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By Jim Healy
At the beginning of Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life (1956), Ed Avery (James Mason), a middle-class grammar school teacher moonlighting as a taxi dispatcher to make ends meet, finds himself suffering from a mystery ailment that cripples him with pain. After multiple hospital tests, doctors diagnose the illness and prescribe the miracle drug cortisone, which cures Ed’s pain, but begins to cause severe delusions of grandeur and manic episodes. Increasingly addicted to the drug, Ed becomes a tyrant in his own home, frightening his wife Lou (Barbara Rush) and bullying their son, Ritchie (Christopher Olsen). In the shocking climax, Ed, inspired by the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac, declares “God was wrong” and almost murders Ritchie but he’s thwarted by his best friend, gym teacher Wally (Walter Matthau). Hospitalized once more, Ed emerges from sedation apparently cured of his addiction and mania and the family unit is seemingly restored…
One of America’s finest contemporary writers, Jonathan Lethem’s obsessions with pop culture, especially cinema, are familiar to anyone who has sampled his short stories and novels. Gun, With Occasional Music (1994) and Motherless Brooklyn, which won the 1999 National Book Critic’s Circle Award for fiction, both utilize the classic noir detective story template. 1998’s Girl In Landscape matches the frontier western with a story of interplanetary travel and his 2003 novel The Fortress of Solitude features two young characters for whom music, comic books and movies are more important than their ability to fly. Some of Lethem’s most engaging writing appears in a collection of essays entitled The Disappointment Artist, which tackles such diverse cinematic subjects as Philip K. Dick, The Searchers, John Cassavetes, and Star Wars.
A master of “speculative fiction” (particularly evidenced in The Fortress of Solitude and his spare and fascinating 1997 novel As She Climbed Across the Table), Lethem’s work shares one great affinity with Bigger Than Life: the imposition of a scientific abnormality onto the everyday lives of his characters. Lethem has been a longtime admirer of Ray’s film, and in February 2008 he visited George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography and Film in Rochester, NY to present Bigger Than Life and participate in a post-film discussion with myself and our viewing audience.
JONATHAN LETHEM: Bigger Than Life is a movie that excites me a lot. It borders on a lot of things I’ve pursued in my own work. I advertised this film to a friend of mine as “Douglas Sirk meets Oliver Sacks” and I suppose that if you had to do a Madison Avenue tagline for the movie that really might be a fair one.
CINEMA SCOPE: It’s interesting that you mention Oliver Sacks because the screenplay was based on a story that Nicholas Ray found in a New Yorker magazine by a man named Burton Roueche—do you know anything about him?
LETHEM: Burton Roueche, yes: he was in a sense Oliver Sacks’ predecessor at the New Yorker, and a medical writer specializing in case studies. The most famous of Roueche’s books—I’m not sure whether the article that inspired Bigger Than Life appears in it or not—is called The Medical Detectives. It’s a series of profiles of cases where life and medicine intersected. Few deal with the kind of neurological studies we’re accustomed to from Sacks, and of which Bigger Than Life is also an example; more often Roueche writes on subjects of surgery or other kinds of physical illness. It’s Sacks who begins more specifically doing case studies of the mind.
Bigger Than Life prefigures a wide interest in contemporary culture in this area: the crossroads of emotional or psychological life and neurology, or pharmacology. You encounter this in fiction like Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nightime (2003) or Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love (1997), and I suppose I contributed as well with the Tourette’s Syndrome in Motherless Brooklyn. These perspectives offer rival ways of describing human experience—rivals to the traditional psychological perspectives available in the majority of 20th century narrative. And, just as in the treatment profession, there’s been a trend of neurological or neurochemical or pharmacological paradigms winning out over traditional psychological or psychotherapeutic models of human life. This film is a very early signal of what has become a trend. James Mason’s difficulties, the issues in his relationship to his family and to society and even to himself—his philosophical or existential plight—are all suddenly reframed as a pure overdose of cortisone.
