First we need to remember that, in 1960, Perkins was playing against type; until Psycho, he had been nearly typecast as a juvenile teen heartthrob, another Jeffrey Hunter. Although his performance in 1957’s Fear Strikes Out hinted at darker things to come, he was still the boy next door, even when famously climbing that backstop and having a nervous breakdown as baseball’s Jimmy Pearsall. His performance in Psycho put an end to that sort of typecasting.
MAJOR SPOILERS FOR PSYCHO FOLLOW:
When Perkins sits back, he is Norman: relaxed, likeable, and kind of goofy. Whenever he retreats from a strong statement and contradicts himself, he returns to this position. (“The rain didn’t last long.” “Of course, I’ve suggested it myself.”) When Perkins leans forward halfway, he is both personalities and manifests the conflict between the two. (“Sometimes, I’d like to go up there, and curse her, and leave her forever, or at least defy her.”) It is in this position that he seems to be arguing with himself. When Perkins leans forward all the way, he is manifesting only Mother’s personality and it is here he is at his most caustic and cutting. (“People always call a madhouse ‘someplace.’ Have you ever seen one of these places—the laughter and the tears and the cruel eyes studying you?” “What do you know about caring?”)
I am impressed by all of Perkins’ line readings, but I think the piece de resistance may be what he brings to one of the film’s simplest lines: “She needs me.” Think about those three words—say them aloud. Most of us would emphasize the word “need,” wouldn’t we? “She NEEDS me.” Yet Perkins emphasizes the word “me”: “She needs ME.” There is something so uncanny about that reading, so right for the material – it speaks volumes about the complicated relationship between Norman Bates and his mother. The character of Mother is not defined by her need; she is defined through Norman, and Perkins was astute enough to puzzle this out and manifest that through his line reading.
It is delicious.
Let us not forget that even though that is not his voice at the end as Mother, it is certainly his now-famous grin in the film’s penultimate shot, one of the most indelible images in all of horror cinema.
In Hollywood, Tony Perkins was never allowed to waver much from Norman Bates or move beyond the character he helped create with this outstanding performance. It was the curse of typecasting, and the real horror behind this little horror tale.