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 Eisenhower-Era melodrama about the family - 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 an examination of prescription drug abuse:

  • the character of ill, underpaid and frustrated schoolteacher and middle-class family man Ed Avery (James Mason), who - after severe blackouts and other symptoms, was being treated with an experimental 'wonder drug' (cortisone) for his severe illness (periarteritis nodosa - a destructive inflammation of the arteries)
  • the sequence of his release from the hospital, when he was dropped off at school by his long-suffering, beleaguered and loving wife Lou (Barbara Rush), as he boasted exuberantly: "When I came down into the hospital lobby and saw you and Richie again, I felt ten feet tall"
  • the sequence of Ed standing in front of a cracked medicine cabinet mirror - expressing how his tormented character was about to go through increasingly-wild personality changes and fractured mood swings due to prescription drug addiction
  • the two scenes of Ed's manic, consumer spending spree - a sign of his deterioration and developing megalomania and tyrannical nature, when he took Lou shopping at an expensive ladies' clothing shop in town; 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 imperiously directed everyone and non-chalantly purchased a very expensive item; and then he also forced his pre-teen son Richie (Christopher Olsen) to purchase an expensive bike
  • the scene of Ed's offensive and haughty criticisms of every tenent of 50s life - including his deliberate rant-filled denouncement of the school and its failed educational policies during a PTA meeting where the walls displayed children's artwork: ("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. (Parents gasped, one with a daughter named Louise)... 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. (More gasps).... What, after all, from the Stone Age to the present day has been the greatest invention of mankind? Has anybody got a match?...(He 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. 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")
Dysfunctional Family Life
Criticisms During Football Catch With Son Richie
Belittling Son During Math Homework
"Our marriage is over"
  • the sequence of Ed's frenzied outdoor game of football catch with Richie even after he became totally exhausted, and his negative criticisms: "What did you close your eyes for? You can't expect to catch a pass with your eyes closed!"
  • the scene in which the increasingly pushy, fragmented and opinionated Ed constantly belittled and tyrannized his son Richie during home-schooling - with his disciplining presence (and dark black shadow) towering over him, in a low-angle shot, during a mathematics lesson late at night
  • the dinner scene at a long table in which he told his wife Lou that their marriage was over: ("Our marriage is over. In my mind, I've divorced you. You're not my wife any longer, and I'm not your husband any longer") although he remained in the house "solely for the boy's sake"
  • the scene of Ed's worried son locking himself in the bathroom in order to call his father's doctor, Dr. Norton (Robert F. Simon) to stop his 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")
  • the dramatic scene of Ed reading from the Bible (following the text with a knife in his hand) and his determination to emulate Abraham's sacrifice of his son Isaac in the Old Testament: ("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") - when Lou reminded him that God aborted the sacrifice and saved Isaac at the last minute ("But Ed, you didn't read it all. God stopped Abraham") - but Ed replied with an emphatic declaration to his wife: "God was wrong!"
  • after being returned to the hospital for further treatment, in the film's final sequence around his bed, Ed seemed to have been relieved of his psychosis; he 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!" - he then turned to his son with worry 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"
  • the film ended with Ed intensely hugging his family and asking for them to be "closer"; Lou joked: "Ed, you'll have us both in bed," but Ed repeated his desperate request: "That's what I mean. Closer. Closer"

Ed Avery: "I Feel Ten Feet Tall"

Metaphoric Cracked Bathroom Cabinet Mirror

Manic Shopping Spree At the Dress Shop

Ed's Rant at The PTA Meeting

Richie Calling the Doctor For His Father's Condition

With Knife in Hand - Re-enacting Abraham's Sacrifice of Isaac

A Happy Ending? - "Closer" in Bed and Hugging


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