Bigger than Life, Nicholas Ray, 1956
Nicholas Ray had an uncanny ability at capturing the social isolation and detachment of certain groups during the 1950s, that contrasted with the pristine, manufactured image of the obedient nuclear family as seen on TV. He played around in a variety of genres, such as the western (Johnny Guitar), the teenpic (Rebel Without a Cause) and family drama with Bigger than Life. Even if the setting and plot are different, the primary message is the same — moral decay and hypocrisy that is taking place with the changing times.
The first shot is fired by showing Ed Avery’s (James Mason) poor financial condition. He is a well-spoken, intelligent school teacher, yet he is required to moonlight as a cab dispatcher in order to supplement his income. Embarrassed, he lies to his wife, saying that he has to stay late in order to meet members of the school board. At one point of the film, he decries that “I’m a school teacher, not a plumber,” when someone asks him about money. By making a direct comparison between a learned educator and a tradesman, Ray is making a commentary on the inadequate income of teachers, a disparity that sadly still exists today.
When we meet his family, we are surprised to see that he lives in a traditional, suburban neighborhood, reminiscent of the types seen on TV shows like Leave it to Beaver (coincidence: Jerry Mathers who later played the Beaver appears in this film). This type of living would be considered middle class in the 1950s. He has a wife that stays at home and a child that enjoys watching television, just like most other suburban families. He has to work both jobs in order to maintain this status of living. We can tell from the paintings and posters in the house that his true passion is not at home, but instead exploring the great tourist cities of the world. Circumstances will not allow him that luxury.
It is sickness that changes him. He has a rare condition that inflames his arteries, with a dire prognosis of one year to live without trying an experimental drug – cortisone. It is unfortunate that they named the drug, which back then probably was more in the experimental category, but today is commonplace for treating a variety of injuries and has documented side effects. What happens in the movie is not what would happen in reality with this medicine, but that is beside the point. He is really sick of modern, American society, and the side effects that materialize motivate him to reject and criticize his world.
The medicine works at first. In fact, he is happier than ever at home and he participates and seems to belong in the stereotypical nuclear family environment.
The new Ed embraces materialism and consumption. In order to please his wife, he takes her to an expensive dress shop and encourages her to pick one out that she likes. They cannot afford such a dress, and this expense will come back to haunt them later in the film. What is important is that, or specifically he, feels the need to purchase a dress because that will make his wife happy and give him the appearance of being a good husband. They do not need the dress, just like they do not need most material objects found in their home, but they are helpless not to participate in the capitalistic craze.
It is about midway through the film when the change in Ed begins. His wife abruptly acts out by breaking the bathroom glass mirror in a sudden rage. “You’re not in the hospital now!” she yells. He looks at his reflection in mirror and sees himself in shambles. This action is unprovoked and his wife quickly apologizes, but it sets his downfall in motion. Is the mirror fragments in two, so does his personality. What emerges is an unpleasant, unkind human being who thinks he has all of the answers for society’s ills.
One of the better scenes of the movie is when Ed is at an evening parent-teacher conference. This is the new Ed, and he says what he really thinks without a care of how it is received. He compares his students to gorillas that are victims of the deterioration of poor educational values. The fact that teachers are paid so poorly probably sparks this manner of thinking. Without economic incentive, why should they bother shaping and molding their students into bright and productive members of society? When he says that they are teaching an inferior class of students, one person suggests that he should be the Principal. In reality he is saying what the other teachers will not say, that things are not quite right.
This new Ed has a new world vision and challenges himself to make a difference. Meanwhile, his home life falls apart because he expects too much of his wife and child. He becomes a bad husband and a bad father, and things get worse as he becomes addicted to the medicine that is supposedly healing him. He takes more than his prescribed dosage, even forging prescriptions, and eventually loses his mind. The latter portion of the movie is Ed settling into his psychosis and nearly committing a terrible act.
The movie ends by him coming to after being off the medicine. He remembers his behavior and immediately feels ashamed. You could call it a happy ending, and for the Avery household, it probably is for the short-term. In the long-term, there is no way that life will be happy and pleasant for them. These issues still linger and will not resolve anytime soon. If Ed gets sick again, the cycle could repeat itself or he may die. In a way, this ending is an embracement of the status quo. There are no quick solutions for the Avery family, just as there are not for suburban society at large.
Film Rating: 8/10
Commentary: with Geoff Andrew, film scholar and author of The Films of Nicholas Ray. This was a disappointing commentary. I’m sure Dr. Andrew has plenty of credibility as an academic, but I think he left a lot to be desired. His voice is dry and not exactly exciting, although that’s not exactly uncommon in academia. Many excellent commentaries come from scholars with dry and monotone voices. It is the material that makes the difference. Maybe it was the level of preparation, but Dr. Andrew did not provide as much insight into the film as most Criterion commentaries. He makes many interesting comments, but does not elaborate on them with much detail. For instance, he mentions that Ray thought teachers were underpaid, and then moves onto another point, often making an observation that the viewer can make.
One of the more interesting insights was that Ray had interest in architecture, specifically Frank Lloyd Wright. This can be seen in a great many of his films, and especially Rebel Without a Cause. Ray used buildings very well in his films, and this was no different. Andrew makes some observations about the posters in the house. Downstairs has the public type of décor, like the Grand Canyon. Upstairs is private and exotic, with posters of faraway, cultured cities.
This period of Ray’s life was a period of depression and many of his themes were formed by the red scare, HUAC politics of the time.
Profile of Nicholas Ray: This was a 1977 TV interview with the late critic, Cliff Jahr. Not too much of the interview was about Bigger than Life. This may be the only Ray film to come to Criterion, so this can certainly be excused. One of the first questions is whether Ray gets tired of questions about Rebel Without a Cause. The answer was an emphatic no, because the subject is still relevant today and people connect. He only likes to talk about films that remain relevant. Most of the follow-up questions have to do with Rebel, including the obligatory James Dean question. I’d wager he was tired of those.
He talks on a few occasions about his mentality back during his peak filmmaking years. He says that a lot of his working back then was insanity and that “I work better now. I like myself better now.”
Jonathan Lethem: This is one of the novelists favorite films and he does a great job with his analysis.
What’s interesting about the movie is what it excludes. There is no teenage rebellion, rock and roll, or any deviancy. Things are too perfect. I thought the same thing when I saw how well behaved the students were in class. This was definitely deliberate.
There are numerous class issues. The house may look very suburban, but it has several blemishes. With a closer look, Lethem says it “barely qualifies” as a representation of suburban life. The fiction is that they can afford what they want, which is of course not the case. That’s why the dress scene is so important.
Susan Ray: Ray’s ex-wife reflects on her husband.
His process was “creative chaos” and “responsiveness.” He was keenly aware of what was going on around him, and he was best at observing people’s natures. He “had passion in finding deepest possible truth in a human being.”
A real hero is a “poor slob” like you and me, as he would put it. Even though he had a sense of masculine bravado, he also had a humble and sensitive side.
Ray’s choice of suburban life was because he saw the deadening and sterility. He had a jaundiced view of his own generation, calling them “betrayers.”
Criterion Rating: 8.5
Posted on March 23, 2015, in Criterions, Film and tagged 1950s, cliff jahr, criterion, film, frank lloyd wright, geoff andrew, james mason, leave it to beaver, nicholas ray, surburban life, susan ray, the criterion collection. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.
This sounds intense and marvelous. I bet James Mason is riveting.
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