Perkins' screen image was never the same after Norman Bates

September 14, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"A boy's best friend is his mother," Norman Bates says earnestly in Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho," but Anthony Perkins, who played Norman and who died Saturday in California at 60, would not agree.

Anthony Perkins' best friend was Norman Bates. Or maybe Anthony Perkins' best friend was Alfred Hitchcock.

In any event, the 1960 movie, made with a television crew on the back lot at Universal on a budget that wouldn't keep a '90s movie in donuts, in some strange fashion made Perkins more than a star: It made him, forever, an icon.

In 1986, he told an interviewer, "I did feel I'd never escape Norman. But my wife pointed out to me that the more I would try to escape him, the more people come away convinced and reaffirmed that Norman and I were very similar. So she said, Why don't you just give in to this and not fight it, and maybe people would say, gee, that's funny, he didn't seem like Norman Bates at all."

Thus it was that 24 years after Norman had first appeared, a twitchy, gangly, half-formed semi-adolescent, Perkins reiterated the role in "Psycho II." This time Norman, two and a half decades older, seemed like a . . . twitchy, gangly, half-formed semi-adolescent.

Indeed, it was Perkins' eternal youthfulness that so proscribed his screen image. He could work for or against it, he could work endless variations of it, he could play it straight or ironic, he could make you cry or laugh with it, but he was always, somehow, even at 60, just a boy on the cusp of an interesting manhood.

In that same 1986 interview, the journalist recorded these impressions of the actor:

"He is an eerily thin man, his face still eerily boyish, his eyes still nervous and deep. There's something mesmerizing about him, aflutter, akimbo, aflight: his details seem somehow to never quite settle into a completely stable pattern."

Perkins first burst to stardom in 1956 playing the sensitive son of a Quaker farmer who, in the Civil War, must face battle and the test of killing. The movie was William Wyler's "Friendly Persuasion," and Perkins' utter decency and utter despair in the aftermath of dispatching a killing shot not only won him an Oscar nomination but established his indelible persona.

He persisted in playing that role for the next five years in what might be called the "literal phase" of his career. He was, for example, a mentally disturbed young ballplayer ("Fear Strikes Out"), an earnest apprentice sheriff ("The Tin Star"), a gawking, puppy-friendly basketball star in "Tall Story."

Hitchcock changed all that as he modified forever the meaning of Perkins' screen identity.

In "Psycho," Perkins used all his gawky charm and foot-shuffling shyness and throat-clutching cuteness to etch an acidic portrait of the boy next door as serial killer: He was Peck's bad boy with a butcher knife, under a fright wig, his sensitive eyes adazzle with feral cunning and radiant looniness, his personality splintered and siphoned off into his own crazy version of his nightmare mother.

"Norman's problem with his mother -- every man and most women have had some sort of a knotty situation with their mothers -- is such a universal condition," Perkins reflected in 1986. "Obviously Norman suffers from his condition at a melodramatic excess. But the problem of the mother is an eternal dramatic idea -- it always seems to work in plays and movies."

In his private life, Perkins later revealed, he was himself the creation of such an eternal drama: His father was a frequently absent stage and film actor, named Osgood, who died unexpectedly when the boy was 5. He grew, as he stated, "abnormally attached" to his mother. It was a tormenting relationship, so much so that he later confessed he was unable to have sexual relations with a woman until his late 30s. Later in life, he married the photographer Berry Berenson and they had two sons, Osgood, now 18, and Elvis, 16.

For better or worse, after "Psycho" it was impossible for Perkins to return to the earnest juveniles he'd played before: It was as if there was too much evil wisdom lurking behind those sensitive eyes for them to ever be entirely trustworthy again. This nudged him into the ironic part of his career, where he played the same type, though now shaded off toward dementia or malice.

In "Phaedra," a modern retelling of a tragic Greek myth, he was self-destructive and out of control; in the superb and vastly underrated "Pretty Poison" he was a small-time faux psycho who wilts and ultimately is destroyed when he comes under the spell of the real thing, as chillingly portrayed by Tuesday Weld. Then, too, he sleepwalked through some big, boring "entertainments" in the '70s, such as "The Last of Sheila" and "Murder on the Orient Express."

His career declined in the '80s, but Norman Bates once again rescued him. By now a screen monument, his movie identity forever entwined with Norman's pathologies, his last three films, all with the name "Psycho" as followed by a roman numeral, gave him a campy last phase, a blazing autumn before the chill of his disease set in.

His visage vivid, his speaking voice staccato and oddly inflected, his entire presence radiantly strange, he was a figure who will haunt the imagination of American filmgoers for years to come.

But to those who met him, however briefly, only one thing remains to be said: Gee, that's funny. He didn't seem like Norman Bates at all.

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