“Although he at first resisted, Perkins returned to Norman Bates again and again, in one form or other. Norman’s twitchy eccentricity seeped into many of Perkins’ post-Psycho performances that preceded the run of sequels.”
When Alfred Hitchcock wrapped Psycho (1960), it was years before the sequel became commonplace. No one expected Ben Hur (1959) or Spartacus (1960) to continue on with new adventures. “The End” meant just that, for the story and the characters. So it may have come as a surprise to Anthony Perkins when his Norman Bates character was revived thirteen years later in Psycho II (1983). In some ways, however, he had never stopped playing him.
A dreamy-eyed staple of fan magazines of the late 1950s and early ’60s, Perkins was cast against type as the psychotic killer. Because of the enormous success of Psycho, he immediately became identified with the role. Although he at first resisted, Perkins returned to Norman Bates again and again, in one form or other. Norman’s twitchy eccentricity seeped into many of Perkins’ post-Psycho performances that preceded the run of sequels. His paranoid bank manager Joseph K. in The Trial (1962), the preppy-with-a-secret Dennis Pitt in Pretty Poison (1968), and the amnesiac sculptor Charles Van Horn in Ten Days Wonder (1971) all bear the mark of Norman Bates. In this essay, we’ll look at how Perkins became indistinguishable from Norman and why he was never “finished” with him. Perkins set the stage for the emergence of the creepy but sympathetic pretty-boy psychopath next door. Without Psycho, sweet-faced Tony Curtis may have had a difficult time convincing producers he could play Albert DeSalvo in The Boston Strangler (1968). Another real-life Norman, serial killer Ted Bundy, was celebrated in books and a television miniseries.
Anthony Perkins was born in 1932, the year Adolf Hitler seized power. Perkins was the son of the actor James Ripley Osgood Perkins, who died onstage when Tony was five. Growing up in the shadow of the Second World War and surviving the death of a parent must certainly have affected him. In any case, there’s an unease built into his screen personae whether he’s playing high-strung baseball player Jimmy Piersall in Fear Strikes Out (1957) or Norman Bates.
“Psycho begins with the normal,” writes Robin Wood, “and draws us steadily deeper and deeper into the abnormal; it opens by making us aware of time, and ends with a situation in which time has ceased to exist.”1 It’s difficult to imagine the world before Psycho and its countless imitators. Known as the eccentric director of big-budget, wide-screen Technicolor spectacles, Hitchcock planned to make Psycho for $800,000, even then not a large sum for a major motion picture. It was shot by John L. Russell with a get-it-done-quick sensibility learned from television. From the success of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Hitchcock sensed that movie audiences were ready for a good scare. The slashing violins of Bernard Herrmann’s soundtrack were vital to creating tension in the viewer. Although cinematic innovations were few, the film was notable as a triumph of marketing and for elevating Anthony Perkins to screen immortality. It also marked a shift in attitudes about sex as the 1960s began. David Thomson writes:
The subversive secret was out — truly this medium was prepared for an outrage in which sex and violence were no longer games but were in fact everything. Psycho was so blatant that audiences had to laugh at it, to avoid the giddy swoon of evil and ordeal. That title warned that the central character was a bit of a nut, but the deeper lesson was that the audience in its self-inflicted experiment with danger might be crazy, too. Sex and violence were ready to break out, and censorship crumpled like an old lady’s parasol. The orgy had arrived.2
No matter the subject matter, Hitchcock stressed the idea of “pure film” where the pictures tell the story. Perkins, with his expressive face and physical style of acting, is well suited to a Hitchcock movie. As Norman, he’s full of nervous tics one moment and longing gazes toward his female co-stars the next. As such, he’s the perfect foil for Hitchcock, who was known to be uncomfortable with women. Writes Robin Wood: “Hitchcock isn’t interested in acting, certain actors, left to their own devices, are able to seize their chances and create their own performances independently; there is more reason to deduce that there are certain performances — or more exactly, certain roles — which arouse in Hitchcock a particular creative interest.”3
As a child, Hitchcock was required to stand at the foot of his mother Emma’s bed and report on his perceived transgressions, something that continued into adolescence. In Joseph Stefano’s screenplay of Psycho, the mother of Norman, or at least the part of her that survives in his head, is all-powerful. “A boy’s best friend is his mother,” he says. Perkins plays the dual role of Norman and the deceased Mrs. Bates. The homicidal maniac as cross-dresser is another aspect of Psycho that wasn’t “finished.” Twenty years later, Michael Caine would put on the wig in Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill (1980).
