A year after directing Rebel Without a Cause (1955), rebel filmmaker Nicholas Ray came back with Bigger Than Life (1956). Based on a real-life New Yorker article, the movie repelled those who saw it, and it bombed at the box office.
Many decades later, this strange, anti–American Dream film is a cult classic. Ed Avery (James Mason) plays a downtrodden, underpaid high-school teacher resigned to his dull life and his inflamed arteries. Then he takes the "miracle drug" cortisone and turns into a Nietzschean monster.
He sneers at his students, mocks the stupidity of his bourgeois wife (Barbara Rush), and bullies and threatens his son (Christopher Olsen), going so far as to have visions of Abraham sacrificing Isaac. Ed's vision is demented and distorted, and yet, Ray insinuates, doesn't his protagonist, in an odd way, see through the smug mediocrity that is 1950s America? As for Ed's downfall through drugs, it's eerily prophetic of Ray's own self-destructive final years as he drowned in barbiturates and alcohol.