“One pill, and he thought he could handle anything. One pill, and he thought he was bigger than life!”
Overworked husband and father Ed Avery (James Mason) is prescribed cortisone as a pain-reliever for his rare arterial disease, and soon becomes addicted to the feelings this “wonder drug” produces in him — but his increasingly psychotic behavior puts his loyal wife (Barbara Rush) and son (Christopher Olsen) at grave risk.
- Alcoholism and Drug Addiction
- Family Problems
- James Mason Films
- Mental Breakdown
- Nicholas Ray Films
- Psychological Horror
- Walter Matthau Films
Nicholas Ray’s little-seen “social drama” about the ills of cortisone abuse has been voted by critics as one of the top-twenty best films unavailable on video in the United States. Much like Ray’s classic teen-angst drama Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Bigger Than Life provides a scathing, thinly veiled commentary on middle-class mores in 1950s America while ostensibly dealing with a different subject altogether. James Mason (who also produced) plays a man torn between familial duties and a desire for less pedestrian pursuits. As the film opens, we watch him leaving his day-job as a teacher to work surreptitiously as an operator for a taxi company. His wife has no idea that he’s moonlighting to supplement their comfortable middle-class lifestyle, instead suspecting him of an affair. But when he doubles over in acute pain, blacks out, and must be rushed to the hospital, she learns (with ironic relief) the truth about his stressful situation. Ed’s prognosis isn’t good, but with the help of a steady dose of cortisone — the new “wonder drug” of the day — he’s able to manage his pain and quickly return back to his regular life.
Unfortunately, this seeming “happy ending” merely signals the onset of an increasingly nightmarish existence for the Averys, as Ed discovers that cortisone provides him with a new kind of strength and virility which he had been sorely lacking before. He can’t seem to help himself from taking more than the prescribed dosage of his medication, and soon becomes a frightening figure of irrational authority in his household, demanding more and more control over his wife and son’s every move. The story quickly goes beyond the audience’s comfort zone, showing us the “hidden” impulses and thoughts which emerge when Ed is no longer constrained by petty concerns such as earning an income and maintaining a modicum of social propriety.
Ultimately, then, Bigger Than Life shows us a prototypical 1950s family man who secretly longs to transcend his cloistered existence (posters and maps of far-away countries — places he can’t afford to visit — line the walls of his house), but who is torn by a sense of guilty responsibility to his family. His wife (played with firm resolve by Barbara Rush) is similarly stuck in a vision of 1950s propriety: she’s afraid to send Ed to a psychiatrist because of what this would imply about his sanity, and unable to stand up to her husband even in the face of extreme danger to herself and her son. While the film ends on an unrealistically upbeat, pro-family note (perhaps demanded by audiences of the day), fortunately this doesn’t erase the impact of the gripping psychological horror that has come before.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- James Mason’s frightening portrayal as a real-life “Jekyll and Hyde”
- Barbara Rush as Mason’s loyal wife
- Vibrant Technicolor cinematography
- A shattering indictment of 1950s middle-class materialism and gender roles
- A powerful portrayal of a family torn apart by prescription drugs
Yes. Listed in the back of Peary’s book at as a Personal Recommendation and a film with historical importance.
- Controversial Film
- Important Director
- Noteworthy Performance(s)
(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)