Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

Bigger Than Life (1956)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

Bigger Than Life (1956)

In this insightful Nicholas Ray-directed film - an Eisenhower-Era, 20th Century Fox, CinemaScope melodrama, it told about the disintegration of a nuclear family; it also functioned as a superb critique of the suffocating and claustrophobic conformity of 50s middle-class life (a film pre-dating American Beauty (1999) by over 40 years!), and served as an profound examination of prescription drug abuse. The film's plot was based upon the experiences of a real-life Long Island schoolteacher that were written up in a 1955 article by Berton Roueche in The New Yorker:

  • the film's main character was underpaid and frustrated schoolteacher and devoted, suburban middle-class father Ed Avery (James Mason), who was secretly moonlighting as a cab dispatcher a few afternoons a week to support his family (wife Lou (Barbara Rush) and one son Richie (Christopher Olsen)) as a solid masculine provider to pay the bills; he rationalized that his wife Lou wouldn't approve: "She'd think it isn't good enough for me"; after lots of unexplained absences and excuses, such as frequent afternoon school board meetings, Lou became suspicious that Ed was being unfaithful

Ed's Wife Lou (Barbara Rush)

Lou's Distress After Ed Collapsed
  • he had been experiencing memory lapses and more painful symptoms, but had kept his physical ailments to himself; suddenly he blacked out and collapsed in the bedroom; Ed's physician Dr. Norton (Robert F. Simon) was summoned, along with their family friend and gym teacher Wally Gibbs (Walter Matthau), a closeted homosexual, to assist Ed to a hospital for testing and treatment
  • Ed told his doctor he had been experiencing blackouts for six months; after various tests run by College of Medicine specialist Dr. Ruric (Roland Winters), Ed was told: "The prognosis is poor" - he was diagnosed with a severe and rare illness (periarteritis nodosa - a destructive inflammation of the arteries due to a deadly blood disease) that might end his life within a year
  • to halt the disease's progress, Ed was prescribed and treated with an experimental 'miracle drug' or hormone (cortisone) for his condition; tests were conducted to work out the proper dosage (one tablet every six hours - "no more no less"), with additional concerns that Ed might experience depression if the dosage was incorrect
  • following his release from the hospital, Ed was dropped off at school by his long-suffering, beleaguered and loving wife Lou, as he boasted exuberantly: "When I came down into the hospital lobby and saw you and Richie again, I felt ten feet tall"

Testing to Lower Ed's Pain Levels with Cortisone

Ed's Release from Hospital and His Arrival at School: "I Feel Ten Feet Tall"
  • immediately after his hospital release, there were two scenes of Ed's manic, wild, and reckless consumer spending spree - a sign of his medical deterioration and developing megalomania and tyrannical nature:

    (1) the ebullient Ed took Lou shopping to Mantyn's - an expensive ladies' clothing shop in town, where he shouted and imperiously acted like an "upper-crust sugar daddy"; at first, he denigrated the female clerk: "My wife and I aren't used to places like this, so it's only fair to tell you, that if we don't get a whole lot of high-class service - and in a hurry, there's likely to be a terribly embarrassing scene in this sanctum"; during the dress-buying, he sat nearby with a cigarette and directed everyone; ultimately, he non-chalantly purchased a very expensive item that he couldn't really afford ; Richie asked his mother: "Isn't Dad acting a little foolish?"
    (2) then, he also forced his pre-teen son Richie to purchase a fancy bicycle with "three gears, hand brakes" at a pricey bike shop (off-screen)

