James Mason did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Ed Avery in Bigger Than Life.
James Mason plays the role of Ed Avery that seems like a simple enough character. He plays Ed Avery who is merely a teacher, although one who has a work a second job as a taxi dispatcher merely to make ends meat, who lives a simple enough life with his young son (Olsen), and wife Lou (Barbara Rush). Mason importantly makes Ed immensely likable in these scenes. He bring his usual charm to the role although shifts it slightly to be more fitting to a guy like Ed who is mostly unassuming. Mason naturally portrays the best most moments as Ed merely just a good man who on the surface is comfortable enough with his life. This is exceedingly important for Mason to do, considering where his character goes later in the film, but Mason does an exceedingly great job of making Ed someone worth caring about. He makes him just a man quietly passionate about his life and makes him quite believable as a man who would in no way complain even about some of his rather severe problems that begin to surface.
Other than Ed's financial problems which clearly cause him to overwork himself he also seems to have a far worse physical issue. Mason is incredibly effective early on as he gives the sense of always at least a slight discomfort. Not enough at first for him to be obviously noticed by others, but clearly something that is always nagging at him. Mason though does give moments where the pain becomes far more severe in moments and depicts this in searing detail. Mason is terrific by showing that intensity of the pain and clearly the severity of his situation. Eventually Ed is unable to hide his ailment from his family and friends when he has blackouts that lead him to hospitalization. Mason does some very strong work in these scenes that easily could lead to some excessive over acting. Mason though plays the scenes very much on point just going about portraying the physical anguish in Ed in an natural fashion. He makes the suffering come to life rather well through his performance without ever trying to oversell Ed's problems. It's great understated work by Mason.
Ed eventually receives his diagnosis which is that he has a rare condition involving inflamed arteries that usually leads to death within a year. The diagnosis is a very moving scene for Mason as he just quietly reflects Ed's fear in receiving an apparent death sentence. The diagnosis though does not seem as grim though when Ed is recommended a miracle drug Cortisone which apparently will save him though he'll have to take it apparently for the rest of his life. Almost Immediately after the drug starts taking effect there seems to be a new life in Ed. Mason does well to bring about a certain exuberance in the early scenes of the apparently now recovered Ed. Mason portrays Ed behavior in the succeeding scenes with an intense exuberance fitting for a man who has just been given a new lease on life. Mason shows it to almost be so much that is overbearing but still he makes it feel genuine to Ed'a mental state. Mason though begins to allow something to be slightly off about Ed after taking the Cortisone. Mason though handles it especially well though by still leaving it to be either just Ed maybe just understandably overjoyed and enthusiastic to enjoy life again or perhaps it something else.
The enthusiasm Mason portrays though creates the motivation for Ed as he begins Cortisone as though he wishes to take more of the drug to continue this particular high he has in the moment. The intensity of the "happiness" though Mason shows as an unsustainable thing which does not exactly continue once he ups his own dosage of Cortisone going even so far as to forge prescriptions in order to meet his desire. Mason slowly conveys that the high almost seems to transfer slowly to something else as other changes begin in Ed. Mason actually calls upon his often seen screen persona that being the intellectual superior. This rears its head at first at a teacher/parent conference where Ed is no longer his unassuming self but rather an egotistical philosopher who broadly states that children are stupid and that the whole education system is fundamentally flawed. Of course Mason is excellent at being so commanding and incisive merely with words making Ed appropriately vicious in this moment. Mason brings out that ego so effectively showing an apparently changed man. Although Mason calls upon the qualities of what made his performance in The Seventh Veil so well, he's not coasting on them.
Mason absolutely delivers as the cold intellectual as expected, but that's not what Ed really is exactly. This is shown from the start in Mason's performance as there is such a fervor in his speech. The intensity is not of a man who is slightly having a joke himself at his talk of intellectual superiority or in anyway enjoying the torment of others with his words. Mason instead portrays without an ounce of humor and the spirited way in which he delivers his words to be especially off-putting. Ed continues in this way as after that he even goes to his wife espousing that he is so above it all that he should even leave his wife because she his intellectual inferior. Mason is marvelous as he portrays this as a sickness in Ed's mind as he speaks of a man not within his own world anymore. There is the occasional moments of clarity still which Mason brings about naturally where Ed gains his sense for a moment, but only a moment. The reason being that Ed has not changed because he now considers himself invisible or actually feels this way but his Cortisone abuse is having a terrible side effect. That side effect being that it is causing Ed to fall into a psychotic state.
Mason is amazing as he continues to realize the way the madness grows in Ed. Mason slowly creates less and less of a pause in the behavior as Ed's ideas only become more deranged as time passes. Mason is completely chilling in the way he portrays the purity of Ed's sentiment as he begins to even speak about the murder of his son, because his son is starting to look as though he is no longer fit to live. The fact that Mason still keeps his manner mostly refined, although he quite effectively does create the sense of a greater physical tension as another side effect of his medication, makes him all the more disturbing. Mason portrays him as still keeping himself almost too well together well enough physically but he is a complete mess mentally. Mason is brilliant and quite frightening in portraying the uncompromisable state of Ed as he is completely consumed by his demented state. Mason visceral impact is striking as Ed decides on murder as well as suicide and Mason realizes how far gone Ed is. What is particularly remarkable is that Mason interjects this somberness still conveying that above all Ed's mind is a mess of emotions. Ed is stopped just in time and the film leaves on a 50's note where in terms of the script it seems that Ed's all better and just needs his Cortisone monitored in the future. Mason though does leave it a bit more complex than that with his work though. Mason allows it to be more bittersweet as he does suggest the old loving Ed at the moment though there is still something off about him, and sadly it might just be a temporary moment of clarity. Mason leaves there an interpretation to be allowed on whether the good man there once was in Ed really will remain. Mason's performance here is extraordinary. Mason carefully creates the detailed and powerful portrait of a cursed man.