SCOPE: Yes, this is something I think the film shares with your brand of speculative fiction. Ray is less interested in the disease, the cure, and all the side effects than he is in what these things reveal about Ed’s daily life and what it was like before he became sick.
LETHEM: What I love about the film is the way Ray, in preparing us for this intrusion into daily life, is so scrupulous about creating a real world. For instance, financial pressures are very much a part of the film. It‘s a film about class shame, amongst other things; the tension in Ed’s life as a taxi cab dispatcher, for instance—and though we only glimpse the world of the taxi drivers, it’s a rich social milieu. This family dwells in a very normal town, and they’re a perfect nuclear family, and yet there are so many pressure points, so many fault lines. Another example is the undercurrent of gender discomfort with Mason being a school teacher, as well as the fact that it is obviously not completely comfortable for the male teachers working alongside a beautiful single female teacher. The opening of the film could easily turn into four or five different kinds of melodrama in the Douglas Sirk fashion. The characters rest uneasily on their bed of normality to begin with—and then you lay on top the fantastic intrusion of the medical crisis.
I love thinking about what’s going on in the culture contemporaneously with the events of this film. If you think of the novels being written by Jack Kerouac and Norman Mailer, and the fact that rock n’ roll was basically being invented at this moment—we’re not that far, of course, from Rebel Without a Cause (1955)—and yet there’s no subculture anywhere evident in this film. There’s no critique of the American reality from the outside, only pressure on it from within.
SCOPE: Well, there’s no hint of escape in their lives except for the travel posters, which are all for Italy.
LETHEM: Sure—no hint of escape from their lives, except that James Mason has this unexplained and faintly sinister accent. Consider what James Mason signified as a Hollywood actor in the postwar era, in everything from Lolita (1962) to the vaguely bisexual villain in North by Northwest (1959) to Captain Nemo in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954). He represents a sort of trans-Atlantic sophistication that’s threatening, that brings with it implications of the Old World and European fascism and all the aristocratic anti-American richness of his persona. So, to just throw him into this pure American milieu is troubling to begin with. Then, as you say, there are these travel posters all over the house. Also, in Ray, architecture is so important. That house is fighting so hard to be a middle class house of the ‘50s, but that water heater is naked in the kitchen. The interior of the house strains for a‘50s-style luxury, but then the camera backs out and you see how the other houses are wedged right against it, and the guy who lives inside has to work as a cab dispatcher. The degree of precision about those social details, the precariousness of the life they’re trying to put across, is really thrillingly precise.
SCOPE: It’s an increasingly menacing film until it becomes almost suffocating.
LETHEM: Yes. There are moments where Ray uses shadows and the score to make you wonder if this is a horror movie about a guy who forgot to take his slippers to the hospital. It’s very Hitchcockian in those gestures, making certain everyday objects seem so problematic. The empty football holder or the milk; the way the milk pitcher reveals that missing inch, that’s amazing stuff.
SCOPE: The way Ray mounts Mason’s increasing mania reminds me a lot of James Stewart in the second half of Vertigo (1958).
LETHEM: Yeah and there’s a scene where he dresses his wife up in expensive clothes, very uncomfortable, very close to Vertigo! What’s the first symptom of the breakdown of this American family? Dad goes on this careening consumer binge and dresses his wife up in ways that he can’t afford. Again, class anxiety: what if we behaved improperly in the marketplace? Even the idea that there’s a shop in town that their family is afraid to enter makes such a powerful statement about the impossible fiction of an egalitarian middle class, a fiction within which these characters are trying to reside. The fact that they can simply jump into a car and go to this neurotically intimidating store! This is a version of the argument that other films in the ‘50s were making about American life, but more usually from the outside: The Wild One (1953) or Rebel Without a Cause or Strangers On A Train (1951) or My Son John (1952). Usually there’s some sort of invader.
