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- June 13, 1983
- Vol. 19
- No. 23
Return of Psycho
In Psycho II, Tony Perkins Plays A Man With A Smothering Mother. In His Personal Life, It Took Three Women To Help Tony to a Happy Ending
Well, Norman's back—and so is Anthony Perkins, who played the Hamlet of horror in the original film and now re-creates the character in Psycho II, a gaudy slash-and-spatter show that may summon groans from Hitchcock buffs but will probably keep America screaming (and the turnstiles whirring) all summer long.
Typecast again for the moment, Perkins displays an emotional range that has expanded dramatically since he was last cast in the role. His portrait of the maniac as a middle-aged mother's boy shows us a man whose feelings lie much closer to our own than they did in the Hitchcock original and whose tragedy invites us more urgently to share and to care.
The Norman of Psycho, the pathetic victim of a monster mother, was a manchild who never explored the world, developed his feelings, built a career, or became involved with others. When he found himself attracted to young women, he recoiled in dread that they would eat him alive as his mother had. When the attraction became too strong, he erased it by erasing the young women.
The Norman of Psycho II is a tragic hero who has spent more than two decades in a madhouse reanimating the self his mother destroyed—only to find that self being sucked back slowly into mania. His is a tragedy of regression: Inferno Regained.
"Tony has uncanny insight into Norman Bates," says Richard Franklin, 35, the Australian disciple of Hitchcock who directed Psycho II. "It's as if he were born to play the part." It would be more accurate to say that he was raised to play the part. The emotional environment of Perkins' childhood was painfully similar to Norman's, and not very different terrors and inhibitions pursued him all the way to middle age. The first four decades of Perkins' life were a long dark tunnel of alienation, a nightmare with an unexpectedly happy ending.
Born April 4, 1932, Perkins was the only child of Osgood Perkins, a star of stage (The Front Page) and screen (Scarface) in the late '20s and early '30s. As a small child in Manhattan, Tony saw little of his father, who was usually on tour with a play or out in Hollywood making a movie. "I became abnormally close to my mother," he says, "and whenever my father came home I was jealous. It was the Oedipal thing in a pronounced form, I loved him but I also wanted him to be dead so I could have her all to myself."
Without warning, when Tony was 5, his father did die—of a heart attack. "I was horrified," Tony says. "I assumed that my wanting him to be dead had actually killed him." A weight of secret guilt settled down on the boy's life. "I prayed and prayed for my father to come back. I remember long nights of crying in bed. For years I nursed the hope that he wasn't really dead. Because I'd see him on film, it was as if he were still alive. He became a mythic being to me, to be dreaded and appeased."
Tony's misappropriated guilt soon poisoned his life with his mother. "Because loving my mother was connected in my mind with killing my father, it became dangerous to love my mother." Unaware of what was happening in her son, Tony's mother unintentionally intensified his anguish. During her husband's lengthy absences, she had compulsively eroticized the relationship with her son, and now that her husband was dead her emotional demands on Tony escalated.
"She was constantly touching me and caressing me," says Tony, explaining that her behavior continued into his adulthood. "Not realizing what effect she was having, she would touch me all over, even stroking the inside of my thighs right up to my crotch." He longed for his mother's affection, but he came to dread it too, and in time his dread became so intense that he "completely repressed what my mother was doing—blanked it out. For years—until just a few years before she died in 1979—I really believed that all through my childhood my mother never touched me in an affectionate way."
Part of the problem was overload—Tony's mother demanded a lot more than affection. Forced to take a full-time job in Boston after her husband died, she ran a tight schedule and insisted that Tony fit into it. "She wasn't ill-tempered or mean," Tony says. "Just a strong-willed, dominant, New England kind of woman. She controlled everything about my life, including my thoughts and feelings. 'Finish your homework. Put your toys away. Take a bath now. Where are you going? What are you reading? Why are you doing that?' She felt she was taking responsibility, but she was really taking control."
Repressed, tight-lipped, tense, Tony grew up a proper little Bostonian. He did as he was told and hid his feelings so carefully that after a while he couldn't find most of them. He had few friends—contact was dangerous, especially with females, and contact with an attractive female threw him into a panic. In the presence of men and boys he felt not much better—"I'd grown up almost exclusively in female company. Males seemed rough and frightening." Tony, in short, was a miserably unhappy child, a boy in a box nailed shut on all sides.
It was Tony's father who showed him a way out. "All my life," Tony says, "I'd heard glory stories about my father. What a wonderful actor he was, how everybody loved him, how he went everywhere and did everything he wanted. I longed for that glory, that adoration, that freedom." Acting, Tony decided, was the way to get what he wanted. So he tried out for school plays, camp shows, Sunday school pageants. "There was nothing about me I wanted to be," he says, "but I felt wonderfully happy being somebody else. I made up my mind to be a great actor, greater than my father. Since he'd gone and died on me, I decided to pay him back by out-succeeding him."
