Queering Cinema: Anthony Perkins and 'Psycho'

by Robert Nesti

EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Sunday October 9, 2022
Originally published on October 4, 2022

When adapting Robert Bloch's novel "Psycho," screenwriter Joseph Stefano told Alfred Hitchcock that he didn't like the character of Norman Bates. "What do you think if you wrote the Bates character so that Tony Perkins could play it?" the director suggested. "Now you're beginning to talk sense," Stefano replied.

When initially released, much of the suspense of "Psycho" came with (spoiler alert) trusting Norman Bates because he was played by boyish Anthony Perkins, who had defined himself in Hollywood films of the late 1950s as a lanky, sensitive male romantic lead, not in villainous roles, such as Norman turned out to be.

After being Oscar-nommed for "Friendly Persuasion," Perkins was touted as the next James Dean, but his studio (Paramount) found his sexuality being questioned by fans and gossip columnists. The head of the studio, Barney Balaban, thought Perkins was flaunting his relationship with another teen heartthrob, Tab Hunter. In an attempt to heterosexualize his image, he was dropped into dramatic potboilers ("Desire Under the Elms" opposite Sophia Loren, where, when shirtless, his bony frame showed through) and teenage romances like "Tall Story" (with Jane Fonda.) The plan backfired and kept him from getting leads in "West Side Story" and "Some Like It Hot."

In all likelihood, Hitchcock knew Perkins was gay and in a relationship with Hunter, who later acknowledged it in his 2005 autobiography, "Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star," and in the documentary, the title of which was shortened to "Tab Hunter Confidential", released in 2015. (Hunter died in 2018, just shy of his 87th birthday.)

Hunter said he met Perkins in 1956 and that the relationship went on for years, ending in 1959 (with a little help from Paramount, which was attempting to butch up Perkins' image), shortly before "Psycho" started filming. Hunter later called it "a wonderful time in my life,"despite some career gamesmanship by Perkins. Early on there came a rift when Paramount cast Perkins in the role of emotionally troubled baseball player Jimmy Piersall in the biopic "Fear Strikes Out," a role Hunter had played on television and was seeking to repeat on screen. Despite this hiccup, their relationship continued for a few more years.

"Perkins was a known, but not 'out' homosexual man, a highly likely reason for his casting," writes Lynn Hindley in an excellent essay for the website Obscur about queer tropes in the director's work. "Hitchcock would have surely been aware of Perkins' sexuality, and must have ignorantly believed that his sexuality would aid in portraying Bate's occasional effeminate nature and ambiguous sexuality. Perkins himself came forward to state that Bates was played as intentionally gay or bisexual. Although Perkins could not come out in real life, he could do so through his acting."

In his performance, Perkins embodies the homophobic trope that defined homosexuals in 1959 America, playing Norman as a weird and effeminate mama's boy. But aside from his mannerisms, Norman appears oblivious to any kind of sexuality — gay or straight — and only shows devotion to his dead, abusive mother, whom he murdered decades before, but who lives on in his deluded mind. As he tells the soon-doomed-by-mama's ax Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), "A boy's best friend is his mother." Even if she's stuffed and in the fruit cellar.

Perkins and his role in "Psycho" is the subject of a terrific ten-minute clip from the upcoming Shudder series "Queer for Fear," a four-part documentary series about the history of the LGBTQ+ community in the horror and thriller genres. The series premieres September 29 on Shudder. Follow this link for more information.

In the clip, film critics, culture mavens, actors, social commentators, and media personalities weigh in on Norman Bates and Anthony Perkins, including Perkins' son Oz Perkins, actor and renowned horror genre filmmaker, who made his film debut playing a 12-year-old Norman Bates in "Psycho II" in 1983, the sequel in which his father repeated his iconic role.

"Hitchcock knew that my father was queer, and that was sort of a motivator in hiring him for the part," Oz Perkins explains in the Shudder clip. "Hitchcock was too much of a trickster and a little imp to not want to add that really vital edge."

