“We’re All in Our Private Traps” – How the Role of Norman Bates Haunted Anthony Perkins
On June 16th, 1960, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho changed the course of film history. It killed off its heroine halfway through, showed a flushing toilet on screen, and convinced the world to be afraid of shower curtains. But what did it mean for the man playing the central iconoclastic role, murderer Norman Bates?
Prior to the film that changed his career, Anthony Perkins had made his name in wholesome boy-next-door roles. In the same year Psycho came out, he played an affable basketball star in the college romance Tall Story (opposite Jane Fonda’s first on-screen appearance). He had previously been cast as baseball players and naval officers, in movies and on the Broadway stage.
But early trauma lay behind that all-American image. Perkins was the son of character actor Osgood Perkins, who often travelled away from his family for work. Young Anthony was mostly left to his abnormally over-attentive mother, eventually growing frustrated with his father’s long absences and jealous whenever he returned home. He wished Osgood would die — and when Anthony was 5, his father really did pass away, of a sudden heart attack. For years, the child was overwhelmingly crushed by guilt, assuming his wishes were the reason.
This Oedipal tragedy creates an interesting connection to his most famous performance. His boyish good looks were very different from how Hollywood imagined its villains. He also didn’t physically match Ed Gein, the real murderer Norman Bates was based on (who also inspired later movie killers like Buffalo Bill in The Silence of The Lambs). But Hitchcock wanted a sympathetic, sensitive motel owner who audiences would trust — so that the film’s twists and turns would really shock them.
Criticised by the Catholic Legion of Decency, Psycho initially received backlash for its gore. British critic C. A. Lejeune was so offended that she not only walked out of the cinema but permanently resigned from her job. Audiences loved it, however, and it became Hitchcock’s most profitable film by far, earning $50 million by the end of its run in theatres.
Psycho has been called “the first psychoanalytic thriller”, and it was unprecedented in its depiction of sexuality. It even opens with a scene showing Sam and Marion in the same bed, with Marion in a bra. An unmarried couple in the same bed would have been taboo by the Production Code standards of that time.
Hitchcock begins with this depiction of impure sexuality and then shows the process of them dressing up as respectable citizens. The film argues that we all wear a mask, reinforcing the chilling but pitiable speech that Norman gives Marion: “We’re all in our private traps. Clamped in them. We scratch and claw, but only at the air, only at each other, and for all of it we never budge an inch.”
No character is more trapped than Norman himself, crossdressing as his deceased mother and entangled in frustrated sexual desire. Norman spies on Marion and internally argues with his “mother” about the “cheap, erotic fashion of young men with cheap, erotic minds”. This repressed turmoil eventually overwhelms him, leading to the shocking murder in the shower: the apotheosis of the film’s themes of sex and violence.
Critics have long noted that Hitchcock’s villains are often queer-coded: the central murderers in Rope (based on real-life lovers Leopold and Loeb), the charming psychopath Bruno in Strangers on a Train, the unsettlingly devoted Mrs Danvers in Rebecca. Norman’s sensitivity and proclivity for drag, leading to a police officer explicitly calling him a “transvestite”, suggest he may belong to that list. After all, the idea of a “double life” has always been connected to queer men. And while Norman is clearly attracted to Marion, he has a lot to hide.
An intensely private man all his life, Perkins could relate to Norman’s struggle in that aspect. Biographers have posthumously linked him with Rock Hudson, and fellow actor Tab Hunter later spoke at length about the sexual relationship he had shared with Perkins. He was known as an incredibly shy individual, particularly around women — probably due to this hidden sexuality.
Perkins eventually went through intensive psychotherapy and, at age 39, had his first close relationship with a woman. Two years later, he married photographer Berinthia “Berry” Berenson and had two sons. Meanwhile, his career was struggling to escape the shadow of Norman Bates.
Perkins initially tried to avoid Hollywood’s typecasting by acting in a series of European films, like Goodbye Againwith Ingrid Bergman. Eventually, he turned to playing supporting character roles throughout the 1970s, joining the casts of Catch-22, WUSA, and Murder on the Orient Express. In his last decade, Perkins returned to villains. He played a murderous priest in the steamy Crimes of Passion and he melted down into a repugnant Mr. Hyde in Edge of Sanity. And, of course, he eventually reprised the role of Norman Bates in three underwhelming Psycho sequels.
He died aged 60, from AIDS-related pneumonia. “Berry” outlived him by almost another decade, until she was killed in the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001, on American Airlines flight 11. Perkins left behind the following written statement about his illness: “I have learned more about love, selflessness and human understanding from the 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.”
It’s not hard to see why he would resent the Hollywood landscape that had both kept him closeted and exploited his inner turmoil for years. Perkins first learned of his status from a 1990 National Enquirer headline, “PSYCHO STAR BATTLING AIDS VIRUS”; a lab technician had apparently tested his blood after he visited his doctor, and then sold the results to the press.
Tabloids had kept him in fear his whole career, and now they had broken the news of his diagnosis on the world stage. They had also reduced his identity to the film that had followed him for years. Perkins’ filmography is far richer than the epithet “PSYCHO STAR” suggests, although the public image of him may forever be Norman Bates in a holding cell, smiling directly at the camera as his hidden identity is revealed.
In that iconic moment, Mother’s mummified skull is imposed over his face for a second, before the image dissolves into the final shot: Marion’s car being towed out of the sludge. Hitchcock sends a strong message with these striking final visuals: shame and secretiveness can distort and curdle into something very ugly. But the truth, like Marion’s incriminatory car, will be dragged into the light in the end.
Perkins was a victim of the repressive era he lived in, who nevertheless managed to channel his personal struggles into one of the most memorable performances in film history. Norman Bates is made up of layers: sweet, shy, earnest, disturbed, sinister, guilty, and murderous. Above all, he is proof of the damage that our private traps can do.
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