SCOPE: This is, I think, a reflection of Ray because he came from a normal family but always felt an outsider. He was bisexual and an artist and someone who never felt comfortable in Wisconsin and then finally found his way East and then to Hollywood. His films are usually about underdogs and outsiders.
LETHEM: Another frame to put around the film is that it’s a nightmare self-portrait of an artist, one who lives in an society that doesn’t want to consider the elitist implications of declaring oneself an artist. I was discussing There Will Be Blood (2007) with some friends who felt that the Daniel Day-Lewis character is a total monster, and I thought, “Well, yeah, but he’s also kind of a creator.” He’s trying to bring something possible into existence. And that pits him against everything. It does make him a monster.
SCOPE: I’m reminded of Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950) where Bogart is, on the one hand, creative, and, on the other hand he’s a psycho.
LETHEM: Well, there’s a version of the fundamental paradox of ‘50s America. It’s alluded to in the film: the Cold War fears and the bomb, also McCarthyism. The whole incredible self-loathing paradox embedded in this apparently simple idea that “our enemy is trying to destroy our free American way of life.” The Communist enemy is like a race of insects. A faceless horde. Whereas in America, you’re allowed to be free and do anything you want, but any sign of disturbing behavior means you might be a Red, so we have to conform to one another, in order to prove that we are not the faceless horde—so we’re undergoing this constant self-scrutiny for difference. This describes a decade that contains both Allen Ginsberg and J. Edgar Hoover.
SCOPE: And this runs throughout Ray’s work, especially in Johnny Guitar (1954), with its McCarthy allegories. What is normal? What does it mean to conform? How difficult it is to be like everyone else, especially in Rebel Without a Cause.
LETHEM: In the 50s, the idea of postwar American conformity is so new that it’s so fragile. So monolithic, but so barely tenable.
SCOPE: Some of our great contemporary novelists who emerged in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s like John Updike and Richard Yates, who dealt to a certain extent with suburban living, contemporary mores and relationships between men and women, have seen very few successful adaptations of their work. But there’s an interesting sub-genre of films from this time that, in many cases, precedes Updike’s Rabbit Run (1960) and Yates’ Revolutionary Road (1962). There’s Bigger Than Life and Martin Ritt’s No Down Payment (1957); I’m also reminded of Walter Matthau and Barbara Rush in another film, Richard Quine’s Strangers When We Meet (1960), which was written by the novelist Evan Hunter. Have you ever seen it?
LETHEM: I’ve never seen it.
SCOPE: Matthau’s a far less sympathetic character in that film than he is in Bigger Than Life. Barbara Rush is married to Kirk Douglas and Matthau makes the moves on her in that film.
LETHEM: It’s interesting to think of this in terms of Richard Yates. His main characters have a kind of underlying depressive grandiosity that persistently wrecks their participation in family life. Of course, by comparison to a novel, while there’s so much social context that’s precise in Bigger Than Life, there’s also a lot that’s left out. You don’t know, for instance, whether James Mason fought in WWII—a really big question for any man in the United States in that age group. In fact, there was a brief period when American film talked a lot about the shell-shocked veterans. They were almost a kind of commonplace, in a film noir like The Blue Dahlia (1946) or in Preston Sturges’ Hail the Conquering Hero (1944): the veteran who comes back changed, and everyone jokes nervously that he took a few too many bomb blasts near his head. In a sense, mental disorder was briefly a part of American life; then it gets buttoned back down and it’s not okay. If ten years earlier a figure like Mason had been trying to function as part of American middle-class suburban life and they were falling apart at the seams, it would probably be that he was a returning veteran.
AUDIENCE: Mason’s fascistic rants against the school system stand strongly outside conventional ‘50s thinking. I wondered whether the actors were representing the viewpoints of the screenwriters or Nicholas Ray?
