Anthony Perkins was not Norman Bates

January 09, 2010

About nine years ago I saw The Man with the Golden Arm for the very first time. I was only a year or so into being a huge movie fan, and so for almost every film I watched I was seeing the stars acting for the first time. My first encounter with Eleanor Parker was as a conniving, deceitful, whining, nagging wife to Frank Sinatra -- who was the be-all and end-all of my movie obsession at the time. Having seen none of her other performances, I immediately determined that she was a conniving, deceitful, whining, nagging person and I'd avoid all of her films from there on in.

What I failed to realize at the time (don't worry, it didn't take me nine years to discover this) was that if an actor irritates you, creeps you out or disgusts you in a movie it might just mean that they are a really good actor, perfectly playing the role in which they were cast.

The character of Zosh in The Man with the Golden Arm is supposed to be hated by the audience-- she is supposed to be low and despicable. And Eleanor Parker did a marvelous job of portraying that. But because of my sheer ignorance, I assumed that Eleanor Parker was Zosh.

Each of us probably has had this happen with one or two actors -- sometimes it's simply a subconscious association of an actor with a specific part that turns us away from their entire filmography. Sometimes we assume that an actor or actress exhibited the traits they portray in film in real life -- for instance, many people are usually shocked to find out that Boris Karloff was a real teddy bear of a man offscreen-- one of the sweetest Hollywood has ever seen -- because he was typecast as monsters onscreen.

In my experience, the one person who has become a victim to this psychology more than anyone else is Anthony Perkins. His name goes hand in hand with Psycho-- mention it and people automatically picture him wearing a grey wig and a matronly stuffed dress, or wrapped in a blanket with a fly buzzing around his head. Unfortunately, this mental roadblock prevents people from realizing what an amazing actor he was. He played Norman Bates so well that the character seemed real. But watch him in Goodbye Again, playing a totally different sort of man, and you'll see no trace of Hitchcock's villian.

Another fine example is James Mason. (Casey, Millie & Terry... pay attention!) He was awfully good at playing the creepy guy in Lolita and Georgy Girl, but he was equally adept at playing relatively normal characters in The Wicked Lady, Julius Caesar and Odd Man Out. It is because he was such a fine actor that his pedophelia in Lolita is believable. In reality, Mason was a caring, sweet man with an enormous soft spot for animals. He and his wife co-wrote a now out of print book called "The Cats in Our Lives" -- something I'm dying to own one of these days!

In the end, I think we need to realize - and remind ourselves- that the people in the movies we watch are actors. They are reading a script and performing. If their character is dastardly, or even sticky-sweet, that doesn't neccessarily mean that they were in real life. And if they play a psychopath in one film, it doesn't mean that they will in all of their others.

This doesn't mean we can't not like certain performers... I for one have at least a dozen or so least-favorites. But I've watched their films often enough to realize that it is them -- their mannerisms, their style of acting or their personality that bothers me-- not the character they were playing.

You might discover more fantastic actors and actresses out there, if you just keep in mind that Eleanor Parker was not Zosh, Boris Karloff was not Frankenstein, James Mason was not Humbert Humbert and Anthony Perkins was not Norman Bates.


Millie said...

Good post!

I've always felt sooo sorry for Anthony Perkins!

Ahh, the James Mason convo! Well, we were COMPLETELY joking (at least I was)! I think James Mason was a good actor (and he had a super-cool accent)!

Terence Towles Canote said...

I think several actors suffer from this. People tend to think of Mason's co-star in Lolita, Sue Lyon, as a sex kitten. But she did play other roles, like a mission worker in 7 Women. I think some roles make such an impression that they tend to obscure everything else in an actor's career.

NoirGirl said...

I can't believe you wrote this today because I just had a Tony Perkins revelation this afternoon! I finally saw some of what Sarah always swoons over in Fear Strikes Out.

And I had a similar resentment against Eleanor Parker for many years until I found One for the Book. :) I totally love her now, just for that one film.

I actually have a James Mason film I like a lot (you wouldn't know it, I'm sure!). It's called The Man Between with Claire Bloom. JM is a spy who falls in love with Claire and he is just so sweet and kind to her it's heartbreaking.

Anyway, thank you so much for the reminder, my friend. We really do need to appreciate an actor's whole body of work and not just judge them on one film.

