Wednesday, January 21, 2009

James Mason in Bigger Than Life: Isn't Dad Acting a Little Foolish?

Meet Ed Avery (James Mason), both hero, villain and victim in Bigger Than Life (1956). He is an easygoing grade school teacher who lives an apparently tranquil life in a small town with his wife and son, looking out for hearth and home.
His seemingly docile nature and understanding ear have made him an appealing teacher and colleague, even if his attempts to arrange things neatly might occasionally irk one co-worker (Walter Matthau, in an early straight role as a gym teacher. He even plays one who eats yogurt, yet!).

On a daily basis, Avery is faced with students such as the one who can't even grasp one shred of information like the name of a Great Lake. "Just think of one, can't you?" he pleads with one loutish dullard, who replies "Uh, Lake Huron?" After this piercing insight Avery (Mason) exultantly praises the overgrown twit as "a good boy", adopting a genuinely affectionate tone a bit like one uses with a puppy who has made it onto the newspaper. Outwardly untroubled by his charges' lack of curiosity, his priority is more attuned to making ends meet after being paid meagerly by his school district. Working surreptitiously as a taxi dispatcher, a job that he believes his wife might "think wasn't good enough for him", he rushes to the cab company, briefly waylaid while changing at his locker by a stabbing, recurrent pain that nearly doubles him over. His wife, played with a wonderfully querulous tension by Barbara Rush, is troubled by a nagging feeling that, instead of attending stultifying board meetings on a nearly daily basis, as he claims, he may be having an affair.
As the story unfolds, there are a few inklings of a bit of inner restlessness. Bigger Than Life (1956) offers us a subversive Hollywood critique of bourgeois life in an American town. Unlike Rebel Without a Cause (1956), with its narrow, rather puerile view and utterly compelling paean to adolescence by the same director, Nicholas Ray treats his adults as well as his child characters with much more compassion and ambivalence. Mason's character, who was a mildly restless pillar of the community prior to the onset of a mysterious movie illness, is introduced to us as a bit worried about money and his professional status, but relatively content in his marriage to housewife Rush...more on the TCM Movie Morlocks Blog


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