LETHEM: During the screening, my friend Sean leaned over to me and whispered “Mike Huckabee” at one point, because we’d just this morning watched a speech that Huckabee was giving to a conservative convention. It was a “let’s go back to morality,” “let’s roll back all cultural relativism” monologue. There’s some of that in Mason’s rants, but there’s also a will to subvert the placid surface of life, a Nietszchean element to his ravings. It reminds me of Werner Erhard, the founder of EST, or any of the great populist paragons of “selfishness.” That super self-actualizing impulse is very problematic in terms of the double-bind of wanting to prove you’re a good American in the ‘50s. On the one hand you have to be normal and fair and a good citizen, but on the other hand to prove you’re an American you also have to be thinking positively, in a Death of a Salesman kind of way: “I’m going to win. I’m going to transform myself into something better.” Self-improvement turns this corner very easily into wanting to rise above the crowd, wanting to excel, become exceptional, fabulously wealthy. Perhaps Thomas Alva Edison would be the American ideal: invent miraculous things and become rich. But the flipside is that it’s suddenly very anti-egalitarian. The same things that people mocked in the Me decade, that fascist undercurrent of the New Age, are surfacing in some of Mason’s rants. Another point of reference that came up in my head just now was the great moral visionary psychotic rants that were written for the Tom Wilkinson character in Michael Clayton (2007). He gets a couple of moments where he ruptures the surface of this movie with these disastrously sweeping moral lectures that just can’t be coped with. They can’t be accounted for within the actions of the film. He says, “Sometimes we say more than we mean.”
SCOPE: One of Bigger Than Life’s screenwriters is Richard Maibaum, who later wrote a lot of the James Bond films, which might be viewed as having right-wing or fascist tendencies, but Ray had his partner and assistant at the time, Gavin Lambert, were rewriting a lot of the film as they went along. One of their touchstones was a line from Death of a Salesman which is escaping me right now…
LETHEM: “Attention must be paid”
SCOPE: “Attention must be paid.” Thank you.
LETHEM: Funny, I made that connection with Death of a Salesman without having any notion that Ray and Lambert had it in mind.
SCOPE: There were also two key scenes that were completely written by Clifford Odets, including the last scene where Ed wakes up in the room and remembers what he’s done when he sees the image of Abraham Lincoln. Bringing Lincoln into it was Odets’ invention.
LETHEM: At first it seems like they are going to go off on some strange new tangent that’s really embarrassing or awkward, or that’s going to break out of the movie, like Mason imagining that he’s Napoleon or something. But then it ends up being perfect. Well, here’s to Clifford Odets.
Another thing that has to be mentioned is the incredible scene, one of my favourite in all of cinema, when Mason is delaying dinner, and working on the math problem, and disputing with his son over the milk, the wife’s race to get him the full glass of milk, and wipe his mouth, and then there’s…that shadow. I said rock n’ roll was excluded from this film, but that shadow’s shape looks like Elvis Presley or James Brown; it’s this giant hulking thing with a pompadour. And it’s so weird. It’s so pointed and deliberate—in fact, when Barbara Rush enters the room she gets a shadow too and it’s a third the size of his shadow. What an amazing piece of expressionism. It just stands there lurking through the whole shot.
SCOPE: Another cultural reference is The Night of the Hunter (1955). When Mason goes to church he wears all black and he comes home and he’s thumping the Bible and chasing the kid around just like Robert Mitchum.
LETHEM: Bigger Than Life also offers an assembly kit for making The Shining (1980), at that moment when suddenly Rush gets locked in the closet and the film becomes just a pure thriller for a second. Of course, Jack Nicholson’s casting is as ominous as Mason’s casting: What kind of family are you trying to pass off on me here?
SCOPE: Have you seen the short film on the making of The Shining?
SCOPE: One of the visitors to the set is James Mason, who, of course, worked with Kubrick on Lolita.
LETHEM: Oh, I remember that. That’s great.
AUDIENCE: Well, first I’d like to remind you that John Kennedy had Addison’s disease and was on cortisone. Second, it strikes me, as it struck you, that, in many ways, the main characters played by James Mason and Barbara Rush are very one-dimensional; there’s nothing you can infer from them about their history. And it’s so strange that this occurs in the ‘50s and there’s nothing about WWII and what preceded it. It’s almost like Kabuki theatre to me.
