Tribute to Anthony Perkins

by Denise Noe

[Editor's note.  I admired this tribute to Tony Perkins when Denise Noe sent it to me recently.  Now I'm happy to share it with readers of this website.  Denise is a freelance writer and film-lover, whose two most recent publications are "Christmas Gifts from the Chanukah Crowd: The Extraordinary Contributions of American Jews to Christmas" and "Maury: The Story of an American Popular Culture Institution".]

ANTHONY PERKINS IS MOST closely associated in the public mind with his brilliant performance as the mother-haunted Norman Bates of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 classic Psycho.  Perkins created an unforgettable character, at once sympathetic and blood curdling, vulnerable and monstrous.  The motel manager we meet is nervously friendly, an anxious, lonely young man who wants to please but is so self-conscious his speech is marred by stutters and hesitations.  Like Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane, we feel sorry for this man and wish he were not so dominated by his overbearing, apparently sick mother.

The slightly built, dark-haired, angular featured Perkins had a birdlike quality that Hitchcock played with in having Norman be an amateur taxidermist who stuffs his deceased feathered friends . . . among others!
The part of Norman Bates was, of course, a dual role, Norman and Mother. Perkins created the screen’s most chilling split personality. The terrifying shower scene (done by a stand-in rather than Perkins) is the most famous scene in the movie and one of the best known in film history. However, the final scene in which Norman has been completely transformed into Mother, haunts the viewer long after the movie is over.  To look into Perkins’ intense, dark eyes as the face of a young male slowly smiles and a female voiceover says, 'she wouldn’t even harm a fly,' is to be left with a sense of disorientation that could define the word 'horror.'

Perkins may have drawn upon his own emotional and sexual conflicts to create cinema’s most famous 'psycho.'  He was sexually attracted to men but not completely comfortable with that part of his sexuality.  In a People magazine interview, Perkins blamed his preferences on an unhealthy intimacy with his mother that eerily paralleled the relationship between Norman Bates and his mother. Perkins’ father died when he was five, as did Norman Bates’ father, and the actor claimed that his mother touched him a great deal while he was growing up, leading to a painful confusion of his feelings in attempts to sexually relate to women.  Some of Perkins’ relatives were outraged at the accusation made against his mother.

When casting the part of Bates, Hitchcock probably had in mind Perkins' 1957 performance as the real-life tormented baseball player Jimmy Piersall in Fear Strikes Out. Fear is a powerful exploration of mental illness. Dominated from childhood by an overly demanding father, Piersall suffers a nervous breakdown as an adult.  In the film’s most devastating scene, Perkins as Piersall defends his father’s perfectionism by declaring, 'If it wasn’t for my father, I wouldn’t be where I am today!' Then, together with the audience, he remembers where he is: in a mental hospital.

Having turned in such an awesome performance as Bates, Perkins found himself typecast.  He regularly played strange, often dangerous characters.  He was the accused Josef K in Orson Welles’ version of Franz Kafka’s surrealistic novel The Trial, an arsonist in Pretty Poison, and mentally disturbed characters in Mahogany, Crimes of Passion, and Edge of Sanity.

In 1983, he again played Norman Bates in Richard Franklin’s Psycho II. The film never approached Hitchcock’s brilliance nor did Franklin make the mistake of attempting to imitate the master’s style.  It got profoundly mixed reviews but was a box-office smash.  People loved seeing Perkins as Bates in that film and later in Psycho III and Psycho IV: The Beginning. Relatives of Norman Bates’ victims might have wanted to see him die but audiences never did.

Perkins was diagnosed with AIDS in 1989 and died of it on September 12, 1992. Shortly before his death, the actor said, 'I have learned more about love, selflessness and human understanding from people I have met in this great adventure in the world of AIDS than I ever did in the cutthroat, competitive world in which I spent my life.'

Although Anthony Perkins is gone, his legacy is immortal.  As long as film exists, his inimitable performances as Norman Bates and other singularly creepy characters will continue to send fresh shivers down the spines of generations of horror fans.