Bigger Than Life (Nicholas Ray, 1956)
When someone as important and influential to Cinema as Jean-Luc Godard states that Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life is one of the ten most important American sound film. No matter if it wasn’t well received at its initial release one must watch it. It is also a part in Martin Scorsese’s Introduction to American Films. Moreover, being on the list of the 1000 Greatest Films of All Time, this family drama starring James Mason as Ed Avery, Barbara Rush as his wife Lou, and Walter Mattau as his best friend Wally is also the work of a true auteur : Nicholas Ray. Godard, the same recognized luminary mentioned earlier, boldly stated that Nicholas Ray is the Cinema.
Ed Avery is a school teacher in any town USA and he lives the perfect 1950’s family life. Until, he suffers from a illness that will need him to take an experimental treatment of cortisone. The moment we discover that he is ill is exactly at the same moment he wanted to stop being dull and talks with his wife about changing their habits. In an era of conservatism and conformism that was the 1950’s in America, it was very audacious to make a movie that wanted things to change and that take an assault on the patriarchy of the family. The drug abuse of Ed is still a subject that is contemporary and its treatment and the representation of the psychosis of Ed is very realistic. To see a film that dared to show this perspective from the 1950’s is pretty impressive. It is also interesting to compare Ed’s addiction to drugs to Nick Ray’s own problems. He was an intense man and leaded an intense life. He was an eccentric and it is reflected in his expressionistic use of colors in the use of the CinemaScope process for the shooting of Bigger Than Life.
It is needless for me to recommend this film since any Nicholas Ray film is always a must see for its visuals and the intense performances. Even if this felts more in the melodrama side of the road, Bigger Than Life’s performances, especially James Mason’s, are powerful and intense just as Nick Ray’s other notorious films like (Rebel Without A Cause, Johnny Guitar, and In A Lonely Place). For Walter Mattau many important films were to come in his career and he has a solid presence as a supporting character. This is Barbara Rush who should have been luckier and got more important roles following her part here. She gives a nicely subtle performance that represents a strong woman that is there to protect her son and help her husband despite his illness. She stands up strong and may have drawn new lines for women characters with her Lou Avery. As of today, it is a lean character, but back in context this is a step forward. This demonstrates how Nick Ray was ready to scratch his nails on the proverbial blackboard of the moral of the 1950’s.