LETHEM: I agree. I just think that it says something so poignant about both American life in the mid ‘50s and American film. ‘50s culture seemed so monolithic to the people who wanted to rebel against it: say, a blacklisted writer or a homosexual kid in a small town. But at the same time it’s so fragile. It has so many fissures in it to begin with, it’s such a scant invention. Part of that has to do with the need to pretend that our great wealth and our world dominance and our way of life didn’t just land on us as a weird accident of winning WWII but was somehow the American legacy and we’ve always had it and the war was just an interruption and now we’re back to it.
AUDIENCE: It seems that with the happy little ending of the film, audiences were meant to interpret that the psychosis was being created by the cortisone itself and not in any way coming from James Mason’s character.
LETHEM: It’s a non-ending ending on a certain level. Almost like the ending of Hitchcock’s Suspicion (1941), where all you’re given is the feeling of resolution but there’s no information in the film to dictate that their crisis won’t resume later that day. Obviously I don’t have any privileged information about either the reality of these characters—because they’re just characters—or the filmmaker’s intentions. But you certainly feel that after the weight of the film and the complexities of the film, the happy ending can’t possibly be sustained. Of course, that’s true of so many great films in Hollywood’s history, where the ending is simpler than the implications of the film seems to demand.
SCOPE: Ray was unable to fight the studio’s demand that they keep the mention of cortisone in the film. It’s very specifically mentioned in the Roueche story but Ray wanted to…
LETHEM: Generalize it?
SCOPE: Yes, to make no reference to any specific drug.
LETHEM: Interesting. Obviously for Ray the most important thing was the opportunity to open up this fissure, to explore this existential crisis erupting inside the space of such a normal family and a normal town. It’s very interesting that he tried to take the reference to cortisone out. For comparison, the key and defining change he made between the source material of In A Lonely Place and the film is that in the original novel Humphrey Bogart was the murderer. It’s such a signal kind of shift in material when you take away the fundamental motive or reason for being. I would say this originates with Hamlet. What makes Hamlet such an incredibly layered, complex, ambiguous thing is that Hamlet waits, and we’re unsure why. In an ordinary crime story the reason would be that he didn’t know who did it, or at least wasn’t sure, and needed to prove it. But Shakespeare deepens that story by telling you and telling the character right up front that Claudius committed the crime and that action is demanded. And then the character waits anyway as if he’s trying to figure out something that he already knows. That kind of shift is very profound. If you can imagine Bigger Than Life being filmed without an explanation for Mason’s illness then you’ve shifted into the area of something like Todd Haynes’ Safe (1995). In that film there can be no ending to the existential challenges of everyday existence.
SCOPE: It’s interesting what you say about In a Lonely Place. It doesn’t matter that Bogart’s not the killer in the end; the damage is done and he’s still a seriously deranged person.
LETHEM: Questions of whether someone is guilty or innocent, or crazy or sane; Ray is interested in rising above such simple binaries.
AUDIENCE: I think the film shares a lot in common with your fiction, especially Motherless Brooklyn, in the way that an apparently damaged character is able to tell some sort of truth because of that damage, that we wouldn’t otherwise get access to. I’ve been trying to figure out what it is that James Mason is telling us and it’s striking to me that it starts with the school, then the church, and there’s also an implicit critique of the hospital as well, so we have three areas of an ideological state apparatus all being slammed by this movie. Leaving aside the fascist overtones, it’s very interesting to try to think about this as, potentially, a very radical film.
