April 4, 2012

Born 80 Years Ago Today, Hitchcock’s Hamlet, Anthony Perkins


It is the Hamlet of horror roles.

—Anthony Perkins (1932-1992)

Question of the day — if James Dean had lived, would he have been brave, crazy, or desperate enough to play Norman Bates in Psycho? Put it another way. Can you imagine anyone else but Anthony Perkins chatting with Janet Leigh in those first scenes at the Bates Motel? Montgomery Clift maybe? One look at that scarred, haunted countenance and Janet would be backing out to take her chances with the rainy night. As for James Dean, even if he’d trimmed the flame of his method actor’s ego down to a flicker, it’s hard to believe he could have kept a believably straight face while watching Janet nibble at her last supper, not with lines like, “You eat like a bird,” or “My hobby is stuffing things. You know, taxidermy,” or “It’s not like my mother is a maniac or a raving thing. She just goes a little mad sometimes.”

In The Making of Psycho, screenwriter Joseph Stefano describes the key change he suggested to Hitchcock, which was to make Norman Bates “a vulnerable, young, handsome, kind of sad character” instead of the pudgy middleaged man in the Robert Bloch novel on which the film was loosely based. As soon as he heard Stefano enumerate the qualities of the ideal Norman Bates, Hitchcock said, “Tony Perkins!” Picking Perkins for Norman was the true “making” of Psycho. Any number of female leads besides Janet Leigh, as good as she is, could have played the doomed Marion Crane; the same holds for the other roles. Tony Perkins, who would be 80 years old today, is nearly as vital to the film as Hitchcock himself. No one else could have brought the same devastating mixture of shy, sweet solicitude and sinister unease to that intimate, fiendishly understated scene Marion and Norman share in the motel office among stuffed birds of prey. “We scratch and we claw,” Norman says, quietly, thoughtfully, politely (his guest is eating, remember), “but only at the air, only at each other, and for all of it, we never budge an inch.”

A Self-Made Enigma

One of the preconceived notions Hitchcock counted on to maximize Psycho’s shock value was Tony Perkins’s image in the summer of 1960. While not yet a major star, he was clearly being groomed for superstardom. Young, attractive, oozing sensitivity, slightly off-center (“quirky” would be the word of choice in 2012), neither the rebel nor the anti-hero, he received a magnum shot of publicity in the March 3 1958 Newsweek cover story that began by quoting a Paramount executive (“We’ve invested 15 million bucks in this kid”) and some co-workers (“Let’s face it, he’s odd,” “He’s mystical,” “He’s a self-made enigma”). When it wasn’t recycling rumors, the article provided a fair summary of Perkins prior to Psycho: he was going to be “the next Gary Cooper or Jimmy Stewart,” “possibly the most gifted dramatic actor under 30 in the country,” starring in a Broadway hit (Look Homeward, Angel), capable of playing “young men at the brink of maturity” with “dignity and a certain elevation of spirit.”

Although Newsweek lets Perkins speak for himself at the end, the piece is full of gossip, much of it unfounded and unflattering, including comments that might have caught Alfred Hitchcock’s eye: “I thought the crazy kid was trying to kill me,” one actor recalled after the filming of a fight scene; another said, “Everything about him is immature. He’s like a 12-year-old …. I think he ought to meet a good psychiatrist.”

Probed by Mike Wallace

The Newsweek piece led to a long, characteristically probing interview on CBS with Mike Wallace. Fans of Mad Men should see this interview, which is available in full online, if only for the spectacle of Wallace lecturing the audience on the scientific virtues of Parliament cigarettes (“with the recessed filter” and 30,000 traps “set deep down” so that “nicotine and tar can’t get on your lips”). Wallace goes at it no less pedantically than the psychiatrist hauled absurdly in at the conclusion of Psycho to explain the fine points of Norman’s psychosis.

The Wallace interview could have served as Perkins’s screen test for the part of Norman Bates. All the tics and intonations are there, the quick smile, the nervous laugh, the stammering, the measured, thoughtful manner that shades toward the dark side every time Wallace hits a sore spot, as when he refers to the “good psychiatrist.” Perkins’s sudden unguarded response is almost identical to Norman’s when Marion Crane seals her fate by suggesting that his mother should be put away someplace. “People always call a madhouse someplace, don’t they?” he snaps. “Have you ever seen the inside of one of those places?”

