Cinematic Considerations: Bigger Than Life

Plot:“A seriously ill schoolteacher becomes dependent on a “miracle” drug that begins to affect his sanity.” -IMDB

Review:The 1956 film, Bigger Than Life, opens with a scene that has become all too familiar in present-day America. Ed Avery (James Mason) is an overworked and underpaid schoolteacher. To make ends meet, he is keeping a secret from his wife and son. He is working a second job for a taxicab company. To keep his wife from worrying, he invents a myriad of lies; school board members, needy students, and overbearing school administrators are all keeping him late. Innocent enough, this isn’t the only lie Ed is keeping.  

For weeks, he has been battling intense pain throughout his body. Episodically, the pain is so bad, he can barely tolerate it. Once again, fearful of worrying his family, he hides his illness the best he can. Like lots of men, he refuses to see a doctor. Instead, he hopes the pain will one day mysteriously disappear.  

When he finally passes out in front of his family, both of his tightly held secrets come to light. Afraid, he is rushed to a hospital. After an extended stay and a battery of tests, it is discovered that he suffers from a mysterious illness that causes fatal inflammation of his arteries. Without medical intervention, his doctors give him less than a year to live.  

Luckily for Ed, a new drug has hit the market called Cortisone. If he can manage the required four pills every six hours for the rest of his life, it is believed he can live a long and happy one. Weighing life and death, Ed chooses the medication.  

At first, everything seems to be returning to normal for the Avery family. Ed has a new lease on life. His wife, Lou (Barbara Rush), finds some much-needed relief and calm. Ed is even finding more time to connect with his son, Richie (Christopher Olsen). But then Ed becomes forgetful of his routine. He forgets to take his pills or doubles the required amount. This leads Ed down an angry and irrational path toward a mental breakdown and complete change in personality. Long gone is the sweet, caring man enraptured by love for his family. Standing in his place is a pompous man, threating to leave his wife and pushing his son way too hard.  

When you watch this film, there are two scenes I would love you to pay attention to as examples of Ed’s breakdown. One scene takes place between Ed and his wife in their bedroom. Ed is determined to leave, travel the world, and escape the shackles of a relationship he finds intellectually stagnating. The other scene takes place between Ed and his son in the backyard. What begins as an innocent game of tossing the football around, soon morphs into an overbearing father attempting to break the soul of his child to make him the best athlete possible.  

Where this film ventures from here, you will never guess (one of its great strengths). Honestly, it left me stunned and gave me strong Psycho vibes. What I found more interesting was attempting to absorb this film through the lens of 2024. We have learned powerful lessons about the toxic and harmful nature of patriarchy. Personally, I have no desire to live in a world where women are expected to be caretakers of the home and children, and aspire to nothing else. I do not want to live in a world where children are not afforded autonomy and choice regarding the direction of their lives. I certainly do not want to return to a world where a man’s word is final, because he is the sole leader of the household.  

It is this bygone view of the world that holds this film together. It is a product of the world in which it was created. While we have evolved (I hope), this film and countless others like it exist as a time capsule of our not-so-distant past. For that and so many more reasons, I recommend you give this film a chance.

Be good to each other,


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