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Boston Globe (14/Sep/1992) - Perkins: Ever haunted by Norman Bates



Perkins: Ever haunted by Norman Bates

Janet Leigh only died once in the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho." Anthony Perkins, who died Saturday of AIDS complications, can be thought of as a lifelong victim of his most famous role, the knife-wielding, mom-fixated motel keeper, Norman Bates, in Hitchcock's 1960 shock classic. Put simply, it interred him. Norman Bates -- sly, feral, seductively refined, dangerously eruptive -- wasn't the first troubled character Perkins played. But it typecast him all his life. Ironically, Perkins often reflected, he was in New York rehearsing a play when the famous shower stabbing scene was filmed. But he might as well have been there. Figuratively speaking, he never got away from the Bates Motel. His last film was "Psycho IV," made in 1990 for TV.

You have to go back to the early days of Perkins' career to see him have fun. He was loose and funny as a gangling basketball player on stage and screen in "Tall Story" (1960) -- also Jane Fonda's breakthrough movie. But the seeds of his identification with anxiety-ridden characters was there from the start, in the troubled adolescent roles he played on stage in "Tea and Sympathy" and "Look Homeward, Angel." His film career began with George Cukor's film of Ruth Gordon's "The Actress" (1953), starring Jean Simmons and Spencer Tracy. Because his breakthrough film, William Wyler's "Friendly Persuasion" (1956), was about an Indiana Quaker family during the Civil War, and was charming, the complexity of his role as Gary Cooper's eldest son was overlooked. There was more than comedy in his gawky adolescent eagerness to gun down rebels.

His mood shifts and twitchy moments in "Friendly Persuasion" foreshadow one of his best and most sympathetic roles, that of Red Sox outfielder Jimmy Piersall in Robert Mulligan's stark "Fear Strikes Out" (1957). Perkins used his lanky frame to express Piersall's anguish (which had its roots in the behavior of his domineering father, Karl Malden) in body language as well as facial contortions. He similarly incorporated whiplash movements into his performance as Sophia Loren's stepson in "Desire Under the Elms" (1958), Delbert Mann's brooding study of Eugene O'Neill's stony New England farmful of primal passions.

Perkins was candid about his affinity for tormented neurotics. He was the son of stage and film star Osgood Perkins (who can be seen as the gangster Paul Muni supplants in "Scarface"). During his father's absences, he grew strongly attached to his mother, Janet, and became jealous when his father would return. Oedipally, he wished his father dead. When Perkins was 5, his father did die, of a heart attack. Crushed by guilt, Perkins grew to dread his mother and, later, all women. He didn't have a close relationship with a woman until he was 39, he said, but married Berry Berenson two years later, in 1973. They remained married, and had two sons, Osgood, 18, and Elvis, 16. The closest Perkins came to climbing out from under his Norman Bates image has come with recent critical re-evaluation of Orson Welles' "The Trial" (1963), a film initally savaged by critics.

Welles' striking black and white film, heavily influenced by German Expressionism, casts Perkins as the Franz Kafka surrogate, Josef K., a timid bank clerk on trial for vague crimes he didn't commit, but feels guilty about. In Welles' shadowy, hallucinatory treatment, Perkins' haunted antihero epitomized the existential terror of the postwar world. But he seldom got the chance to attach his tormented features -- darting eyes, skin stretched tight over a gaunt face, body movements alternating between the feline and the convulsive -- to this level of artistic aspiration. Even when the movies he appeared in were genuinely provocative, such as Ken Russell's lurid "Crimes of Passion" (1984), Perkins didn't have to look far to spot the specter of Norman Bates.