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Bigger Than Life

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Cast
James Mason, Barbara Rush, Walter Matthau, Robert F. Simon
Released
1956
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Blog entry

Ed's physicians diagnose him with the rare illness polyarteritis nodosa and tell him he will likely die in a matter of months unless he tries the new experimental drug cortisone (0:23). Unfortunately the drug appears to induce a Mood Disorder dominated by an episode otherwise indistinguishable from mania that almost destroys his life and that of his family.

Ed with cigarettes in his hospital bed. (0:18)

Ed's doctors warn him he must tell them about the "slightest depression" (0:26).

Ed felt "ten feet tall" (0:27)

Ed begins to spend money far beyond his means, alarming his wife Lou and son Richie, buying her expensive clothes and proposing to buy his son a new bicycle (0:31).

Richie recognizes that his father is not acting like his usual self (0:34). Wally notices, "He isn't the same guy" (0:50). Lou realizes "He's not himself" (0:54), tries to buy some stability for the family by playing along, but he criticizes her.

Ed appears to have increased energy (0:35), reduced need for sleep (0:54).

Ed reveals irritable mood in reacting to Richie's television show and Lou's questions (0:36).

"Keyed up" Ed promises to "order a big one" (water heater), aggravates Lou with his expressed entitlement to all the hot water he needs (0:37).

Richie finds Ed crying on the sofa in the middle of the night. Ed criticizes himself as he looks at the bills he cannot pay (0:40). Ed criticizes Richie (1:00). Hypersensitive to the sound of milk bottles clinking together he criticizes the milk man (1:03)

Ed takes extra pills (0:43). He forges a prescription (0:59). Patients often take more opiates or sedatives that prescribed, but how often does this happen with steroids like cortisone and prednisone?

Ed admits to only mild depressed mood but lies to his doctor about spoiling cortisone pills to conceal his excessive use (0:44).

Overbearing, arrogant, imperious, and insensitive with parents of his students at a PTA meeting (0:46).

Expansive and grandiose, Ed promises "a whole series of magazine articles" and a "special project," but he seems jealous of Wally (0:51). Now paranoid he appears to believe that Lou and Wally want him to stop taking the cortisone so he will die and they can pursue a love affair (1:05).

Ed's mood switches to depressed (0:57).

Ed stubbornly persists in tutoring Richie despite the fact that his son has missed two meals, and he rejects Lou's efforts to convince him to let the boy stop (1:07). Lou sneaks Richie a glass of milk, but hyper-vigilant, Ed observes that Lou cannot account for milk missing from the pitcher and accuses her of undermining his authority. He declares that she did not fool him and that the marriage is over (1:12).

Richie discovers that Ed has hidden a bottle of cortisone, but Ed catches him (1:17) then stops him from telephoning for help. Ed, reading from the Bible and brandishing scissors, tells Lou the time has come to sacrifice their son (1:20). Lou tries to stall by suggesting they must make his death look like an accident, but Ed says, "I hadn't planned to go on living." He locks her in a closet and approaches Richie with the scissors, but he stops when he sees his old football, a college memento (1:23).

Dr. Norton tells Lou the cortisone has induced a "psychosis" he has addressed by administering sedatives (1:28), but he assures her that Ed can safely continue to take the life-saving drug in the correct dose.

How would you approach this family if Lou presented for psychotherapy before the scissors scene? What kinds of challenges might you expect from Ed? Could you conduct a session with him present in one of his mood states?  Would you invite Wally to family sessions? Do you think Ed's physician would collaborate with a family psychotherapist? Would you advise Lou to seek involuntary commitment of Ed? how difficult might that have been in the 1950's?