  • his first night at home after dinner where he had a voracious appetite: ("You ate half the roast at dinner"), an overly-energetic and "keyed-up" Ed played a game of football-toss in the living room with Richie, eventually breaking something; he began to scare and concern his family with his unpredictable and dictatorial nature
  • in his home's bathroom, he stood in front of his mirrored medicine cabinet, where he swallowed another of his pills; after commanding Lou to bring an additional kettle of hot water for his bath, she slammed the cabinet door shut in frustration: ("You're not in the hospital now!") - and shattered its mirror; it metaphorically expressed how his tormented personality was beginning to fracture; later in the middle of the night, Ed was found crying downstairs in the den, and before retiring for the night overdosed on more pills; Ed was beginning to go through increasingly-wild personality changes and fractured mood swings (with manic highs and depressive lows) due to high dosages of his expensive prescription drug (costing $2 dollars a day)
  • during a visit with his doctor, Ed was told about the possible side-effects of cortisone: "Sometimes we see it produce some pretty queer mental effects"; Ed lied about already needing a new prescription refill (he claimed some pills were dropped down the drain), and denied having any long-term effects such as mental problems or bouts of depression
  • at the school's evening PTA meeting (in a room with walls displaying children's artwork), Ed made offensive, cruel and haughty criticisms of every tenent of 1950s life - including his long and deliberate rant-filled denouncement of the school and its failed educational policies (including the waste of paper); he criticized the moronic children that he was paid to teach: ("Every year whole forests are cut down to supply the paper for these grotesque daubs. And we coo over them as though they were Van Goghs or Rembrandts....Childhood is a congenital disease and the purpose of education is to cure it. I see my point of view is new to many of you. But ask yourselves, how do we describe the unfortunate individual who carries his unspoiled childhood instincts into adult life? We say he's arrested. We call him a moron"
  • he unknowingly directly insulted the PTA Association President - the mother of Louise, who objected: "I'm not at all sure that I like to have my daughter Louise thought of that way, and by her teacher!"; Ed immediately cruelly retorted: ("My dear lady, your Louise is a charming little creature, but we must try to examine the problem without prejudice or sentiment. The hard fact remains that your daughter, at her present stage of development, is roughly on an intellectual par with the African gorilla. (Gasps as some parents exited the room).... What, after all, from the Stone Age to the present day, has been the greatest invention of mankind? Has anybody got a match?...(Ed non-chalantly lit his cigarette) Fire? The wheel? Safety pin? The hydrogen bomb? No, ladies and gentlemen, the alphabet. And persons like myself are required to teach these poor, bewildered kids to read by a system of word recognition as though the mighty English language were a collection of Chinese ideograms. And then we're surprised when Junior can't even wade through the comics....'The three Rs' - that's just a catchphrase")
  • he continued on with how he believed that education should be directed toward the fundamentals of rigorous coursework, and the virtues of self-reliance, hard work, moral rectitude, discipline, and tough-mindedness: ("Before it's too late, we ought to get back to the real fundamentals. And I'm not just talking of primary education now. We're breeding a race of moral midgets. (Even more gasps) All this hogwash about 'self-expression', 'permissiveness', 'development patterns', 'emotional security.' Security - With the world ready to blow up. If the republic is to survive, we've got to get back to teaching the good old virtues of hard work and self-discipline and a sense of duty! My friends, I tell you, we're committing hara-kiri every day right here in this classroom")
  • Wally was in the classroom listening to Ed's speech, and the next day, expressed his concerns to Lou about Ed's strange behavior and possible mental issues: "He just isn't the same guy. You know, uh, big shot. He even looks bigger"; Ed returned home early from school and found Wally speaking to Lou - and instantly became suspicious of their conversation and relationship
  • Ed began to denigrate his family life - calling it "petty domesticity"; he stated that as the head of the household, he had recently outgrown his nuclear family: "A man's wife. The woman he expected to love devotedly for the rest of his life. Then suddenly one morning, you're free - released. You've simply outgrown her"; as he planned to leave the household and began some unknown life venture elsewhere, Ed also declared to his wife Lou that she was intellectually inferior to him: ("What a shame that I didn't marry someone who was my intellectual equal...You just can't distinguish between the trivial and the important, can you?")
  • then after having second thoughts about leaving, Ed impersonated his physician and forged a new prescription in order to acquire more cortisone (due to his constant overdosing)
  • earlier in the film, Ed revealed that he remembered being worshipped as a HS football hero for one game-winning play: ("Third-string sub to hero in 20 seconds"); upon returning home, during a frenzied outdoor game of football catch with Richie, even after his son became totally exhausted, he continued with negative criticisms: "What did you close your eyes for? You can't expect to catch a pass with your eyes closed!", and pushed him beyond his physical limits while stressing: "You want to be a man, don't you?"; he also threatened penalties such as forfeiting his lunch if he missed a pass
Signs of Dysfunctional Family Life