LETHEM: Yes. I was thinking about how the staircase is so important in so many great American films, from Cassavetes’ Faces (1968) to the way Hitchcock places staircases in the centre of so many of his problematic homes. In this symbolic structure the downstairs is the social world, the institutional world, and upstairs is a more intimate, separate zone. It seems to me there are two levels at which James Mason and his wife and his kid have to function. One is just among themselves, and that’s why that ending is so beautiful, and terrifying too. The doctors leave that room and the room becomes like a bedroom all of a sudden, and it’s the three of them trying to be this intimate, above-the-stairs bedroom version of American life. When Mason makes that great remark that “the name for teacher and doctor are the same”, what he’s trying to do is replace intimacy with the absolutes of his teaching life. He’s going to become some super home-schooling force. Then he switches to the Bible, as if he can replace the overwhelming possibilities and uncertainties of family life with an ideology pulled out of the Bible story.
SCOPE: He finally rejects that too. “God was wrong!”
LETHEM: Yes. There’s a question of where success is going to be negotiated—in Ray this question is partly architectural, it’s a design question. What room is a sanctum? I think the word “sanctum” is even used in the film at one point. The way the parents sit down in those chairs when he’s lecturing them is satirical, but it’s very disturbing too, because it’s as though they’re suddenly eligible to be totally reformatted like “oh wait maybe we’re all patients or maybe we’re all a congregation, maybe we’re all your students. Maybe this furniture is going to tell us who we are and what we’re supposed to do.”
AUDIENCE: I think the film almost confirmed conformity and would have been quite well received by a lot of Americans that were making it in that upper middle class environment. How was the movie received when it was released in the ‘50s?
SCOPE: It was not a box office success, and an official voice of record, The New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther, said, “To ask a paying audience to sit through a painfully slow routine of becoming intoxicated by too much cortisone is adding the tax of tedium to the price of admission.” Most contemporary cinephiles will tell you that if Crowther gave a movie a negative review it was a good reason to see it. Today I think it’s generally regarded as one of the more important films of its time. Martin Scorsese included it in his Personal Journey Through American Movies and cites it as one of the most important and expressive films of its time. I’ve always seen it as a warning against conformity but not a movie that gives you any easy answers about how to escape that. The scene in the classroom where a lot of the parents sit down to listen to Ed’s rants—a few of them also say, “You’re nuts,” and walk out. That’s for me the most hopeful moment in the whole movie. That there are enough people to speak their minds; maybe not the majority, but a few anyway.
LETHEM: It has so many layers, and quite an embracing surface in certain ways. There aren’t a lot of formal ruptures in it so I’m sure it could have been taken at face value, but it would have aroused a lot of discomfort right underneath that response, I’d think.
SCOPE: I can’t think of a single good Ray film that’s not hard to watch, that doesn’t get under your skin. In a Lonely Place is devastating, this film is devastating, Rebel Without a Cause is really powerful. His own widow, Susan Ray, said that every time she discovered one of his films for the first time it was a painful experience and apparently it was painful for him to make several of his films too. He brought a lot of himself to his movies.
Bigger Than Life seems to me also very similar to the horror films of the ‘50s in that instead of a full moon turning someone into a werewolf it’s what you put inside your body that does it. There’s also an interesting rhyming effect with the milky substance Mason drinks before his X-ray and the scene with the boy and the milk later on. Milk becomes an increasingly menacing substance as the film goes on. The ‘50s was also the era of the Salk vaccine, so there was a hope, in a certain sense, that all diseases can be cured.
LETHEM: I think that’s right. There are many moments that are played like a horror film or a suspense film. It breaks into it openly when Barbara Rush is locked in the closet. In the ending, there’s a throb of fear. Why are the doctors willing to leave that room? It seems irresponsible.
AUDIENCE: Do you think this could be considered a science-fiction film?
LETHEM: There are times I’ve been obsessed with the taxonomy of genres and now I think I’ve worn through that interest. It seems mostly a way of just expressing a categorical imperative, like getting a file system for everything. Sure, if you want to call it science fiction, absolutely, but then you start to call into question what the definition means. Bigger Than Life’s not set in the future, but it is about a kind of scientific intrusion on the everyday, and so it functions that way a bit. But I think it’s closer, in its soul, to horror. Its affinities are closer in two ways. It is, in a sense, a very upscale version of the kind of film that Hollywood was constantly making in that same era, with werewolves and their like intruding into blandly normal suburban life. But it is also horror in the sense that it relates, in a mild way, to things like the writings of someone like H.P. Lovecraft: ontological or philosophical horror. It’s about the outbreak of evil into the surface of everyday life. What if I had a thought that made me monstrous?
