "Bigger Than Life" is a wonderful look at addiction during a time when it was pretty much a taboo subject we also get a look at society. As already mentioned, Lou would rather try and deal with Ed's problem at home than call in help. But even before this we get Ed working a secretive second job as he tries to provide for his family in a very old fashioned but at the time typical way. Yet the biggest jab at society comes in a wonderful scene where Ed basically rips into the education system, rips into parenting as his repressed feelings come to the surface whilst under the influence. It's powerful, and shocking unbelievable yet real, it simply is one of many stunning scenes which throw you back into your chair.
Now whilst Barbara Rush does a good job of playing the supportive and stressed Lou and Walter Matthau nicely under plays the part of best friend Wally Gibbs "Bigger Than Life" is all about James Mason. And it is Mason's characterisation which draws us in and takes us on this journey, watching him go from an amiable teacher into this delusional addict is both shocking and spell binding. We're not talking the ravaged look of an addict but the paranoia, the split personality, the ability to erupt at any moment yet do it in such a forceful manner. It's because Mason is simply captivating as Ed that the big scenes, the big dramas seem so much bigger because he delivers them with complete conviction.
What this all boils down to is that "Bigger Than Life" is a fantastic movie with a storyline which once may have been ahead of it's time but is now simply brilliant. Between the excellent story, Nicholas Ray's unfearing direction and a sublime performance from James Mason this is a movie which grabs you and doesn't let go.