Bigger Than Life (1956 with James Mason and Walter Matthau)


USA / 1956

Director: Nicholas Ray
Writers: Cyril Hume, Richard Maibaum (based on an article by Berton Rouche)

Cast: James Mason, Barbara Rush, Walter Matthau, Robert F Simon, Christopher Olsen, Roland Winters, Rusty Lane, Rachel Stephens, Kipp Hamilton, Betty Caulfield

Bigger Than Life caused controversy at the time because of its treatment of the then wonder drug cortisone but it also presented Mason with one of the best roles of his career and allowed director Nicholas Ray to effectively dissect the mores of ’50s America.

Mason is a quiet teacher who is diagnosed with a potentially fatal disease, but is told that he has a chance – if he is willing – to undergo an experimental treatment with the wonder drug cortisone. He agrees to do this, and soon discovers that the drug has given him a new lease on life. He returns to his job and energetically suggests new ways to revolutionise the education system, attracting admiration from some of his colleagues for his new sense of energy and dedication. However, at home, his behaviour has become grossly erratic.

He becomes a martinet to his wife Barbara Rush and son Christopher Olsen. He gradually becomes convinced that Rush is having an affair with family friend Walter Matthau and threatens to divorce her, capriciously changing his mind and deciding to stay with the family for the sake of his child. However, he has become a dictator of every part of his child’s life: regulating his diet, schoolwork and leisure activity.

Matthau begins to research the effects of cortisone and warns Rush that the drug creates a massive instability in the personality of the users. Olsen reaches a point in which desperation takes over and he tries to seize his father’s medication and destroy it. However, Mason discovers the plot and in a psychotic rage tries to kill his child with a pair of scissors. Before he can fulfil his aim, Matthau appears to fight with Mason, knock him out and return him once more to the care of the medical practitioners.

At the time of its release, the chemical companies and some doctors complained that cortisone was being unfairly portrayed as a drug that induced psychosis, although there was already some evidence at the time that cortisone could alter the mood of a user. However, the debate over the effectiveness of the drug was largely a side-issue to director Ray’s intent. His cinematic use of cortisone was to uncover the dark underbelly of American society. In having his ‘hero’ Mason as a middle class man who epitomised many of the virtues of ’50s USA, he was able to use the excuse of drug misuse to look at many of the underlying themes existing in the society of the time.

This challenging view of America won the film many plaudits. Time Out says: “Mason’s furrowed brow and brooding presence have rarely (never?) been used to better effect: 30 years on, his performance as the mild schoolteacher … remains profoundly disturbing” while Variety raved about Nicholas Ray’s “wonder-working direction”.