Study Guide for Bigger Than Life (Nicholas Ray, 1956)

Study Guide for Nicholas Ray’s “Bigger Than Life” (1956)bfi_dvd_cover_bigger-than-life

Contextualizing “Bigger Than Life”:

According to David Buckingham (2003), “media texts do not simply appear from nowhere.” (p. 75) In light of Buckingham’s quote and in light of the fact that Bigger Than Life was a film made in 1956, do some research to find out information about economic, social, and cultural contexts in post-war America. Discuss to what extent this information can be used to understand the context of the film.


  1. Examine the portrayal of children in the credit sequence and comment on how it sets the context for the film.
  2. Discuss the symbolic value of the Averys’ suburban house.
  3. Examine the décor of the kitchen and comment on what it reveals about the social context in which the Avery family lives.
  4. There are many posters on the walls in the Avery’s house. Identify as many of them as possible, make a list of them and examine their symbolic value.
  5. In what way(s) could the director’s use of the lines of the Cinemascope frame contribute to our understanding of the film and its characters?
  6. What could the Averys’ house having two floors signify? How does the imagery of banisters contribute to the story?
  7. In the film, colors have symbolic value. For example, Richie’s red jacket, Lou’s orange dress, Lou’s clothes in plain colors, the colors in the classroom, yellow cabs, Ed’s green jacket, Ed’s white shirt… Discuss what all these colors might reveal about the issues and the characters depicted in the film.
  8. What is the significance of Ed’s slippers?
  9. Comment on the following dialogue between Ed and Lou: Ed: “…I felt ten feet tall.” Lou: “You have always been ten feet tall to me”
  10. Examine the boutique sequence carefully: the décor, the boutique, the colors, the clothes, the disembodied hand, the red gloves, the chair Ed sits on, the mirrors… how do they help you understand the story and the characters?
  11. How does the boutique sequence position men and women as far as gender roles are concerned?
  12. Discuss the importance of the following quote in the film: (Ed to his students) “In your own words, why did Cassius refer to Julius Caesar as a Colossus?”
  13. Watch the bathroom scene in which Ed orders his wife to fill his bath with hot water. Nicholas Ray’s use of the bathroom mirror is very significant. Discuss the function of the mirror here. Identify other uses of mirrors in the film and comment on how they help us understand the characters and the themes.
  14. What is the religous connotation of Rome and how does it help us understand Ed?
  15. What does the PTA meeting sequence reveal about the concept of education? How are parents and Ed portrayed in this sequence?
  16. Discuss what football means to Ed in relation to the following quote: (Ed to Richie) “You want to be a man, don’t you?”
  17. While Ed shows Richie how to play football, what is heard in the background? Discuss why.
  18. Watch the scene in which Ed “helps” Richie to study mathematics. Here, Nicholas Ray’s use of shadows is very significant. Discuss in what ways Ray’s treatment is important. Identify other scenes in which the shadow imagery is used and comment on its significance.
  19. Identify when Ed starts calling his son Richard instead of Richie. Why?
  20. What is the symbolic value of the milk in the film?
  21. What does the church sequence reveal about Ed’s transformation?
  22. Comment on the significance of Lou’s orange dress in the church sequence.
  23. How does the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac help us understand the relationship between Ed and Richie? Why does Ed try to kill his own son?
  24. Explain Ray’s use of colors in the final hospital sequence of the film.
  25. At the end of the film, there is a reference to Abraham Lincoln. What could this reference signify?
  26. The misuse of cortisone literally causes Ed to have dreams of grandeur. What do these dreams reveal about the society in which Ed lives?
  27. In her examination of male brutality towards women in Nicholas Ray’s films, Susan White (2005) quotes V. F. Perkins and writes that violence among Ray’s heroes is “the index of weakness rather than strength” (as cited in J. David Slocum’s Rebel without a cause: Approaches to a maverick masterwork, p. 64) Explain how this quotation helps us understand Ed’s character.
  28. What does the film reveal about race issues in postwar America?
  29. Discuss the title of the film.
  30. Discuss the following quote by Jeanine Basinger in relation to Lou’s portrayal in the film: “As [Ed] grows “bigger than life”, [Lou] becomes smaller than reality.” (The Bigger Than Life DVD Booklet, 2007, p. 7)
  31. Writing Task 1: In what ways can “Bigger Than Life” be taken as a critique of postwar American suburban life?
  32. Writing Task 2: Discuss the following quote by Jeanine Basinger: “Ray’s triumph as a director is that, although Lou is not his main character, he puts her own story onto the screen through subtext.” (The Bigger Than Life DVD Booklet, 2007, p. 7)

© Ali Nihat Eken, Istanbul, January 2009

Study Guide for Nicholas Ray’s “Rebel without a cause” (1955)
Click here to buy the DVD.


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