“Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates;
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
—Cassius in Julius Caesar
“Now, in our own words, why did Cassius refer to Julius Caesar as a Colossus?”
—Ed Avery in Bigger than Life
Ed Avery’s question, asked of one of his students at the beginning of the second act of Nicholas Ray’s 1956 film Bigger than Life, is one that may well be asked of Ray himself: Why did Ray refer to Ed Avery—male schoolmarm, beloved husband and father, and soon-to-be cortisone addict—as a Colossus? To stir up trouble: this would seem to be the answer to both questions, or at least that’s the usual point of view in the latter case. Most critics writing about Ray’s film point to its subversive elements, its incisive critique of 1950s America, keeping up with the Joneses, and slavish consumerism. Avery is an underling, dull by his own admission, and yet his aspirations to a better life—of getting away to one of the many exotic locales framed in the interior of his drab, suburban home; of meeting the standards of affluence even if it means secretly taking a second job as a taxi dispatcher—suggest a man desirous of mastering his fate. Cortisone seems to offer Avery the stance of a Colossus, as does Ray’s low-angle framing, if at the expense of the safety of Lou and Richie, his wife and son.
But if subversion and trouble are in Ray’s arsenal in Bigger than Life, to what ends? Critical readings tend to differ on the precise thrust of Ray’s critique of middle-class America: Is it that Avery’s addiction exacerbates a perversely conservative Fifties mentality, one stressing “the good old virtues of hard work and self-discipline and a sense of duty,” into self-destructive megalomania? Or is it the catalyst he needs to break through the repressive environment of home and society in order to control his destiny? In short, is Avery right, or does Ray at least want us to think so?