A Role Model

Around the time of the Newsweek story, I had entered into an imaginary relationship with Tony Perkins, the fourth of my teen-age role models, after James Dean, Holden Caulfield, and Thomas Wolfe. It didn’t matter that the only movies of his I’d seen were inconsequential compared to Dean’s big three. The way he looked, moved, and spoke appealed to me, and seeing him play Wolfe’s alter ego Eugene Gant in Look Homeward, Angel on Broadway (his final performance) sealed the one-way friendship. We were in the same building, two Eugene Gants breathing the same electric theatrical atmosphere.

Being several inches shorter than TP, I had less to “gangle” with (he was always described as “gangling”), but I was right there when it came to being awkward, restless, and sensitive, among the other adjectives that followed him around. I liked the way he described himself in the Newsweek story, “a young boy, searching, not aggressive, but introspective — the representation of Everyman’s youth.” I also adopted his way of hugging his own shoulders, arms crossed, high up (as if posing for a straitjacket, now that I think of it here on the other side of Psycho), and I did it so well that some girls I met one summer paid me the ultimate compliment (“hey, you remind me of that actor” etc. etc.). I also had the voice down, having shared his greatest moment in Look Homeward, Angel, praying for his dead brother Ben at the end of Act Two: “Whoever you are, be good to Ben tonight.” Three times he said it, like a litany or a poem. I could do it just the way he did, in a sort of plaintive rush, running the words together. I also knew when he was going through the motions and could do a decent parody of his lovemaking with Audrey Hepburn in Green Mansions (“Oh Rima you are so beautiful Rima, oh God, oh Rima, Rima!”).

Meanwhile, the protagonist of the novel I’d started writing at 17, originally based on James Dean, was, no surprise, becoming a taller, skinnier, more introspective, less aggressive type who could, like Tony Perkins, sing. When the novel was published, I sent him a copy and got back a typed note thanking me, promising to read the book, and suggesting that we meet after a performance of Greenwillow if the Broadway musical was still running in June (it wasn’t). He also thanked me for my “kind remarks” on what had been his “closing performance” in Look Homeward, Angel.

Along Comes Norman

Tony’s letter was dated May 9, 1960, a little less than two months after he’d completed filming Psycho. Of course I knew nothing of this at the time. Given the secrecy cloaking the project, neither did anyone else.

Four months later I staggered out of a London movie theatre. It was broad daylight but the walk from Mayfair to Bloomsbury might as well have been through dark streets with gangling, cross-dressing psychopaths lurching out of doorways and Bernard Herrmann’s relentless music pounding and slashing at my back. My days of identifying with Tony Perkins were over, needless to say.

After maybe half a dozen viewings of Psycho over the years, with all the film’s wonders, its unparalled directorial dynamics and musical genius (arguably the most compelling score ever written), the scene I most admire is that cozy dinner conversation between Norman and Marion in the motel office. Just a few minutes of quiet dialogue before the bloodbath and in that time Tony Perkins gives the film warmth, depth, and an unlikely measure of humanity. “I do have affection for Norman as a person,” Perkins told Steve Biodrowski in a Cinefantastique interview. “It is the Hamlet of horror roles and you can never quite get enough of playing Norman Bates. It’s always interesting … it’s identified me …. People who see me and think of me in terms of this role usually, as they’re talking to me, will also say, ‘Oh but I also liked you in this or that.’”

The post-Psycho typecasting that hurt Perkins in Hollywood didn’t prevent him from doing a lot of interesting “this or that” in Europe, including Kafka with Orson Welles (The Trial), Greek tragedy with Jules Dassin and Melina Mercouri (Phaedra), December-May romance with Ingrid Bergman (Goodbye Again), two films with Claude Chabrol (The Champagne Murders and Ten Days Wonder), and an acclaimed performance as Inspector Javert in Les Miserables. At home, he laid claim to Norman Bates by making three sequels to Psycho, the second of which he directed himself. After a series of affairs with other men, he married at 41 and raised two sons before dying from complications of AIDs on September 12, 1992. His widow, photographer Berry Berenson, died in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, on American Airlines Flight 11.


The Making of Psycho is included in the Collector’s Edition of the film, which can be found on the DVD shelves of the Princeton Public Library. Turner Classic Movies is marking Perkins’s birthday by showing five of his early films, beginning at 10:45 a.m. today with his first, The Actress, and ending at 6:30 with Pretty Poison. Alfred Hitchcock and The Making of Psycho, with Anthony Hopkins as Hitchcock, is in pre-production for Fox Searchlight.