Success came with astonishing speed. At 14, Tony got his first job in summer stock. At 16, he was touring with Kay Francis in W. Somerset Maugham's Theatre. At 20, he hitchhiked to Los Angeles and by a fluke was asked to read off-camera lines at somebody else's screen test. Startled by Tony's special blend of little-boy-lostness and haunted intensity, director George Cukor hired him to play the juvenile lead in The Actress.
At 23, after three years of rapid growth in the hothouse of live television, Tony was signed by director Elia Kazan to co-star on Broadway with Deborah Kerr in Tea and Sympathy. When the run ended, he was hauled back to Hollywood to play Gary Cooper's son in Friendly Persuasion and overnight became a star.
Glory, adoration, freedom—at 27, Tony had everything he'd ever wanted. But from that point forward, nothing seemed to go right. He made a series of glumly mediocre movies (Desire Under the Elms, The Matchmaker, Green Mansions), and when at last he starred in a blockbuster called Psycho he found himself snookered by success. For millions of moviegoers, Tony's portrayal of abnormal Norman indelibly identified him as some kind of a nut, and producers became reluctant to present him as anything else. "It was frustrating," Tony says. "I had plenty of offers, but not for the lighter roles, the comedy roles I had always felt would be the main strength of my career. Even today I don't get as many of those offers as I'd like."
Career problems were compounded by emotional misery. Still deeply withdrawn and painfully lonely, Tony was "tongue-tied, even with people I considered my closest friends." Songwriter Stephen Sondheim, 53, a game freak, was attracted by Tony's "brilliantly intricate mind"—in 1973 they collaborated on the script of The Last of Sheila, one of the most elaborately plotted mystery movies ever made. But Sondheim was one of the few who pierced the perimeter of Tony's defenses. He let no one into his heart. As for sex: "I had wild fantasies, but my erotic experience was mostly solitary. Along the way I'd had homosexual encounters, but that kind of sex always felt unreal to me and unsatisfying. And I had never had sex with a woman—the very thought of it terrified me."
Tony had passed up some enviable opportunities. Once on location in Australia, Ava Gardner asked him up to her hotel room for an intimate supper. "All shook up," he declined dessert. In Paris, Brigitte Bardot invited him to her penthouse and made it clear she was ready for action. "I was like an un-caged leopard," he says. "Sooner than get close to her I would have crashed through the window and fallen to the pavement 10 stories below."
Ingrid Bergman also took a fancy to Tony. "She would have welcomed an affair. Every day she invited me to her dressing room to practice a love scene. I insisted on standing near the door, which I kept open." Jane Fonda was more direct. Tony says that when they rehearsed in her dressing room, she took off all her clothes and sat suggestively powdering her petal-soft 22-year-old body while Tony hid his face in panic behind his script.
"Showers of sparks exploded in my head" on several of these occasions, Tony says, but it never seriously occurred to him that he might be sexually interested in the ladies involved. He says he did not in fact view his sexual problems as problems—like Norman, when his fear of women became too acute, he neurotically erased the source of anxiety. Again and again, when a sexy girl passed him on the street, fear drew a shade over his eyes and he was mentally unable to perceive the girl he was looking at. "I literally couldn't see a pretty girl," he says.
None of this worried Tony. What alarmed him was the fading fire of his performances as an actor, a concern which brought him at the age of 34 to a celebrated Manhattan psychotherapist named Mildred Newman. For the next nine years Tony saw Dr. Newman four times a week. One day when she asked him to imagine making love to a woman, tears ran down Tony's cheeks. "Why are you crying?" she asked. "I don't know," Tony answered. "It's so sad, so sad."
Slowly he came to realize how his father's death and his mother's demands had distorted his feelings. Then in 1971, on location with The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, Tony for the first time felt an unambiguous surge of desire for a woman. Tony refuses to identify the lady, but other sources confide that she was the spectacularly desirable co-star of Dallas: Victoria Principal, now 33. "It was, for both of us," Victoria says in retrospect, "a very special time in our lives." For Tony, "It was a case of spontaneous combustion." On the morning after their first night together, Tony was a changed man. "I tried everything I could think of," he says, "because I thought I might never get another chance." His partner was appreciative. Toward morning she asked: "Are you sure you haven't done this before?" On the fourth night of the encounter, Tony's last trace of anxiety about women vanished, never to return. "So did a feeling of lethargy that had weighed me down for years. Up to that time, 10 hours of sleep a night had seemed hardly enough. Ever since, seven has been almost too many."
