A seriously ill schoolteacher becomes dependent on a "miracle" drug that begins to affect his sanity.A seriously ill schoolteacher becomes dependent on a "miracle" drug that begins to affect his sanity.A seriously ill schoolteacher becomes dependent on a "miracle" drug that begins to affect his sanity.
Schoolteacher James Mason lives a self-admittedly `dull' life trying to provide for wife Barbara Rush and their son by moonlighting as a cab dispatcher (a fact which he keeps secret but which ends up having no impact on the plot). He's also hiding a series of incapacitating attacks until he's diagnosed with a rare arterial disease, for which the treatment is the new `miracle' drug cortisone.
It works so well he starts popping it compulsively, and soon he's skittering along a grandiose, manic parabola: Tossing around his old college pigskin inside the house, buying haute couture for the mousy Rush, spouting crackpot theories on child-rearing at PTA meetings. Next he's forging prescriptions, whipping his son into shape by withholding meals until the dunce gets his math homework right, and planning a Biblical sacrifice.
The original article had to have focused on the drug's side effects how its use or misuse can cause psychotic symptoms among some patients. But what should have been a documentary got pumped up into a color potboiler. Somewhere along the way it, like Mason, took leave of its senses it's like Father Knows Best: The Episode From Hell.
Not only does everyone realize that Mason's flamboyantly deranged, they know why: the cortisone. But in the rigid world of middle-class conformity appearances are paramount, so they act as if nothing is amiss. So even when Mason is tearing around after their son with a pair of scissors while ranting about Abraham and Issac, Rush is still humoring him and whispering into the telephone. She has no trouble eating the faces off his doctors (a detail that's out of character), but with her lord and master she might as well be a Stepford Wife.
Is this a case of Illness-as-Metaphor? Under cover of a drug-scare movie, is Bigger Than Life really a guerrilla assault at patriarchal America in the 1950s? If so, it pulls too many punches (or had its punches pulled for it). As it survives, Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life does take a lurid look at a terrifying disorder: Codependency.
- Jul 27, 2003