Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a bi-weekly column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles. In this entry, we look at Anthony Perkins’ performance in Psycho.
Before being offered the role of Norman Bates in Psycho, Anthony Perkins was considered a new James Dean type, good looking and sensitive, with chops straight out of The Actor’s Studio in New York City. But prior to 1960, he had yet to be cast in a role that neared the complexity he’d tackle in Norman, and the ones he did get relied more on his charm than any of his idiosyncrasies. It was his natural amiability that attracted director Alfred Hitchcock to Perkins for the role. Hitchcock wanted to weaponize the nice guy persona that the actor was known for so he could shock the world with his boyish psychopath. In this regard, Psycho typecast Perkins long before Perkins would become typecast by Psycho.
This typecasting is an integral part of what makes Anthony Perkins both frightening, and riveting, as Norman Bates. We’d never assume that a cherubic faced young man like him could be harboring such dark secrets, like matricide and multiple personalities. But in the late 1950s, Freudian psychoanalysis was just gaining popularity, and we were waking up to the untold depths of the human mind. We began to have a better understanding of how something like past trauma, or in Norman’s case a complicated relationship with a parent, can turn someone into a monster.
Hitchcock brought an incongruity to his killer by casting an actor you wouldn’t expect to play a villain, but this was in stark contrast to what Robert Bloch wrote in the original novel. In it, Norman is a larger, more imposing figure with thick glasses and “blubbery fat, short hairless arms, [and] a big belly”, a far cry from Perkins’ boy next door image. Despite this, his performance is still deeply informed by the inner monologues that Bloch wrote for the character. They speak to his masculine duality; struggling with the transition from boyhood to manhood. As Bloch writes,
“It was like being two people, really – the child and the adult. Whenever he thought about Mother, he became a child again, with a child’s vocabulary, frames of reference and emotional reactions. But when he was by himself…he was a mature individual. Mature enough to understand that he might even be the victim of a mild form of schizophrenia, most likely some form of borderline neurosis.”
Throughout the book, Norman is constantly reassuring himself that he is a man, with manly responsibilities and duties, like a kid insisting to his parents that he’s a grown-up. He’s an adult trapped in the mind of a child. Anthony Perkins’ Norman describes this feeling of entrapment to Marion (Janet Leigh) in his parlor, “We’re all in our private traps. Clamped in them. And none of us can ever get out. We scratch and claw, only at the air, only at each other, and for all of it we never budge an inch…I was born in mine, and I don’t mind it anymore.”
Using the novel as a framework for his characterization, Perkins was able to embody these themes Bloch described. He realized them in tiny, almost imperceptible ways, like Norman’s ever-present bag of candy corn.
The legacy of why Norman eats candy corn is disputed. Some believe that it is a nod to Emmett Lee Dickinson, inventor of candy corn, while Hitchcock scholars say it was an improvisatory choice from Perkins, resembling how a bird pecks at seeds, an extension of the character’s interest in taxidermy. It can also be interpreted as a personification of Norman’s stunted childhood, his way of holding on to the past by nervously eating something he loved as a kid. Under extreme stress, he regresses to the child Norman is described as. You see it when he ditches Marion’s car in the swamp.
As the car slowly sinks, it hesitates for a moment. Afraid that the car won’t be concealed Norman, like he’s biting his nails, anxiously chews on candy after candy. It becomes his safety blanket, a way to stay cool as his mind explodes with worry. As the car eventually sinks, he stops eating, and a grin slowly spreads across his face, the same one we’ll see in the final shot of the film. It’s a mischievous smile, like that of a child getting away with something. But rather than stealing a cookie, it’s, you know, murder.
To say that Norman Bates changed Anthony Perkins’ life is an understatement. After the film’s success, he made a string of international dramas and thrillers before returning to Hollywood in the salaciously titled, Pretty Poison. Perkins plays a character that’s just been released from a mental institution after a psychotic episode early in his life. Sounds a lot like Norman Bates, doesn’t it? Perkins would see his later career become even more defined by the character that made him famous as the Psycho films spawned numerous sequels throughout the 1980s.
When being interviewed ahead of the release of Psycho IV: The Beginning Perkins said, “The realer it is, the scarier it is, which is why Psycho was so scary. It wasn’t about the supernatural. It doesn’t depend on the un-dead or the unknown or the otherworldly or the people from Mars with three heads. There’s no place to hide in Psycho. It’s all so real.”
This is why we still talk about Anthony Perkins’ performance as Norman Bates today. He created a villain that felt real, lived-in, and most importantly, alluring. With Bloch’s source material as a launching pad, supported by Hitchcock’s steady hand, Perkins was able to paint a complex, three-dimensional portrait of a character that we were repulsed to be so attracted to. And sixty years later, we are still being drawn in by this deranged dreamboat.