Criticisms During Football Catch With Son Richie

Ed Belittling His Son During Home-Schooling Math Homework

Ed to His Wife Lou During Dinner: "Our marriage is over"
  • Wally and Lou realized that Ed's erratic and unreasonable semi-psychotic behavior was due to improper dosages of cortisone during his prolonged treatment, and Lou begged him: "You've got to stop taking it" - but he steadfastly refused, suspiciously thinking that Lou wanted to kill him in order to be with Wally
  • the increasingly pushy, fragmented and opinionated Ed constantly belittled and further tyrannized Richie with verbal abuse during home-schooling in a mathematics lesson that extended two hours past dinner - his disciplining presence (and dark black shadow) towered over him, exaggerated by a low-angle shot
  • during a late dinner at their long family table (borrowed from American Beauty (1999)), Ed declared that their marriage was basically over, although he would remain solely for Richie's sake: ("You're even a bigger idiot than I took you for. Let's clear this up once and for all! I'm staying in this house solely for the boy's sake! As for you personally, I'm completely finished with you. There's nothing left. Our marriage is over! In my mind, I've divorced you. You're not my wife any longer. I am not your husband any longer")
  • Ed's worried son Richie was caught when searching for his father's hidden medicine bottle; he locked himself in the bathroom and struggled to call the family physician to help end his father's prescription: ("And I'm going to call Dr. Norton to make you stop taking those pills. I don't care if your pain does come back. I'd rather you were dead than the way you are now"); Ed cut the phone line with a pair of scissors
  • to belittle and punish his son Richie for being disobedient, Ed read from a Bible (following the text with scissors in his hand) and became determined to emulate Abraham's sacrifice of his son Isaac in the Old Testament (recalling the preacher's Sunday sermon); he illustrated the Biblical justification for murdering Richie: ("And Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar upon the wood. And Abraham stretched forth his hand and took the knife to slay his son")
  • contrary to Ed's warped Biblical interpretation, Lou reminded Ed that God aborted the sacrifice and spared Isaac at the last minute: ("But Ed, you didn't read it all. God stopped Abraham") - Ed replied with an emphatic declaration to his wife: "God was wrong!"; after locking Lou in the front hall closet, Ed was only restrained from killing Richie upstairs with a pair of scissors (and urging the family's complete suicide) by the saving actions of Wally Gibbs, who rushed into the house and scuffled one-on-one with Ed on the stairs and throughout the house
Ed's Crazed Talk to Lou With a Bible and Scissors in Hand -
Ed's Re-Enactment of Abraham's Sacrifice of Isaac
  • Ed was returned to the hospital for sedation; Dr. Norton realized that the only treatment that might work to help Ed recover and be cured of his deep psychosis would be to have him recall everything that happened, including threats to kill Richie: ("When Ed opens his eyes, he may not recognize any of us. I want you to be prepared for that. But if he can remember everything that happened, and face it, then he'll be all right"); the doctor also described how Ed would continue to be treated with cortisone, but with the proper dosage (administered with supervision)
  • in the film's final sequence around his hospital bed, Ed came out of sedation and seemed to have been relieved of his psychosis; Ed described a dream he just had: "I was dreaming. I walked with Lincoln. He was as big and ugly and beautiful as he was in life. Abraham. Abraham!"
  • with worry, he then turned to recognize his son, and ask about what he had done to him: "Did I hurt you? I tried to. Are you all right?"; Richie responded: "I'm all right, Dad"; Ed responded: "I remember now. I remember everything that happened"; Dr. Norton reassured him: "That's the way it should be, Ed"

In the Hospital, Under Sedation

Ed to Richie: "Did I hurt you?"

A Happy Ending? - The Family Was "Closer" in His Hospital Bed as They Hugged Each Other
  • the film ended with the fatherly Ed intensely hugging his family and asking for them to be "closer" to him; Lou joked: "Ed, you'll have us both in bed," but Ed repeated his desperate request: "That's what I mean. Closer. Closer"

Schoolteacher Ed Avery (James Mason)

Ed with Young Son Richie (Christopher Olsen)

Family Friend and Gym Teacher Wally Gibbs (Walter Matthau)

Ed Hospitalized for Treatments and Tests

Ed and Lou Listening to the Doctors' Diagnosis

Manic Shopping Spree At a Dress Shop

Overdosing In Front of His Bathroom's Cracked-Mirrored Medicine Cabinet

Ed's Lengthy Rant at The PTA Meeting Against the Educational System and the Moronic Kids That He Was Teaching

One of the Parents, Louise's Mother, Objecting to Ed's Words

Ed's Further Denouncements of Education

Ed's Belief That He Had Outgrown His Marriage

Denigrating His Wife For Being Intellectually Inferior

Ed Impersonating a Doctor to Fill A Prescription For More Cortisone

Lou Trying to Reason with Ed About His Erratic Behavior

Richie Caught Searching for His Father's Medicine Bottle

Richie Struggling to Make a Phone Call Inside Locked Bathroom


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