He continued: "That was in Hitchcock's design essential — that Norman be my dad. 'Psycho' appears, and it's like there's no mask. You're playing. your own internal stuff. There's no remove."

"He is giving you that character in every twitch and in every nervous, jittery, candy-eating thing that he's doing," American film critic Alonso Duralde tells Shudder. "Hitchcock is cannily and maybe cruelly finding all the Anthony Perkins parts of Norman Bates and vice versa. that just becomes a thing that you just don't shake."

As Bruce Vilanch points out, "He was tender and warm, and everybody wanted to take him home, and then he did 'Psycho.' Norman Bates changed Anthony Perkins' life forever."

But unlike Hitchcock's career with his leading actresses, specifically Tippi Hedren, who accused him of abuse while filming "The Birds" and "Marnie," the director had a pleasant relationship with Perkins.

"Hitchcock and I got along very well and he let me make several changes and suggestions," Perkins said later, including Hitchcock giving him money to buy what he thought Norman would wear. "He (Hitchcock) also had an appreciation of how much the actor can contribute. He used to find me at the end of the working day and thank me, even though it sometimes meant he had to take a car journey to do so. I haven't had that sort of treatment from many people. I think the comment about him and actors as cattle had been read by him too much, and in 'Psycho' he was trying a different approach by stepping down from his remote position and actually working with an actor. He was wonderfully understanding and interested in what actors came up with.

"Working on the picture was one of the happiest filming experiences of my life. We had fun making it, never realizing the impact it would have. When I meet with people, they always have reacted with pleasure and the anticipation of being able to talk to someone about a picture that they enjoyed and a character that they remembered. I've never encountered anyone who hasn't recounted their 'Psycho' stories without a smile and it's always been in a good-humored way. That they were taken in by the movie, they enjoyed the movie, they passed the movie on to others — just wonderful."

But it also was a role that forever defined Perkins as an actor. "So the narrative in my house was 'Psycho' had been too right for my dad, and therefore was the end of him as an actor, really," said Oz.

A decade after Hunter, Anthony Perkins had a five-year relationship with actor Grover Dale, whom he met when both appeared in the Broadway flop "Greenwillow" in 1960. Some five years later they became a couple, but mutually terminated the relationship in 1970, when they felt their homosexuality was limiting their careers. Perkins sought the help of a New York doctor, Mildred Newman, to become straight. She had written a best-seller, "How to be Your Own Best Friend," in which she wrote about conversion therapy, 1960s-style: "(A)nalysts once thought they had little chance of changing homosexuals' preferences and had little success in that direction. But some refused to accept that and kept working with them, and we've found that a homosexual who really wants to change has a very good chance of doing so."

As part of his treatment, Newman prescribed electroshock treatment, which alarmed Hunter when he worked on a film with Perkins in 1971. She also demanded Perkins have sex with women, which he did with actresses Victoria Principal and Berry Berenson, whom he married in 1973 while she was pregnant with Oz. Perkins died from complications of AIDS in 1992 at the age of 60. Berenson died at 53 aboard American Airlines Flight 11, which crashed into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

In the Shudder clip, Oz Perkins says his dad's starring in "Psycho" "was like his coming out and his funeral at the same time. In one swift move, the whole jig was up. 'Psycho' was no good for him. It was too good. it was too good, and therefore no good. It had damaged my father's career because now no one could see him as anything else."

In short, in 1960, Perkins couldn't be authentic.

"There was no freedom in 1960 to say, 'Oh, by the way, the reason why I'm so great in this role is that I'm just like that.' if my father had made 'Psycho' and then somehow miraculously had been allowed to come out, and had said, "Look, you out there in the audience who ate that up, I mean you eat it up. and what you're eating up is truth. You ate up Tony Perkins' truth. And he's got a lot more of that. He's got a lot of that.' He's a human being that could have been mined in a way that just couldn't be. There just wasn't an outlet for that."

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].