Reviews of Bigger Than Life
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Dark stuff from Nicholas Ray, who follows “Rebel Without a Cause” with an equally anarchic study of American domesticity and it’s troubling underbelly, trading youth angst for drug addiction and megalomania. James Mason brings an air of repressed authority to his role of a meek school-teacher/suburban husband and father who, diagnosed with a fatal disease, becomes addicted on the pain medication, unleashing an outspoken, heavily aggressive totalitarian version of himself on his family and inner circle that dominates with a devastating critique. Ray’s descent into Americana hell is splattered with expressionistic shadows and a use of Cinemascope that traps his characters in their outstretched, bland domestic surroundings, suggesting that surface materialism and dressing has behind it a dark, troubled core. Nice that Criterion has finally added Ray to their collection, let’s hope the criminally not-on-DVD “Johnny Guitar” is next.
- Currently 4.0/5 Stars.
A man and his wife live together in 1950s suburban America with their young boy. Man has unfortunate disease. Man takes medication to feel better. Man becomes addicted to medication and has psychotic reactions. Man tries to kill his loving family.
For some reason, the audience at the LACMA last week somehow found a film in which events take place to be funny. Perhaps they thought the acting or the writing were campy or dated. It seems they found director Nicholas Ray’s ingenious portrait of a schoolteacher gone mad to be a hilarious romp instead of a highly disturbing look under the surface of suburban order. Actor and producer James Mason plays the central character in one of the most complex screen performances of all time. The movie was considered to be ahead of its time when it was released, and maybe the reaction of the audience indicates that it still is ahead of its time. People today still cannot handle the reality of psychosis as depicted so hauntingly in this film, manifesting itself in immature laughter.
With the 1986 film Blue Velvet, director David Lynch gave us a portrait of suburban America with the story of Jeffrey Beaumont, a young man who finds himself face-to-face with the maniacal villain Frank Booth. The eerie subtext of the film is well-summarized by Frank’s simple proclamation to Jeffrey: “You’re like me.” James Mason in Bigger Than Life embodies this suburban contradiction, the coexistence of good and evil. He exudes such warmth as a schoolteacher at the beginning of the film, excusing a student and wishing him happy holidays after the poor boy struggled to name just one Great Lake. Then he becomes a monster, convinced “childhood is a congenital disease, and the purpose of education is to cure it.” This twisted philosophy of his comes through in the way he preaches to the parents of his students and the way he starves his own son until he is able to solve a math problem.
I can say without a doubt that Bigger Than Life has among the greatest lighting and photography I have ever seen in a film. With the shattered reflections and darkened stairwells, the household is not a place of suburban comfort but a suffocating prison for the wife and son, played with such beautiful innocence by Barbara Rush and Christopher Olsen. At times, the beautiful color photography reminds us this is set against the artificially plastic suburban spaces we have come to know from the television programs from the time, yet in one scene in particular, the living room becomes a cell where young Olsen is dwarfed by the gigantic shadow of his over-medicated father.
Nicholas Ray also demonstrates once again that he was far ahead of his time when it came to examining the role of women in relation to the men they love. In another Ray masterpiece In a Lonely Place, Humphrey Bogart plays a Hollywood screenwriter with a short temper. Gloria Grahame is the woman who looks past his violent ways, refusing to listen to the accusations that Bogart is a murderer. She submits to his love, even when her life may or may not be in danger. Similarly, Rush in Bigger Than Life submits to a man, but here in the context of a traditional American family. Even though she and her son are suffering as a result of Mason’s medically-induced temper and unbearable arrogance, Rush goes on convinced she must blindly do whatever her husband says. The men in Ray’s films are mad and controlling while the women are victims of the prescribed roles of the times, struggling to break free to safety. Ray is daring in confronting the social order, handling these issues with such complexity.
The laughter of the audience in the theatre last week did not necessarily mean everyone missed the complexity of the film. I am definitely not saying there is absolutely no dark humor to be found in the outrageous statements made by Mason throughout the film, and perhaps there was something I simply missed. However, the laughter makes me worry whether or not they realize how mental illness and medical side effects can hurt individuals and those around them. If they are blind to the themes of this impeccably-crafted film, then I weep for our society.
- Currently 5.0/5 Stars.