At one point in Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life (1956) Ed Avery sits down to dinner with his wife, Lou, and his son, Richie. By this time in the film it is already clear that Ed is in the midst of severe psychosis caused by his addiction to the drug Cortisone, which is supposed to suppress some deadly, rare disease. The normally intimate setting is rendered extremely tense and rigid -- both wife and son nervous about setting off the ticking time bomb that Ed has become. It's a setting that is echoed in other films (remember this melodrama-inspired Oscar winner?) and one that often allows for sudden, unexpected outbursts from over-burdened men.
Bigger Than Life is probably the darkest depiction of suburban family life that I've ever seen come out of Hollywood in the '50s . The story focuses on Ed Avery (played by James Mason, who also produced), a middle-aged, middle-class school teacher who secretly works a second job at a cab garage a few days a week to provide for his family. He suffers from some dizzy spells and occasionally starts fainting, finally being admitted to the hospital when his wife catches him. The doctors describe his condition as a rare one induced by stress, for which they suggest Cortisone as a remedy. They warn Ed that it is a new drug and that there may be harmful side effects, but Ed seems to think all of his problems are automatically solved by the miracle drug and takes the doctors' warnings lightly. Of course, Ed starts becoming addicted to the drug and abuses it, resulting in fits of rage and psychosis that builds to the point where he plays God and attempts to murder his son.
Now, the social critique in the film is obvious -- Ed is a victim of the pressures expected of him as a white male living in the suburbs during the '50s and suffers from severe repression in a society that is all about presentation and following the rules, yadda yadda yadda. Within the first 20 min. or so when Ed's day-to-day is shown it becomes obvious that he: is attracted to another teacher, is ashamed of secretly working a less respectable job, and is utterly tired and bored with it all -- "Let's face it: we're dull," he says to his wife after bridge night with other couples. The idea of repression in a 1950s American household has become a nearly banal observation by now, but even today Ray's film strikes me as poignant in how far he takes that idea -- to the point where it almost becomes a horror story.
Cortisone starts to offer a release for Ed, not just from his ailments, but from the need to repress his desires and frustrations. In short, Cortisone turns Ed into a hyper-male. After checking out how good his co-worker (the one he is attracted to) looks in a stylish dress, Ed takes his wife to a fashion boutique and has her walk up and down in different dresses he can't afford, sitting in a big chair and taking in the pleasure of both his wife's beauty and the ability to order around the women employees. Even after Lou becomes tired of walking, Ed insists she go on, pushing his power to give orders to the limits (and also giving us a taste of a similar scenario that will be taken to extreme lengths in Hitchcock's Vertigo). Ed's hyper masculinity is then taken out on his son Richie, who he starts to control by insisting on endless football practice and studying, denying him of food or rest. Richie becomes the outlet for Ed's own personal failures -- as a football star, as a scholar -- and his insistance that Richie do what he couldn't goes so far that it becomes terroristic torture. Beyond Richie, Ed starts bossing everyone around, from the milkman to his best friend, putting down whoever he can in order to make himself feel bigger.
Richie, though obedient at first, eventually breaks down: "I hate him. I hate him!" he tells his mother, after being forced to do math for many hours without food. He is James Dean's Jim Stark as a little kid, also wearing a red jacket. Meanwhile Lou, the ever-obedient wife, is unconditionally supportive. Lou's unconditional support of the raving maniac that Ed is a pointed critique at the lack of power given to women within the household and the endless shit they're supposed to put up with for the sake of the man. Lou (wonderfully played by Barbara Rush) never stops believing in Ed, which in many ways makes her as delusional as Ed, allowing the cycle of abuse to continue and escalate. Only after Wally, Ed's best friend, convinces her that Ed is insane does she start to take some secret action against Ed, but by then it is nearly too late. Ed takes his power trip so far that he assumes the authority of God, the ultimate patriarch, and decides that he must slay his son as Abraham was told to slay Isaac. (After Lou points out that God stopped Abraham, Ed famously says, "God was wrong!")
The nature of Ed's disease is so ambiguous to me in the film that it seems non-existant. The doctors' explanation seems as arbitrary and ridiculous as the psychologist's at the end of Psycho -- clearly for Ray, as it was for Hitchcock, really does very little to explain the true meaning of Ed's state of being. The disease seems to be life itself within this middle-class suburban milieu. It is inescapable, it is fated. The stress and fatigue that seem to form Ed's illness is caused by the worry of financial security, a burden placed on the male in the 1950s. It is something that could be made easier if Lou returned to work, but Ed won't allow it. As long as Ed lives life the way he does he is destined to suffer: he is crazy if he takes the pills, but he is dead if he doesn't. Or, perhaps more accurately, Ed is doomed, pills or no pills -- this stuff was a long time coming.
Ray's fatalistic viewpoint is made eerily clear by the film's end, in which Ed suddenly "snaps out of it" after awaking in a hospital bed, apologizing for the way he behaved to his family. The real kicker, though, is that Ed still has to take Cortisone in order to survive. The doctors tell Lou that she has to be responsible for his dosage to make sure he doesn't abuse the drug again, but as we all know and have seen throughout the film, Lou has no power over Ed. The last image then becomes a cringing, ironic one: Ed tells his family to come closer, embracing them both with one arm around each. On the surface it is an image of love and security, but on a deeper level, after seeing the worst of Ed, it is an image of a controlling father.
Why isn't this film on DVD? We need more Nicholas Ray! I have In a Lonely Place and On Dangerous Ground coming next on Netflix. Ray is quickly becoming one of my favorite American directors.