AUDIENCE: I was interested in Lou (Barbara Rush) and her characterization as either a hero or a victim or an enabler.
LETHEM: This film reverses a motif that you see in the ‘50s a lot. I’m thinking of examples from Hitchcock right now: the way James Stewart patronizes Doris Day and tries to settle her down in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) and the much more troubling and open-ended issues between Henry Fonda and Vera Miles in The Wrong Man (1956). In these, the husband is the one saying let’s keep these emotions, this despair, shut tight within the functional boundaries of our home and our daily life, let’s not talk about that. Or, take a sedative, relax. We’ll wake up tomorrow and we’ll be fine.
But what’s so poignant, in that scene when Barbara Rush refuses Walter Matthau’s querying, and he ends up saying, “I put my foot in my mouth,” is the underlying financial panic. Again, that’s the one level at which the film is overtly subverting the placid, conformist surface that it might otherwise be seen as reinforcing. They are always running out of money. He puts down the phone because he looks at the bill. The problem is almost solved a third of the way through the movie, and then he looks at the bill and doesn’t talk to his doctor! And Barbara Rush suffers in this terrible dilemma of financial pressures balanced against pressure from her husband, but also social pressures, not to resume her career. Her options are so narrow. There’s a really beautiful complexity to the scene where she persuades her son to play along through the weekend which doesn’t end up working out. Sunday was even worse than Saturday but she does a beautiful job in that moment. You feel how much trust she’s earned with him, how terrific a mom she’s been. It’s the wrong choice she makes, ultimately, when you know what’s coming, but it’s also such a horrible burden she puts on the boy at that moment. “Whatever Dad’s got going on we’ll just accommodate it inside this container of our house.” It’s heartbreaking. That stuff doesn’t seem ironic or satirical about her to me at all. It just seems totally tormenting and sad.
SCOPE: Lou also starts to display Ed’s manic qualities after he is hospitalized at the end when she’s yelling at the doctor and she almost takes on his ranting persona.
LETHEM: Yes, that’s such a funny detail. But that scene also offers a little bit of the Clifford Odets socialist element: to have such an odd moment late in the film like the bumping into Lou and her son with a vacuum cleaner and the kid says, “I guess some people just work really late.” You’re being reminded again of the economic disparities that unsettle the whole thing.
AUDIENCE: One of the students in one of the classroom scenes, the one who’s angry with his Mom and drawing a dark picture, is the Beaver, Jerry Mathers.
LETHEM: Was it?
SCOPE: Yes, Bigger Than Life came out the year after he appeared in Hitchcock’s The Trouble With Harry. Could there be a more emblematic figure of late ‘50s/early ‘60s “normal” America than the Beaver? And here he is, presented as a disturbed figure!
LETHEM: It’s amazing how many things slip into the frame in this film. You could make a whole movie about that unmarried teacher. You know…why was she late that day? And are they all covering for her partying nightlife? These little areas of displaced energies and stuff really make it such a rich film to watch.
SCOPE: Speaking of cameos by famous people, I read a very interesting piece about the movie which indicated there was supposed to be a dream sequence reflecting Ed’s state of delusion. Nicholas Ray called on his friend Marilyn Monroe to play a nurse who comes to him in the dream sequence. She shot the scene, but was confused on the set as to what she was doing. 20th Century Fox didn’t want her to think that this was a film under her contract so they cut the scene out of the movie. I don’t know if it exists somewhere still today.
LETHEM: I wonder if this film would have benefited from a dream sequence. I’m not sure it needs one.
Transcription by Dinah Holtzman