Bigger Than Life (1956)

bigger2

This year I borrowed my friend Laura’s idea and made a list of 10 Classics to see for the first time in 2015. To get even more new movies into our lives, we’ve been jointly viewing/reviewing titles from each other’s lists. This time we’re looking at one of my picks, Nicholas Ray’s BIGGER THAN LIFE (1956).

As a big James Mason fan I have really been looking forward to watching this movie, and in terms of his performance, the work of the other actors, and the film’s visuals, I was not disappointed. I see why this role is so acclaimed and the film praised as groundbreaking and artful. It’s a tough and disturbing story I won’t want to revisit anytime soon but I appreciate and acknowledge the movie’s quality and impact. Mason plays a teacher, stuck in an unsatisfying middle-class hamster wheel, with never enough money or affection from his wife (Barbara Rush), and too much monotony in his job and social circle. Overwork and “quiet despair” may or may not be the cause of his frequent pains and blackouts, which he soon learns are signs of a serious disease. He may die in a year, and is eager to take the wonder drug cortisone to live without pain for whatever time he has left. The drug makes him more depressed and erratic than he would normally be faced with such news, and his abuse of it leads to full-blown psychosis which ends up with him terrorizing and nearly killing his family. bigger4

That brief summary doesn’t begin to describe all the emotions and events found in this film, or all the things one can read in it. Masculinity, domesticity, religion and middle class values are described as “dull,” “petty,” fascist, “sanctimonious,” painted as false or even nightmarish, and most of those views don’t resonate with me. There are almost too many institutions and values being condemned here–the medical profession, the Church, the drug companies, the American Dream, marriage, the rat race, keeping up with the Joneses, consumerism, traditional fatherhood, masculine authority, etc.–which weakens the criticism of any of them. 

One of the things I found more meaningful and well-depicted was the life-changing impact of a health crisis in the family and how differently people deal with a sudden awareness that they are mortal and life is short. The shock, the bravado, the fear of looking weak in front of loved ones, especially children, the desire to be pitied, spoiled and indulged, the numbness, the false cheer and confidence, the frayed nerves and stress and unpredictable breaking points; I found these all authentically depicted in Mason’s performance and not one expressed as a false note. He’s grasping at straws, trying to condense all the living, parenting, spending, thinking and expressing that he’ll miss into whatever short time he has left. And it’s complicated by his anger and desire to be bigger than life and overcome death, a defiance felt by the most clear-headed in similar situations. 

Mason’s shock and recklessness is worsened by the adverse effects of the cortisone and his abuse of it, so that on top of expected struggles he becomes psychotic, out of reach of anyone’s love and support, and unable to depend on the faith which could help him, and which does help Rush. Mason’s descent and breakdown is mostly linked to the drug in this plot, but his behaviour also has aspects of mental illness, alcoholism or other substance abuse, which makes this film more widely relevant. It’s interesting to pick out which parts of Mason’s downward spiral are really him and his newfound freedom to express himself, and which parts are the psychosis speaking. When he raves at the parent-teacher meeting about feeding kids hogwash about entitlement and self-esteem above all when they need the virtues of hard work, self-discipline and duty, when he wants to cut to the chase, live to the fullest in the moment and add fun and spontaneity to marriage and parenting, he hits on truth. At the same time he descends into bullying, cruelty, paranoia and terrifying insanity: a meltdown over a glass of milk, delusions that have him passing judgment on God and attempting a murder-suicide. Whether he’s a man of burdens, secrets or impulses, Mason is riveting and intense.

bigger1

Barbara Rush does fine work too, initially suspecting his late nights out are signs of an affair, then having to balance care with fear, sensitivity with discomfort and despair at his change of character and confusing actions. In what ends up a life and death struggle with a madman, she shows an ability to adapt and think fast to ease out of traps and conflicts. Where Mason twists faith and rejects it as wrong, hers serves as a strong anchor and guiding light. Where experts and medicine have failed, she trusts her faith will pull him and the family through whatever may come (once the doctors better watch the prescription). “I want to look on the brighter side,” she says, and tells their son (Christopher Olsen) to “keep loving him with all our hearts.” It’s the best hope in a seemingly happy but still terribly bleak ending that gives Mason the choice of either dying in pain or depending on meds that steal his sanity and torture his family. In all the turmoil of the climax, it’s easy to miss how carefully she picks the Bible up off the floor after the episode that nearly wrecks their home and their lives.

