Sunday, December 21, 2008

Thirty years before "Less Than Zero"

Several months back, I commented on how the 1987 movie Less Than Zero is an unintentionally funny look at drug addiction. By no means was it the first to fail; the classic Reefer Madness is from the mid 1930s. But Reefer Madness was an obviously low-budget movie, and its makers can be forgiven for coming up short. The same can't be said for either Less Than Zero or Bigger Than Life, which airs on the Fox Movie Channel at noon ET on December 22.

James Mason plays a teacher who develops a serious health problem: he's got inflammed arteries, an ailment that could kill him. Fortunately, however, there's a new "wonder drug" that will cure his problems: cortisone. Mason takes the cortisone, and it certainly seems to cure his vasculitis. Unfortunately, it makes him feel so good that he starts taking massive doses of the drug, and becomes addicted to it. Worse is the side effect: manic depression. Poor Mason was almost insufferable before becoming sick, and is now even worse. He's an arrogant bastard, constantly belittling everybody, and becomes a Jesus-freak to boot. And since this is the 1950s, his lovely wife tries to hide it, even though his young son clearly realizes there's something terribly wrong.

Everybody tries. James Mason wasn't a bad actor, although he seems to be lost as to how to play manic behavior. He goes over the top, much like Joan Crawford in her 1960s movies. Mason's wife, played by Barbara Rush, has an interesting dilemma: in whom can she confide, and how should she confront her husband? It can't be easy, and Rush gives it her best shot. I get the impression that the son (Christopher Olsen) isn't really acting: he might just be terrified in real life of Mason's manic portrayal. The closest friend the family has is played by Walter Matthau, in the days before he started playing really cynical characters. He seems out of character as a kindly buddy, and certainly as James Mason's buddy. But he isn't given all that much to do, either.

So why does this movie fail? To be honest, I've never been up close to any addicts -- at least, not that I know of. Yet, Mason's addict in Bigger Than Life seems almost like a cardboard cutout, unlike Ray Milland's alcoholic Don Birnam in The Lost Weekend, or even Susan Hayward in Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman. Worse, in Bigger Than Life, the story ends much more abruptly, as though the writers had no idea how they wanted the movie to end.

Bigger Than Life is not commercially available on DVD in the US, so this is your one chance to watch the movie.

No comments: