CultureMap Night at the Movies
My day with Norman Bates: A lesson in the power of a Psycho
While preparing to introduce Psycho this Wednesday as a CultureMap Night at the Movies offering at the Alamo Drafthouse West Oaks, I've been reminded of how ambivalent Anthony Perkins felt about being typecast by the role of a lifetime: Norman Bates, the boyishly shy motel keeper who loved his mother not wisely, but far too well.
Indeed, for more than a decade after he starred in the film, Perkins deeply resented the lasting legacy of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 masterwork.
During this period, it should be noted, Perkins enjoyed a wide range of roles on Broadway, playing leads in The Star-Spangled Girl, Equus and Romantic Comedy. In films, however, he usually was hired to play some variety of neurotic, psychotic or arrested adolescent, most notably in The Fool Killer (1965), WUSA (1970), the cult-fave Pretty Poison (1968) and (opposite no less a leading lady than Diana Ross) Mahogany (1975). It was almost enough to drive him — well, psycho.
It required a serious attitude adjustment on his part — and the encouragement of his supportive wife, photographer Berry Berenson — for Perkins to fully appreciate the upside of achieving immortality in a classic movie. By the mid-1970s, he was ready to embrace his notoriety, and even mock himself in a classic Saturday Night Live sketch. (“Here at the Norman Bates School of Motel Management….”)
By 1983, three years after Hitchcock’s death, he was willing to re-open the Bates Motel in Psycho II. Two years later, he took full control of his destiny as director and star of Psycho III.
Perkins, who died of AIDS in 1992, seldom discussed his private life or sexual proclivities with interviewers. In the 1980s, however, he offered some astonishingly candid revelations in a People magazine profile. The son of film and stage actor Osgood Perkins, he was raised by his smotheringly protective mother after his father died when Anthony was 5. Inadvertently, she aroused ambivalent, sexually charged feelings in her son, feelings often accompanied by pangs of Oedipal guilt.
In later years, Perkins told People, he was emotionally ill-equipped to sustain relationships with women. (That changed in 1971, he claimed, when he met Berry — who, in a horrible twist of fate, eventually died aboard one of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.) On the other hand, Perkins’ traumatic childhood may have helped to make him a true soul mate of The Master of Suspense.
Perkins addressed the latter issue, among others, during a 1985 interview with me at his Universal Pictures production office shortly before he started work on Psycho III.
Joe Leydon:Alfred Hitchcock once said actors should be treated like cattle. How do you think he would feel about cattle taking over the corral as directors?
Anthony Perkins: That’s a good question. Actually, when we made the first Psycho, he was tremendously on my side with everything that I tried to bring to the picture. He encouraged my co-operation and collaboration with him at every turn. And I know that was not his well-known way of being.
So maybe there was something between the two of us that he responded to. Or maybe he simply was tired of hearing what a dictator he appeared to be, and how actors resented his lack of communication.
JL:Do you think he may have seen a little bit of himself in you? According to Donald Spoto’s biography, The Dark Side of Genius, Hitchcock also had to contend with ambivalent feelings about a domineering mother.
AP: That’s an inventive idea. I hate speculative answers, but I like that as a theory. It’s possible, I suppose. But how will we ever know? I certainly have wondered why he was so kind to me, and would accept my suggestions. It was strange: He wouldn’t even be curious about what changes I wanted to make.
He’d say, “Enchant me on the set.” He didn’t want to know about them before.
At one point, when we were filming the scene where Norman finds Marion Crane’s body in the bathroom, I jump back and sort of huddle against the door. Well, when I did it the first time, a picture fell off the wall, and hit the floor. Hitch was setting something else up, so I said, “Look, this bird picture fell off the wall. Why don’t we include that? We could even do an insert shot of this picture hitting the floor…?” And suddenly, that got the entire set quiet.
Because it’s one thing to fool around with the dialogue, or do your own clothes. But when you tell The Master of Suspense to shoot an insert, you may be sticking your head into the lion’s mouth.
But all he said was “Oh, lovely. We’ll do that.” So, to answer your question: Yes, it was spooky how far he went with me. And I, of course, never tried to take advantage of his generosity.
JL:Do you know why he cast you as Norman Bates?
AP: Well, Hitchcock was unique in those days — and probably in these days as well. He never used to cast actors from readings or auditions of any kind. He cast them from seeing them in other pictures and previous roles. That was his way. He’d seen me in Fear Strikes Out (1957), in which I played Jim Piersall — the baseball player who had a nervous breakdown. So, by the time of my first meeting with him, I already more or less had the part.
But I didn’t realize that he would be so relaxed to the point of where he would pull $100 out of his pocket and say, “Here, now that we’ve talked, I have to be on to some other business. But why don’t you go down to a store and buy what you think Norman Bates would wear, and give it to the wardrobe man? Those can be your costumes.”
I thought that was awfully good of him to trust me that way, first of all. And second of all, it was good of him to demonstrate that trust, not by just saying “I’m sure you’re gonna be wonderful, and I’m looking forward to this,” but by doing something pragmatic and evidential of his trust.
I immediately went out and bought $100 worth of — well, I don’t want to say low-class stuff. But it was definitely the slouchy early ’60s look. And Hitchcock barely looked at it when I returned with it.
JL: Despite his actions, Norman had always remained an oddly sympathetic character. Why do you think that’s so?
AP: Well, I think one of the things that made the first Psycho an enduring film is that Norman’s crimes were always committed out of love, out of an excess of love, rather than an excess of hate. Norman never hated anyone. And he’s not a person who works from the emotion of hate, or even responds to it. So I think that is one thing that has kept audiences kind of on Norman’s side, because they realize he’s been pushed to these extremes out of love.
Also, it’s because Hitchcock had the brainstorm to cast the role not as it was written in the original Robert Bloch novel, as an older, overweight, disconsolate sort of half-stupefied man. Instead, he made Norman a younger, more sympathetic character. I think that was a very intelligent thing for him to do.
Look, over the years, maybe tens of thousands of people have come up to me in airports and theater lobbies and hotel lobbies and restaurants. And no one has ever walked up to me with anything but a smile. That’s because they found Norman was someone they could warm up to. No one has ever seen me and cried, “Oh, my God! It’s Norman Bates!”
JL:Even so, weren’t you resentful for a long time at being so closely associated with Norman Bates? I have the impression you weren’t able to resign yourself to your image until well into the 1970s, when you spoofed Norman on Saturday Night Live.
AP: I have definitely made peace with peace with it. Years ago, my wife pointed out to me that the more resistance I had to the public association of me and Norman Bates — and vice-versa — the more people would come away from an encounter with me confirmed that their suspicions were correct. And from that very casual remark of hers on, it’s been very much easier for me to accept that people still literally say, “Hi, Norman,” when they meet me.
Actually, it’s an honor to be associated with a movie that has lasted and gone on through a generation, and is still able to quicken the pulse. I think it’s great. I prefer that to walking down the street and having people say, “Oh, look, that’s … that’s… uhhhhh …”
Once Mad magazine has done you, and Saturday Night Live has done you, and once you’ve been anthologized in everything, and your sequences are shown to film schools — you’re just part of the national grain, that’s all.