Bigger Than Life is an American DeLuxe Color CinemaScope film made in 1956 directed by Nicholas Ray and starring James Mason, who also co-wrote and produced the film, about a school teacher and family man whose life spins out of control upon becoming addicted to cortisone. The film co-stars Barbara Rush as his wife and Walter Matthau as his closest friend, a fellow teacher. Though it was a box-office flop upon its initial release, many modern critics hail it as a masterpiece and brilliant indictment of contemporary attitudes towards mental illness and addiction. In 1963, Jean-Luc Godard named it one of the ten best American sound films ever made.
Schoolteacher and family man Ed Avery (James Mason), who has been suffering bouts of severe pain and even blackouts, is hospitalized with what is diagnosed as polyarteritis nodosa, a rare inflammation of the arteries. Told by doctors that he probably has only months to live, Ed agrees to an experimental treatment: doses of the hormone cortisone.
Ed makes a remarkable recovery. He returns home to his wife, Lou (Barbara Rush), and their son, Richie (Christopher Olsen). He must keep taking cortisone tablets regularly to prevent a recurrence of his illness. But the "miracle" cure turns into a nightmare when Ed begins to misuse the tablets, causing him to experience wild mood swings and, ultimately, a psychotic episode which threatens the safety of his family.
Bigger Than Life was extremely controversial upon its release, and it was not a financial success. Mason, who produced the film as well as starring in it, blamed its failure on its use of the then-novel widescreen CinemaScope format. American critics panned the film, considering it melodramatic and heavyhanded. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called it tedious, "dismal", and "more pitiful than terrifying to watch".
However, the film was popular with critics at the influential magazine Cahiers du cinéma. Jean-Luc Godard called it one of the ten best American sound films. Likewise, François Truffaut praised the film, noting the "intelligent, subtle" script, the "extraordinary precision" of Mason's performance, and the beauty of the film's CinemaScope photography.
Modern critics have pointed out Ray's use of widescreen cinematography to depict the interior spaces of a family drama, rather than the open vistas typically associated with the format, as well as his use of extreme close-ups in portraying the main character's psychosis and megalomania. The film is also recognized for its multi-layered examination of the American nuclear family in the Eisenhower era. While the film can be read as a straightforward exposé on medical malpractice and the overuse of prescription drugs in modern American society, it has also been seen as a critique of consumerism, the male-dominated traditional family structure, and the claustrophobic conformism of suburban life. Truffaut saw Ed's drug-influenced speech to the parents of the parent-teacher association as having fascist overtones. The film has also been interpreted as an examination of masculinity and a leftist critique of the low salaries of public school teachers in the United States.