Such a dark and heavy subject matter is made pretty and colourful, which is a big part of creating the tension between appearance and reality, public and private. The placement of objects and symbols invite and reward close study and nothing Ray does is accidental. Travel posters are all over the house, and after Mason’s diagnosis stand as painful reminders of unfulfilled dreams and symbols of unattained goals. Bright colours and clever shots strengthen and intensify everything, whether it’s the line of yellow cabs at the company where Mason moonlights after school, the outfits he insists Rush try on at the store, the parade of children exiting the school, the barium X-Ray showing Mason’s insides, the angles and shadows that make him seem “ten feet tall” (the name of the film’s source story) and towering over his boy. Pay close attention to how milk and a football are used to mark changes as the plot unfolds.

bigger3

I enjoyed touches like the infographic layered over scenes of Mason’s suffering, which show how his pain level decreases in relation to the bigger doses of cortisone. I had to laugh when Mason wonders how in the world his son doesn’t get bored with those western shows and movies; I’ve been asked that a few times. It was fitting to set the climactic fight to amusement ride music on the TV. When Mason enters his son’s bedroom intending to murder him, it’s a horrifying scene, made more so when Mason’s vision is bathed in blood red. I was struck by Ray’s use of that medicine cabinet mirror. First Mason playacts the dandy in the mirror as Rush fills the tub for him. She runs up and down the stairs carrying kettle after kettle (she used all the hot water for the dishes), and after he orders yet another, she snaps, rebels, slams the door shut and shatters the mirror. Soon after, Mason stares at his fractured reflection, his shattered life, his broken potential, different aspects of his public/private image that can’t be reconciled and damage that can’t be repaired. Memorable image and part of a searing, powerful performance that made it worth sitting through a picture filled with pain and misery.

Laura shares her thoughts on BIGGER THAN LIFE here. Just worth adding here that I like her description of it being like looking in a window at an unpleasant scene, and I agree that Walter Matthau was a welcome presence.

Advertisements

20 thoughts on “Bigger Than Life (1956)”

    1. I am interested and will check that out, thanks. You’re right, with the density there is no shortage of readings to be made here. The drug, even the disease become like the MacGuffin, because they open the dialogue to the other issues. Excellent acting showcase for Mason. Thanks for reading.

      1. For someone with his body of work, Mason always seems to be underrated as an actor in classic Hollywood. I agree that he is terrific in Bigger than Life.

        1. Yes, he was really great in general, and here it’s amazing how he manages to play all these ‘notes,’ and there are many, so authentically without overacting, which would have been so easy to do. Excellent work.

  1. Kristina, I’m so glad we’re reviewing some movies jointly because your review brings out things I either didn’t mention or which didn’t occur to me as I wrote about it myself.

    Your feelings about not being able to relate to the negativity strike a similar chord in me. Perhaps that’s a reason I describe myself as “observing.” As someone who enjoys/believes in many of the values the film sees negatively, I couldn’t relate. (That said, my lack of emotional engagement was much more pronounced than when watching Sirk’s films, and he also takes on some of these same institutions.) It’s interesting that the movie does present a flip side to this tearing down, in Rush being sustained by her faith. You make some great points on that.

    Your comments on the effect of a health crisis on a family and Mason’s character coping with being mortal were really smart and something I didn’t go into too deeply — there were very real emotional issues underlying whatever was going on with the drugs.

    We both really seemed to key in on the bright colors and how they contrast with the dark story! I belatedly added a sentence to my post with another thought on that, as it’s a really interesting aspect of the film.

    Thanks for adding so much to my experience of the film via your thoughts!

