Bigger Than Life (1956)

The picturesque American family was an image that was propagated as the absolute ideal for standards of living in the mid-20th century. The male was the breadwinner, the female took care of the home and children, and all was supposedly quite well. However, any disruption in a fragile family system would dramatically alter each member’s functioning and amplify stress. This reality holds true today in all family units, especially when a member falls ill and others have to re-identify their role. “Bigger Than Life”, a film directed by Nicholas Ray in 1956, tackles these issues with the taboo 1950s topic of mental illness taking centre stage.

The incomparable James Mason plays the role of all-American Ed Avery – a teacher, secret taxi dispatcher, husband, and father to an elementary school-aged son. He seems to be living a comfortable life until his health starts to deteriorate. He is diagnosed with the rare inflammatory condition polyarteritis nodosa, and is treated with a novel agent now standard practice for treating many inflammatory illnesses – corticosteroids! His family hopes for a recovery. However, Avery begins misusing his medication and ultimately develops steroid-induced psychosis. His grandiosity, delusions, lack of insight, and poor judgment threaten to dismantle the security of his job and family. The direction in the film placing emphasis on dark shadows increases as Avery’s condition deteriorates, signifying to the viewer the downward spiral on which he will embark.

Some individuals experiencing psychosis often feel as though they are “bigger than life”. For example, the grandiosity and vivid visual hallucinations of mania can contribute to erratic, life-threatening behaviour.  As well, religious delusions in the context of a psychotic illness could lead one to believe that they truly are God. Both of these scenarios can lead to detrimental outcomes affecting the health and safety of themselves or others. The film courageously and realistically demonstrates that these situations can be quite frightening and incomprehensible to those afflicted’s loved ones. Mental illness impacts all human beings on some level, and it is imperative that our society continues and broadens the discussion. This will help garner further support in terms of societal acceptance, familial aid, as well as government funding for community programs such as assertive community treatment (ACT) teams. It is therefore evident that a subject with this much global importance is “bigger than life”.

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I do not own the above image.

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