“Art, entertainment, and genuine fear and tragedy rarely all filter down into a deceptively ‘normal American family film’ with such quiet desperation.”
In 1950s America — or any other time and place — it’s tough to imagine anything scarier or more warping than watching your dad slowly turning into a sadistic maniac before your very young eyes, and even worse if he decides to make you his personal project, and burn all the laziness out of you as if you’re no longer just a kid but training to be a Navy SEAL coupled with a Harvard fast-tracker (an epidemic reflected in today’s “helicopter parenting”). With Bigger than Life (1956) finally released on DVD, we can really immerse ourselves in that scariness, as director Nicolas Ray intended. Shall we celebrate? No?! Not yet. First we must write this essay — a hundred times on the blackboard, until it’s perfect — and our crazy dad shall hover over us in the sky, terrifying and confusing the hell out of us whilst we try to concentrate. In short, while Bigger Than Life is a masterpiece, it is at times excruciatingly painful to watch. Art, entertainment, and genuine fear and tragedy rarely all filter down into a deceptively “normal American family film” with such quiet desperation.
Chronicling the madness of an insecure but basically benign suburban schoolteacher (James Mason) in ’50s America, Bigger Than Life would be a good companion piece to another Nicholas Ray “social message” picture of the era about a family with one male child age 8-18, Rebel Without a Cause (1955), made a year earlier. Not least of the reasons: the red jackets worn by both Dean in Rebel and Christopher Olsen (as the endangered all-American son, Richie) in Life — red the big Ray symbolic color that sets up vulnerable innocent youth like a toreador’s cape before the minotaurs of suburban America. Ray’s great gift was to see the eternal mythic aliveness of the present in everyday reality and the way that aliveness both transcends and is caught and destroyed by banality’s sticky web. Thus, Bigger Than Life seems a bit like a Byronic poem assembled from cut-up episodes of Leave It to Beaver.
Bigger Than Life was something Ray was hired on to direct, with Mason footing the bill as producer, making this a bit of a vanity project; it’s easy to see why it bombed at the box office. It’s not exactly uplifting, and as far as unflinching headlong careens down the shock corridor, it makes quite a spectacle of itself. Mason’s acting here fits the title; he goes beyond nailing it, beyond even hammering it. He becomes bigger than life and in the process nearly destroys everything around him.
However, the tricky part of a Jekyll/Hyde role like Ed Avery is in first winning audience sympathy as a good, “normal” kind of guy. Remember when Stephen King got all mad at Kubrick for putting Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance in The Shining? Dude! King wanted, as I recall, Michael Moriarty; a nice “normal” face. Nicholson didn’t reign in his bigger than life qualities so seemed creepy right from the get-go, and that made King mad! All that came after Bigger Than Life, but James Mason has the same problem. It’s very tough to “love” James Mason, even when he’s trying so hard to be lovable. He’s meant to be the Napoleanic bad guy, Claude Rains with the edges filed off, sun-dried until crackling and glazed with a shiny patina. That’s why he’s such a good foil in films like Lolita, North by Northwest, and — damn, what else has this guy been in? — oh God, that’s right: Mandingo.
But the thing is, though Jack Nicholson made for a creepy dad, he was the creepy dad that we all know: the kind who laugh at their own jokes, presuming no one else will get his brilliant wit. Smarmy — but a sexy, earthy, real smarmy that comes from having lived a full and addled life, i.e., a mix of love and hatred for his rich plethora of vices. He lets it all hang out with a sense of a college-educated snob who surrounds himself with unintelligent people and takes jobs lower than his abilities just so he knows he’ll always be the smartest guy in the room. James Mason comes off more like the child of a very harsh British prep school, all the mischief long since beaten out of him, employing a dry, almost Ronald Colman-ishness as a carpet to cover the wormy floorboards of his megalomania. Thus he’s a perfect fit for the part since his character in the film is going to such great lengths to conceal his true economic straits that it leads to his physical collapse, which leads to being diagnosed with a rare disease, which leads to cortisone treatments, and thence to madness — i.e., the carpet finally being taken up, and the wormy floorboards broken through to reveal the hideous heart of a warped maniac within. Moira Finnie explains the origins of his collapse in notes in her excellent review on the website Movie Morlocks:
After a prosaic night of bridge with friends whose conversation centered on children and vacuum cleaners, in a rare moment of candor he points out their essential mundane nature and that of their friends gently. “Let’s face it — you are, I am, let’s face it, we’re dull.” He asks his visibly uncomfortable wife, “Can you tell me one thing that was said or done by anyone here tonight that was funny, startling, or imaginative?” As if the act of uttering such insightful words were blasphemy, Avery is knocked unconscious by that recurring pain onto the bedroom floor.
