Monday, September 13, 2010

Dinner tables

[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 a 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.”

“Sure, Mom. I just didn’t get it.”
Yes, they’re sinners in the hands of an angry God.

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. (It’s long gone.)

comments: 3

Geo-B said...

I examined the first photograph without scrolling down and immediately thought of the similar scene in American Beauty, the table set-up, the drapes, the lighting. Then I saw that was your point. Not familiar with the 1956 movie, however.

adair said...

I haven't seen this movie, but I will try to get it. I like Barbara Rush---she was in one of the most astonishing episodes of The Outer Limits, "The Forms of Things Unknown," which was shot by a German cameraman in an expressionist style. That episode also included Vera Miles and David McCallum.

Michael Leddy said...

George, yes, it’s amazing how a scene so seemingly plain can be so specifically evocative. It’s been years since I last saw American Beauty, but the scene clicked — “immediately,” as you said.

Adair, thanks for adding something of Barbara Rush’s work. I will seek out that episode.