Bigger Than Life Trailer (1956) – The Criterion Collection

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Bigger Than Life is an American DeLuxe Color CinemaScope film made in 1956 directed by Nicholas Ray and starring James Mason, who also co-wrote and produced the film, about a school teacher and family man whose life spins out of control upon becoming addicted to cortisone.

The film co-stars Barbara Rush as his wife and Walter Matthau as his closest friend, a fellow teacher. Though it was a box-office flop upon its initial release,[2] many modern critics hail it as a masterpiece and brilliant indictment of contemporary attitudes towards mental illness and addiction.[3]

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In 1963, Jean-Luc Godard named it one of the ten best American sound films ever made.[4]

Bigger Than Life was based on a 1955 article by medical writer Berton Roueché in The New Yorker, titled “Ten Feet Tall”.[5]

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Plot summary

Schoolteacher and family man Ed Avery (James Mason), who has been suffering bouts of severe pain and even blackouts, is hospitalized with what is diagnosed as polyarteritis nodosa, a rare inflammation of the arteries. Told by doctors that he probably has only months to live, Ed agrees to an experimental treatment: doses of the hormone cortisone.

Ed makes a remarkable recovery. He returns home to his wife, Lou (Barbara Rush), and their son, Richie (Christopher Olsen). He must keep taking cortisone tablets regularly to prevent a recurrence of his illness. But the “miracle” cure turns into a nightmare when Ed begins to misuse the tablets, causing him to experience wild mood swings and, ultimately, a psychotic episode which threatens the safety of his family.

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Bigger Than Life was extremely controversial upon its release,[citation needed] and it was not a financial success. Mason, who produced the film as well as starring in it, blamed its failure on its use of the then-novel widescreen CinemaScope format.[2]

American critics panned the film, considering it melodramatic and heavyhanded.[6] Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called it tedious, “dismal”, and “more pitiful than terrifying to watch”.[7]

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However, the film was popular with critics at the influential magazine Cahiers du cinéma. Jean-Luc Godard called it one of the ten best American sound films.[4] Likewise, François Truffaut praised the film, noting the “intelligent, subtle” script, the “extraordinary precision” of Mason’s performance, and the beauty of the film’s CinemaScope photography.[8]

Modern critics have pointed out Ray’s use of widescreen cinematography to depict the interior spaces of a family drama, rather than the open vistas typically associated with the format, as well as his use of extreme close-ups in portraying the main character’s psychosis and megalomania.[9]

The film is also recognized for its multi-layered examination of the American nuclear family in the Eisenhower era. While the film can be read as a straightforward exposé on medical malpractice and the overuse of prescription drugs in modern American society,[10] it has also been seen as a critique of consumerism, the male-dominated traditional family structure, and the claustrophobic conformism of suburban life.[3][11][12]

Truffaut saw Ed’s drug-influenced speech to the parents of the parent-teacher association as having fascist overtones.[13] The film has also been interpreted as an examination of masculinity and a leftist critique of the low salaries of public school teachers in the United States.[14]

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  1. Jump up^ Solomon 1989, p. 250.
  2. ^ Jump up to:a b Cossar 2011, p. 273.
  3. ^ Jump up to:a b Halliwell 2013, pp. 159-162.
  4. ^ Jump up to:a b Marshall, Colin (December 2, 2013). “A Young Jean-Luc Godard Picks the 10 Best American Films Ever Made (1963)”. Open Culture.
  5. Jump up^ Roueché, Berton (September 10, 1955). “Ten Feet Tall”. The New Yorker: 47–77.
  6. Jump up^ Schiebel 2014, p. 183.
  7. Jump up^ Crowther, Bosley (August 3, 1956). “Screen: Tax of Tedium; ‘Bigger Than Life’ Has Debut at Victoria”. The New York Times.
  8. Jump up^ Truffaut 2009, pp. 143-147.
  9. Jump up^ Cossar 2011, pp. 120-123.
  10. Jump up^ Truffaut 2009, pp. 145–146. Truffaut noted Nicholas Ray’s low opinion of the medical profession, and of so-called “miracle drugs”. His discussion of Bigger Than Life points out the visual similarity between the doctors in the film and “gangsters in crime films”.
  11. Jump up^ Basinger 2013, pp. 231-234.
  12. Jump up^ Rosenbaum 1997, pp. 131-133.
  13. Jump up^ Truffaut & pp-145-146.
  14. Jump up^ Schiebel 2014, p. 182.

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See also


  • Solomon, Aubrey (1989). Twentieth Century Fox: A Corporate and Financial History. Scarecrow Press.

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Film Collectors Corner

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