In the Franz Kafka source novel for the Orson Welles film The Trial, Joseph K. is an innocent man wrongly accused. Perkins plays him as a tightly coiled nervous wreck who’s oddly attractive to women. His interpretation makes it appear that Joseph must be guilty of “something.” Presumably to escape typecasting as Norman, Perkins fled to Europe, where Welles had also taken refuge during the years of the Hollywood blacklist.4 In The Trial (1962), Welles had creative control, and stylistically it was one of the best of his European films.5 An irrational universe with its rows of desks manned by overworked clerks is depicted in stunning black-and-white by Edmond Richard’s camera. Location shooting, including what was then the Gare dOrsay train station, only adds to the surreal quality. Reflected light, something that Welles perfected with Gregg Toland shooting Citizen Kane (1941), is used extensively. At the center is Perkins as Joseph K., a man put through a trial (Le proces in French) not limited to a courtroom. Just as Norman is shocked by what he considers the outrageous accusations made against him, Joseph feels put upon and harassed by an incomprehensible bureaucracy. There are some differences, though. With Norman, the Mother is a constant presence watching his every move, whereas Joseph lives in fear of the Father as represented by the State. Welles is The Advocate, who seems more like an adversary. As portrayed by some of the most popular European actresses of the time including Jeanne Moreau and Romy Schneider, women are drawn to Joseph as to an abandoned infant. He appears to be able to consummate some of these encounters, yet he remains unsatisfied.
Returning to the United States, Perkins took on the role of yet another Norman type, as Dennis Pitt in Pretty Poison (1968), directed by Noel Black. Dennis is the proverbial “clean-cut young man,” with a button-down collar and sport coat. He’s also on probation for arson. Although Perkins was in his mid-thirties, Dennis is shown romancing a high school cheerleader, Sue Ann (Tuesday Weld). Unlike Norman, who’s ambiguous about sex due to his Mother fixation, Dennis is clearly heterosexual and sets his sight on Sue Ann, the “pretty poison” of the title, the moment he arrives in town. He creates an elaborate fantasy for her benefit about being a secret agent. Dennis doesn’t have Norman’s stutter, and the nervous mannerisms are toned down. By comparison, he’s a smooth operator. Initially, it seems the seventeen-year-old blonde is being naively drawn in. It turns out that small town Sue Ann is a sexual predator and the one with homicidal tendencies. “What’s a matter, need a pill?” she asks Dennis when he can’t immediately perform in bed. She slugs a night watchman with a wrench when he stumbles upon their espionage games, killing him and covering it up with a fire. She later shoots her own mother and enlists Dennis as accomplice, essentially becoming the domineering mother. Sue Ann tells him they’re now as good as married. Of course, he’s unable to consummate this marriage. Useless to her, she pins the murder on him.
Regardless of the age of the actress, the female co-star as mother figure to Perkins is a recurring pattern in his films. Sophia Loren’s character in Five Miles to Midnight (1962) complains of being more of a nursemaid to a “spoiled little boy” than a wife. In Goodbye Again (1961), he romances Ingrid Bergman, who’s old enough to be his mother. There’s something of the hypersensitive boy-man in even these non-Norman roles. The overbearing father shows up again, played by who else but a bearded Orson Welles, in Claude Chabrol’s Ten Days Wonder (1971).
Perkins became a star at a time when homosexual acts could be punished by Biblical-sounding “sodomy” laws. Gays were routinely hounded by the police. It’s no wonder he tried to conceal his homosexuality and “cure” himself. Unlike one of his characters, he was able to function with women. His marriage to actress Berry Berenson produced two sons, Osgood and Elvis. Tragically, on September 11, 2001, Berry was on American Airlines Flight 11. Osgood, today known professionally as Oz, played the young Norman in Psycho II (1983). In that film, Norman is released from the mental institution and returns to run the Bates Motel.
The initial sequel is a film of its time, the eighties. Gone is the grainy, black-and-white, neo-Gothic style. Psycho II seems to owe as much to Halloween (1978), which by 1981 had already spawned a sequel of its own. Still, having a beloved character brought back to life, even by an aging star, was pure pleasure for fans. Aside from Perkins and a flashback of Janet Leigh, Vera Miles is the only holdover from Psycho, reprising the role of Lila Loomis. Believing that Norman got away with murder, she conspires with daughter Mary (Meg Tilly) to frame Norman. Unlike Hitchcock, director Richard Franklin has no compunction about killing off a bad mother. As the film wraps up, Norman remains proprietor of the Bates Motel, free and clear of blame.
