[Bigger Than Life, dir. Nicholas Ray, 1956. Click for a larger view.]
[American Beauty, dir. Sam Mendes, 1999. Click for a larger view.]
No, I don’t think it’s coincidence either.
Bigger Than Life is the story of Ed Avery (James Mason), a husband and father and teacher who changes in terrifying ways under the influence of cortisone. This film has been characterized as an story of rebellion against the conformity of 1950s America, but I don’t see it that way. Ed Avery becomes, if anything, an extreme embodiment of suburban values: a father who insists that his son work hard, and harder, and harder still; a husband who buys and charges, buys and charges, so that his family can have the best. There’s much more — and much worse — than that. Like Lester Burnham of American Beauty, Ed Avery too “rules.” Lester though rules a kingdom of his mind. Ed rules over his family, a patriarchal tyrant who allows no challenge to his authority.
One great bit of dialogue, as Lou Avery (Barbara Rush) and son Richie (Christopher Olsen) talk about what’s happening to Dad:
“You and I must be very careful not to upset him. Just keep on loving him with all our hearts no matter what he does.”Yes, they’re sinners in the hands of an angry God.
“Sure, Mom. I just didn’t get it.”
Bigger Than Life, beautifully restored, is available from the Criterion Collection. Film Forum has made available Berton Roueché’s “Ten Feet Tall,” the 1955 New Yorker piece that inspired the film.