    Best wishes,
    Luara

    1. Thanks, it is valuable to compare thoughts and get to these important movies. Like I say I feel much the same as you when it comes to not really relating to the criticism of some of those values. I do appreciate the film’s impact and style, and especially Mason’s incredible performance. He could really have gone overboard with this in so many places but keeps it perfect I think. Especially with a movie like this one, packed with detail and meaning, it’s fascinating to see how people can watch the same movie and focus on different things. Thanks for joining in and looking forward to the next one! 🙂

    1. You bet, I think putting aside whatever problems I had with themes etc, those are subjective, it is 100% an essential view for Mason fans and I’m glad I saw it for that.

  2. Mason had sort of an odd career. First became a sex symbol in England in sadistic roles, and seemed to keep that persona, as Cary Grant’s evil twin when he was called to America. He played Grant’s distorted mirror image opposite him in North By Northwest, and played roles Grant rejected in at least three films. Fearless in his choices, he played roles other actors balked at, here, Star is Born and Lolita. But the qualities he brought to those kinds of roles may be the same ones kept audiences from indentifying with him, essential for long term stardom.

    1. That’s really an interesting comment and way of putting it, Cary Grant’s evil twin, that’s sure to pop into my head whenever I watch him now. I really enjoy Mason and he did some powerful work here, this is a very tricky role and could so easily have been terrible. Thanks

  3. Wonderful,detailed review. Sounds like a harrowing film to watch but I will want to see it after reading your review. Haven’t checked but surely Mason deserved an Oscar nod.

    1. Yes harrowing is the word. And just to say this somewhere: I am not put off by dark, harrowing, difficult and bleak, in this case some of the themes just don’t speak to me at all, but things like that are subjective to each viewer, and can be taken apart from the quality of the acting, filmmaking etc. So definitely check it out, you will get a lot to think about and are sure to be wowed by Mason.

  4. Good review. It’s a cult favourite of mine. I watched it a year or two back and also the discussion that came with my disk between Jim Jarmusch and Jonathan Rosenbaum, about their shared love for this film, for Ray and for Mason’s performance.

    1. Really intense performance by Mason, not many actors could pull it off with all the elements and details he put into it. Thanks for reading.

  5. Kristina, Rich, Laura, I remember watching BIGGER THAN LIFE, and it felt to me as both odd and disturbing when I was a kid! At the same time, it was sad, because it reminded me of loved ones with similar issues. Great work, and have a meaningful MemorialDay

    1. I can see as a kid watching this, it would be downright terrifying. Yes I imagine many people can recognize different kinds of struggles going on “behind closed doors” these troubles and the family’s reactions are applicable to many conditions and addictions etc. Thanks so much for stopping by and best to all of you too this weekend.

  6. Fine review, and I’m glad you got to see the film. How much one empathizes is going to vary from individual to individual but the power of the film, and Mason’s performance, is undeniable..

    1. Thank you, yes the understandings or debates about the issues etc can be set apart from just marveling at the work in this. It’s astounding how much he packs into this performance. That you can see so many details, read different things, and none of it felt false, overdone, or beyond his ability in any way. As I mentioned I can easily see how people who went through some family problem, illness or addiction see a very real depiction of it here.

      1. “Masculinity, domesticity, religion and middle class values are described as ‘dull,’ ‘petty,’ fascist, ‘sanctimonious,’ painted as false or even nightmarish, and most of those views don’t resonate with me.”

        As much as I like Mason, the above is exactly why I haven’t taken the time to see this one all the way through. Most reviewers of course find those elements praiseworthy; my hat is off to you for not hesitating to go against the stream (again! 🙂 )

        If instead the film had just targeted Americans increasing over-reliance on prescription drugs, I would have been more comfortable with that message…

        1. Agree about the drug message… I can definitely appreciate the quality and the really great acting, but not being able to relate to those types of grievances, and generally disagreeing with those stances, when they’re THAT important to the message of the film, is a big obstacle. Thanks for reading 🙂

Comments are closed.