Taking on directing duties himself in Psycho III (1986), Perkins indulges in some of Hitchcock’s trademark mirroring with Maureen (Diane Scarwid), a double of Leigh’s Marion Crane. Maureen dumbfounds Norman by showing up at the motel not only looking like Marion but carrying an eerily similar monogrammed suitcase initialed M.C. In another tip of the hat to Hitchcock, Maureen has left a convent under circumstances that borrow directly from Vertigo (1958). Norman seems to genuinely love her, making her demise inevitable, if accidental.
Although Robert Bloch’s source novel for Psycho was loosely based on the case of real-life serial killer Ed Gein, the story also has its roots in Robert Louis Stevenson’s tale of split personality, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In 1989, Perkins played that dual role in Edge of Sanity, directed by Gérard Kikoïne. Jack Hyde’s motivator is cocaine, not a deceased mother whispering in his ear, but the end result of murdered women is the same.
Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990) is a prequel that begins in the present. Norman, still played by Perkins, has symbolically married his mother. After another incarceration, he wed his psychologist from the institution, and they now live in her suburban home. The circumstances have changed, but he’s still the same old Norman. While she’s working, he calls in to a late-night talk show. The subject is matricide. Assuming the name Ed, he identifies himself to host Fran Ambrose (CCH Pounder) as someone with expertise on the subject and begins to reminisce about Holly (Sharen Camille), the first girl he killed. This sets up an extended flashback to the Korean War era with E.T.’s Henry Thomas, very much playing against type, as Norman. We discover he was a killer in drag from even that young age. Unlike a true transvestite, Norman doesn’t dress as a woman for sexual gratification. In the flashback, Norman’s mother (Olivia Hussey) becomes increasingly depressed and dependent on him when her husband is stung to death by bees. Norma Bates behaves seductively toward her son and then punishes him for responding too much or not enough. Before locking him in a closet, she forces him to put on one of her old dresses and smears lipstick on his face. It doesn’t take a psychology degree to figure out where this is leading.
Keeping secrets was something Perkins felt compelled to do in real life. Although he never publicly divulged his sexual orientation, his same-sex relationships were common knowledge in Hollywood. Few have had a better platform to bare their soul than with the perfect cover of Norman Bates, Dennis Pitt, and Joseph K. Shortly before his death from AIDS, Perkins made A Demon in My View (1992), a German production directed by Petra Haffter based on a novel by Ruth Rendell. His character, Arthur Johnson, is still another Norman variant. Arthur is a strangler of women who confuses his prey with the store mannequins he obsesses over, including one dressed like the aunt who raised him. A sequence that shows his hand running along a victim’s clothing toward her neck is completely unsettling.
Since the death of Perkins, Gus Van Sant did a shot-for-shot remake of Psycho (1998) with Vince Vaughn as Norman and Anne Heche as Marion Crane. If that weren’t enough, Norman met Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko in Mary Harron’s American Psycho (2001) with Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman. Two years later, there was the inevitable sequel, American Psycho II: All American Girl. More recently, one could argue that the deadly but sexy Edward and Jacob from the Twilight Saga (2008-2012) owe a debt to Norman. Scheduled to be released in 2013 is Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho with Anthony Hopkins as Alfred Hitchcock, Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh, and British actor James D’Arcy as Anthony Perkins. The influence of Psycho and Norman Bates continues, the part Anthony Perkins never quite finished.
McBride, Joseph. What Ever Happened to Orson Welles? A Portrait of an Independent Career.Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2006.
Thomson, David. The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.New York: Basic Books, 2009.
Welles, Orson and Peter Bogdanovich, This is Orson Welles. New York: Da Capo Press, 1998,
Wood, Robin. Hitchcock’s Films Revisited. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.
- Robin Wood, Hitchcock’s Films Revisited (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), 142-43. [↩]
- David Thomson, The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder(New York: Basic Books, 2009), 2-3. [↩]
- Robin Wood, Hitchcock’s Films Revisited, 215. [↩]
- Joseph McBride, What Ever Happened to Orson Welles: A Portrait of an Independent Career (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2006), 94. [↩]
- Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich, This Is Orson Welles (New York: Da Capo Press, 1998), 244-48. [↩]