That’s a keen observation, as there’s a lot of bizarre incongruency here that fits a religious/blasphemous reading. So, I’m going to bring in some autobiographical detail as I think it’s relevant: My father is a retired pharmaceutical market research analyst, and when we saw the film together last Xmas, he told me that if Mason is participating in medical trials for the effect of a new cortisone drug, he likely doesn’t have to pay for them — and at any rate would get said experimental meds directly from the doctor instead of the local pharmacy.
Despite all this, we both got deep into it and appreciated the ingeniousness of Ray’s gradual use of shadow and light to turn the Avery household from a banal zone of faux-cheery Apple Pie delusory togetherness to a dark, haunted, shades-drawn nightmare world, where the father’s shadow looms over the son like death itself and mom is trapped in paralyzing denial.
As a genius auteur, Ray implicitly understands that even the banal surface of the “before” must be as thought-out and studied as the harrowing “after.” We don’t often see this anymore in our harrow-dramas, wherein the “before” is hurried through with a few dissolves of slow-mo dandelion blowing and maybe an Irish setter running through a field, and dad’s every hand movement is cued in the score via ominous bass notes, like a serpent always poised to strike. Nicholas Ray delves into the same clichés, but he knows how to twist them, just slightly into slow psychic poison.
However, though he invests plenty of detail in the “before,” it’s not enough to leave us overly rooted, which makes the change to monster almost reassuring. At least the kid is beginning to know where he stands. But the terror only intensifies as we see, for example, how badly the mom (Barbara Rush) handles the situation. While we can excuse Mason’s character for not knowing what hit him as far as the cortisone touching off his buried megalomania, the wife is perhaps even more at fault for letting denial and fear prevent her from contacting the doctor, putting her own child in danger rather than risking hurting her husband’s feelings. Back then, we must remember, there was no Lifetime Network to guide you in your decisions regarding delusional and abusive husbands!
Through her behavior, we can see the roots of much of the systematic child and spousal abuse of 1950s America, wherein mom — not unlike the Catholic Church with regard to pedophiles — deals with the problem by praying it will all go away on its own, or ignoring it via Valium and TV — denial at its most destructive and terrifying.
Which brings us to the big terror in Bigger Than Life: the endangerment of a small, innocent boy who never hurt anyone . . . by his own father. Poor Richie can only speculate why his dad has veered from a dull but genial fellow to a cold-hearted monster, while mom hides in the kitchen with her eyes closed hoping it will all go away. For me, one of the most torturous scenes is the one wherein Mason keeps his son running for football passes until he collapses from exhaustion, or has him studying until he’s ready to collapse, while the wife waits in the kitchen, frozen with worry but still unwilling to call the doctor. Few things are more frightening (and less explored in American horror) than parents who for whatever reason refuse to intervene in the abuse or murder of their own children. Only the most bravely compassionate and poetic of auteurs ever go there, and the only one that comes recently to mind is Val Lewton’s The Leopard Man (1943) in the scene with the blood under the door (though a similar terror occurs when saintly Frederic March turns into Hyde before the eyes of a pleading Miriam Hopkins in the restored 1933 Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde — but that film lacked much overall warmth). Bigger Than Life, like The Leopard Man, has the rare and precious mix of humanism and expressionism — while at the same time being trapped in societal norms even as it rebels against them, and that, my friend, is pure Nicholas Ray.
As a devastating critique of petit bourgeois aspirations of intellectual and economic class climbing, Bigger Than Life certainly hits a home run, but it’s also the “How I wound up in Al-Anon” for a child of alcoholic and co-dependent parents’ very first share. Welcome, Richie! Keep coming back! As an indictment of “see no evil” spousal co-dependence, it’s pretty brutal too. More than anything, it’s an actor’s showcase, something James Mason needed and deserved to do and does well. But let’s face it, the ending is pretty weird. After nearly killing everyone he’s just sorry and all better ’cause the drugs have worn off? Puh lease. What is that phrase about if it happens twice, shame on you?
Then there’s the little matter of Walter Matthau. Now if he had been the father it would have been amazing. As the gym coach, Matthau comes off as so perverse and odious it’s as if he’s slithered his way all the way back around to normal: showing up at the Averys to see how the patient is doing, preparing health shakes for him in their kitchen, and maybe coming onto Barbara Rush. Or maybe you saw Strangers When We Meet (1960) not too recently and are getting confused. Either way, the Walter Matthau persona carries a tinge of Semitic self-hatred that seems out of place in homicidal-imperialist Middle America. But, of course, he’d be allowed to drop the self-loathing act and be a great cranky old son of a bitch in a couple decades. In fact, come the early 1970s, Walter would find his groove in the arms of . . . Neil Simon! The age of squeaky-clean freckled families and their dark-eyed dads would be gone, and the age of big, happy Jewish families — shouting over the crowded table — would begin. Did Nicholas Ray help make that happen? Ding Dong! Come out of your shtetls, my brothers. The man in the gray flannel suit at last is dead!