The encounter on location was followed by an even more overwhelming one in New York City. Some weeks earlier, Dr. Newman had asked Tony what sort of woman he would like, if he liked women. Tony came across the answer to that question in Vogue, where he saw a photo portrait of a young photographer named Berinthia "Berry" Berenson—grand-niece of Bernard Berenson, the illustrious art historian, granddaughter of Elsa Schiaparelli, the celebrated couturière, sister of Marisa Berenson, the top model who later became a movie actress.
Shortly after his return to New York, "by a fantastic piece of serendipity," Tony met Berry at a party. There was an earthy serenity about her, "a freshness, a newly-mintedness." She was smitten too—in her teens she had kept Tony Perkins scrapbooks and fallen asleep dreaming about him. Now she asked if she could interview him for Andy Warhol's magazine. A few days later they were lovers. Six months after that they were living together. Three months more and she was pregnant—not by design.
"I was thrilled," she says. "I didn't want him to feel he had to marry me. But I prayed he would want to." He did. Berry was ecstatic. "To think that Tony Perkins wanted to marry me! It was like a fairy tale happening."
Tony's reaction was more measured. "It was too soon to settle," he says. "I thought of all those other young women I hadn't known. But I really loved Berry. And I was thrilled that I was going to be a father."
And so they were married in an unpretentious Episcopal service up on Cape Cod—the bride went barefoot, Tony wore 15-year-old white bucks. "And you know," Tony says, "I look at women closely—they fascinate me. But we've been together 11 years now and I've never seen another woman I could love as much as I love Berry."
Considering Tony's history of emotional turmoil and the difference in their ages—in 1973, when they married, he was 41, she was 25—friends predicted trouble in the nest. They couldn't have been more wrong. "We're very different," Berry explains. "And that's why our life together is so successful. He's precise and intense. I'm much calmer—things don't bother me. There's a balance there that keeps us together."
They agree about basics. "Marriage is a full life," Tony says, "and it needs a full commitment. Infidelities set up conflicts that are tiring and aging." After all the years of loneliness, he loves being constantly close to someone. He also loves being a father. The Perkinses now have two bright, free-spirited, well-behaved boys, and Tony is a fully participating parent. "The time to rent is when they're still children," he says. "I pay attention now because I want no self-reproach later." He did his share of diapering when the children were little ("Women's liberation has liberated me too"), and at Osgood is 9 and Elvis 7 he usually makes their breakfast and prepares their dinner. He and Berry take driving them to school and picking them up in the afternoon. "Whoever happens to be close by" helps with work. There's a lot of love in the house but there are also rules. When MTV becomes intolerable, Tony cracks the whip. "Osgood!" he bellows "lose it!"
Not exactly the normal private life of vie star, and the setting in which it takes place is anything but a glamour-whammer. The Perkins family lives in a sprawling old three-bedroom Spanish-style house in an unfashionable section of the Hollywood Hills. In Bel Air there are wallets bigger than the Perkins swimming pool. The house is plainly furnished and instead of the mandatory Mercedes and Jaguar, a serviceable Toyota station wagon (his) and a '57 Chevy convertible (hers) stand at the curb. The family eats in a nook off the kitchen and has a part-time maid. Berry wears throw-togethers while Tony favors Levi's. "Haven't bought a stitch of clothing in the last 15 years," he says. "I just keep what they give me to wear in my pictures." In the living room there are two piles of sleep that turn out to be dogs.
Marriage has made many changes in Tony. There is still an electric shimmer in his presence, evidence of a nervous system finely tuned. But the panic glare in the eyes, the smile that is merely a reflex of the lips, the twitchiness in the body suggesting imminent flight are no longer to be seen. Ten years ago he looked like a superannuated adolescent. Now he is obviously a grown man: open, direct, confident, authoritative. At 51, his vitality is awesome. Every morning Tony takes a lung-bursting hike up and down the Hollywood Hills, and every afternoon he runs through a 40-minute routine of weights and calisthenics that would tax an athlete half his age.
He pours all this energy into his performances. During the last 15 years Tony has impressively widened his range and deepened his insights as an actor. A long, triumphant Broadway run as the psychiatrist in Equus and a long, difficult run in Romantic Comedy with Mia Farrow put him up against roles that pushed him to the limits of his skill. "The stage is the real test of an actor," he says. "You're on your own, planted there. A year in a play is like a year in college. It's the school of no excuses."
In living as in acting, Tony relentlessly evaluates what he is doing. "It's satisfying to have grown from where I was to where I am," he says. "But there is so much growing still to be done. As long as I live I'll be cleaning the past out of my mind, getting rid of those old cassettes I play over and over—my memories, my beliefs. I want to keep up with my life. Live it so completely that when death comes like a thief in the night there'll be nothing left for him to steal. What's wrong with having it all—right here, right now? Having it a is absolutely okay with me!"
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