1960’s Psycho. Janet Leigh and the shower scene. Norman Bate’s attack in the basement dressed as his mother. These are two of the most famous moments in this film and in horror for that matter. They are what immediately comes to mind when we think of this film. Also consider that these brilliantly shot scenes were first experienced by a 1960’s audience. What Hitchcock achieved in 1960 was a game changer in the horror genre. This film solidly holds up; nobody watches this film today for nostalgia and camp. It’s legitimately good by today’s standards.
That this film ages so well is not based on those two iconic scenes alone. That an entire award-winning FX series was developed around the backstory of Norman and his mother validates the solid character study that the 1960 film originally offers. So if we get past the 10,000 foot view of this film and those two iconic scenes and drill further down we find the single greatest acting performance in the history of horror film. Perkin’s feat is why the film is so brilliant. Hitchcock delivers the goods and puts all the elements together, but Perkins brings it home.
Anthony Perkins and Alfred Hitchcock Craft One of Horror’s Most Iconic Characters in Pyscho
Let’s go back in time to 1959. Imagine YOU are given the role in an independent film, Psycho, directed by Alfred Hitchcock. You research the role. The thing about insane and disturbed people is that they are not consciously aware of their condition. They believe they are completely normal. So you must become that. Fine. But here’s the catch. The audience must not know that you’re insane and disturbed. They won’t find that out until the end of the film. They think you are the good son protecting your homicidal mother. So add that extra layer to your character and make sure all of this is delivered so that the audience knows nothing, yet feels a bit unsettled about you nonetheless. Got it? And, action. You see what I’m getting at here? The two iconic scenes of Bates dressed as a woman slashing victims only lasts seconds. The rest of the film is dialogue between Perkins and Leigh, and then Perkins and Leigh’s former lover and the sister.
Another way to look at Perkin’s brilliant performance is to look at two other performances delivered by Jack Nicholson in The Shining and Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs. Nicholson was brilliant in The Shining, no question. But, c’mon. Jack playing a homicidal psychopath that snaps? How hard was it for Jack to play that role? For him that’s a Tuesday. Just turn on the camera. The difficulty for Nicholson as an actor sometimes is to convince his audience that he’s NOT a psychopath when he appears in any film. And Hopkins got to wear a straight jacket in scenes with Jodie Foster while delivering such over-the-top lines, “I ate his liver with fava beans and a nice Chianti”. Clearly Hopkins was enjoying the time of his life playing that role.
Anthony Perkins Gives an Oscar Worthy Performance as Norman Bates
Which brings us to Perkins. He clearly methodizes and digs deep to deliver this complex and layered character study. Sexual repression and insanity is hidden, but leaves a subtle trace and nuanced undercurrent that gives the viewer pause without knowing why- while simultaneously evoking sympathy. This is exactly what Janet Leigh’s character feels when she engages him in discussion and invites him in to eat. Watch this film again, and study Perkin’s mannerisms, gait and especially his dialogue with Janet Leigh- which is some of the best in horror. Notice the moments where he sits alone at his kitchen table eating a meal. You get the sense that Perkins knew exactly how he wanted to play this role and he framed it perfectly for the viewer. The problem is that he frames it so perfectly we sometimes forget what a brilliantly difficult acting performance it is.
A good analogy is a major league home run hitter- which is one of the most difficult feats to accomplish in all of sports. Yet when you watch some of these sluggers, it appears as if they are barely swinging the bat- no effort went into the swing. Yet in a fluid easy motion they know how to connect the sweet spot of the bat with the ball such that the ball flies out of the stadium. They make it look easy- but it’s clearly not. This is what Perkins does. Also, bear in mind before Psycho, Anthony Perkins was a mere lesser known character actor not known for horror. Of course that all changed with his performance. He makes it look so easy that we sometimes forget the difficulty of what he had to pull off and only remember the knife wielding scenes.
This was an independent film bootstrapped by Hitchcock himself. The major studios just didn’t get it. They passed on backing Hitchcock’s project- somehow killing off your lead actress early in the film by a man in a dress did not sit well with them. So, Hitchcock went at it alone, created one of the greatest independent horror films of all time and helped deliver the single greatest acting performance in a horror film, ever.