Bright Lights Film Journal

Bigger Than Life’s Sci-Fi Twin

No one with eyes and a brain could seriously dispute Nicholas Ray’s role as the primary auteur of Bigger Than Life. All you need to do is watch Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause and Bigger Than Life back-to-back to see that both films are the work of the same filmmaker, sharing a nearly identical approach to performance (pushed to the edge of hysteria), widescreen composition (architectural, emphasizing horizontals, angles, light and dark areas), color (vibrant*), editing (jagged), and most importantly attitude:  both films are classic deconstructions of the American middle class family – particularly the tensions between parents and their children – in the superficially placid Eisenhower era.

Regardless, commercial filmmaking is fundamentally a collaborative art, and there are at least two other people who could justifiably be called auteurs of Bigger than Life.

I. JAMES MASON. Mason, among the most intelligent of actors, was not only the star of Bigger Than Life; he produced it and almost certainly contributed to its writing. It would not have been the first time. In 1949, Mason starred in Max Ophuls’ The Reckless Moment, a film noir about a distressed middle class family starring Joan Bennett as the mother, and Mason as one of the criminals who blackmails her after Bennett’s daughter accidentally kills a scheming boyfriend. When the studio ordered reshoots of a key sequence – a scene between Mason and Bennett on a ferryboat – it was Mason and his wife Pamela who did the rewriting, coming up with the film’s most memorable line. (Comparing Bennett’s clinging family to Mason’s crime boss, Nagle – both of them agents of entrapment – Mason says, “You have your family, and I have my Nagle.”) In 1953, Mason produced, wrote, and starred in a little-seen film called Charade (not to be confused with the later Cary Grant vehicle).  Mason also produced and starred in Michael Powell’s 1969 film, Age of Consent, playing an aging artist whose mutually life-affirming relationship with an 18-year-old girl (Helen Mirren) seems to have been intentionally conceived by producer Mason as a rebuttal to the roles he and Sue Lyon played in Kubrick’s 1962 Lolita. Mason’s tour-de-force performance in Bigger Than Life dominates that film. According to the Criterion commentary, it was Nicholas Ray who convinced Fox to make the film, but once Mason signed on as star and producer it was he who commissioned the screenplay by Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum.

II. CYRIL HUME. Cyril Hume, a descendent of the Scottish philosopher David Hume, had been a writer on more than two dozen film projects, dating back to the 1930s, before he co-authored the screenplay of Bigger Than Life (based on a non-fiction New Yorker essay concerning the effects of the drug, Cortisone). His other most notable film, Forbidden Planet, was released the same year as Bigger Than Life – 1956 – and can be seen as Bigger Than Life’s science-fictional twin brother. Both films are fables of megalomania and addiction.

Consider the similarities:

Bigger Than Life – Ed Avery (Mason) is a schoolteacher who, when faced with a life-threatening illness, begins taking the experimental drug, Cortisone. Although the drug saves his life, it has some unfortunate side effects. It makes him feel smarter than everyone around him (which he is) and confident to the point of megalomania. Caught in a cycle of addiction, he begins taking larger and larger doses. His wife and little boy are terrified – justifiably so. By the time of the film’s final act, Avery’s dark side, released by the drug, is so out of control that he’s ready to murder his own son.

Forbidden Planet – Dr. Morbius (Walter Pigeon) is a professor of linguistics, sent to the planet Altair IV with his pregnant wife and some other scientists, to investigate the vanished civilization of the planet’s former inhabitants, the Krell. By the time a second spaceship is sent to the planet, some 20 years later, the only survivors of the original expedition are Dr. Morbius and his daughter Altaira. During the 20 years he has survived on the planet, Morbius has been using a device left behind by the Krell, a “plastic educator” (above), to boost his brain power to superhuman levels. Like Ed Avery and his Cortisone in Bigger Than Life, Morbius has become addicted to the boosts he gets from the plastic educator – to the point of megalomania. What Morbius doesn’t realize, but which becomes apparent to everybody around him, is that the Krell educator has released and empowered Morbius’s unconscious dark side – referred to in the film as the “id monster” – a dark side so powerful, irrational, and out of control that in the film’s final act it threatens to destroy everyone, including Morbius’s own daughter. 

While Bigger Than Life is clearly “a film by Nicholas Ray,” it’s never been entirely clear who was primarily responsible for the extraordinary qualities of Forbidden Planet. Certainly not its director, Fred McLeod Wilcox, one of MGM’s anonymous professionals, whose other most significant credits are The Secret Garden (1949) and a couple of Lassie films. Based on the narrative and thematic similarities of Forbidden Planet to Bigger Than Life, I’d nominate screenwriter Hume as Forbidden Planet’s primary auteur. Either him or the MGM Art Department. (As evidence of the latter’s contribution, check out the image below.)

I’ve always found it fascinating how the same story can be reconfigured in different genres (e.g., Mutiny on the Bounty, a quasi-historical sea story, retold as the Western Red River). Forbidden Planet is Bigger Than Life retold as science fiction. In fact, Bigger Than Life may already be science fiction, at least, according to the common definition of science fiction as stories about how characters are affected by and interact with scientific developments. Significantly, Ray didn’t want to give a specific name to the movie’s experimental drug. Leaving the drug unnamed would have given the film a more general allegorical quality and underlined its science fictional aspects.  We would see it as a not-too-distant cousin of Roger Corman’s X-the Man With the X-Ray Eyes about a scientist (Ray Milland) whose increasing dependence on a mind-expanding drug inevitably leads to tragedy.

As Erich Kuersten suggests, Bigger Than Life‘s plotline can also be – and has been – reconfigured as a horror film, specifically, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, in which Jack Nicholson takes on the James Mason/Walter Pidgeon role as a man whose meglomaniacal addiction is fueled – this time – by ectoplasmic alcohol poured for him by a phantom bartender. Drinks are on the (haunted) house! And as in Bigger Than Life and Forbidden Planet, The Shining’s final act shows a father so deranged that he is ready to murder his own child.

Ultimately, the similarity of these films may be attributed to the fact they all derive from the same archetypal myths – Icarus, who when given wings flew too close to the sun (perhaps referenced in the last scene of Bigger Than Life when Ed, waking up in a hospital bed, says, “Turn off the sun”), and Abraham, the Biblical patriarch ordered by God to sacrifice his son, Isaac. The Abraham story is overtly referenced in Bigger Than Life when Ed sets out to reenact the Abraham story with his son, Richie, as the sacrifice. When Ed is reminded that God relented at the last minute and allowed the son to live, Ed responds, “God was wrong!” I’d like to know which one of Bigger Than Life‘s auteurs came up with that line.

* Especially in Criterion’s splendid Blu-ray edition.