Chris Edwards said...

I don't disagree, and yet... Perkins did have that creepy look to him.

I've been thinking a lot lately about what makes a great star, and I'm not sure how much of it has to do with being a great actor. Your Waynes, Bogarts, Hepburns, De Niros, etc. tend to have a set type, which they embody regardless of the role they play. Physicality is a big part of that. I'm not saying they lacked talent, but they hardly disappeared into roles the way we might expect a Philip Seymour Hoffman to do.

Ebert once interviewed John Wayne about stardom, actually. I found his viewpoint very interesting. Here's the link:

KC said...

There are so many actors that I've disliked from the start because they played an evil role so well. I still have trouble with Anthony Perkins--because that neurotic quality that worked so well in Psycho comes out in so much of his work. I also loved him in Goodbye Again though--and he was marvelous in Pretty Poison and Fear Strikes out.

Anonymous said...

Gr8 post, a good actor can make you believe their any one they want, sadly today good actors are far and few...

DKoren said...

Nice post! Yes, we can certainly get influenced by the first film we see someone in, can't we? I still don't trust Stewart Granger characters to be honest good guys, just because the first thing I saw him in was "The Wild Geese." I've never confused actors with their characters though. I think that's because my mom worked in the movies and drilled that lesson into my head when I was very young. :-D

That's so funny about James Mason, cuz I grew up with him in "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" and "Journey to the Center of the Earth" ... and I never even knew he played creepy characters until much much later in my life. "20,000" is still my all-time favorite movie.

Sarah said...

Edward Arnold is my Achilles heel. He plays evil so well ( Barney Glasgow in Come and Get It or D. B. Norton in Meet John Doe) that it's off-putting to see him in roles like Armory Stilham in Mrs. Parkington or Daniel Webster in The Devil and Daniel Webster. I keep waiting for him to turn.

Raquel Stecher said...


Unknown said...

Millie- Me too, he seems like a nice person in real life, too! I know you were joking ;-D

Terry- That's so true about Sue Lyon, too! At least Shelley Winters & Peter Sellers weren't permanently associated with their roles in this film, otherwise the whole cast would've been plagued!

Casey- That's really odd! *cue twilight zone music* I like Eleanor Parker now, too! I can't believe I didn't realize it was just the character right away. I can't wait to see The man Between by the way!!

Chris- That's so true about stars vs actors -- though I think Humphrey Bogart probably had more range than The Duke, his role in African Queen is a far cry from Duke Mantee yet John Wayne was pretty repetitive. Very interesting link, thanks!!

KC- True about Anthony Perkins... I think that quality would just seem like a personality quirk if we hadn't seen Psycho first though (think of Sandy Dennis, and her nervous way of speaking... if we had seen her as a psycho killer first we'd think it was creepy instead of endearing lol) But still, he might be totally forgotten today if it weren't for Psycho, so better to be remembered for one role than none I guess?

Gingeyginge - Thanks! :) That is so true.

Deb- Thanks :) That's so neat that your mom worked in movies! I didn't know that! I haven't seen 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea yet but I'm working on it :)

Sarah- That's so true! Some of the character actors are even harder to adjust to them switching roles. One of mine is Henry Daniell, he always seems so mean that I don't think I could accept him playing a nice guy!

Raquelle- Edmund O'Brien goes in this category "This doesn't mean we can't not like certain performers... I for one have at least a dozen or so least-favorites. But I've watched their films often enough to realize that it is them -- their mannerisms, their style of acting or their personality that bothers me-- not the character they were playing." I've said it a million times-- he was a good actor, he did a great job in The Barefoot Contessa, I just don't enjoy watching him, and he's not an actor I seek out when looking for movies to watch. I don't associate him with a particular role, and I don't think he was like any of his roles in real life, so this blog post doesn't apply to my feelings for him at all.

I really wish I had never brought him up in the first place. If I go back and delete the post saying I don't like him will you stop bringing him up? I feel like in your minds' filing cabinet the only thing written in my folder is "Doesn't like Edmund O'Brien"

Jennythenipper said...

Two Cases in point. Kay Francis. The first movie I saw her in was In Name Only. It took years for me to see a few more Kay Francis roles before I began to warm up to her. Now she's one of my favorites.

Gail Patrick. The first three or four movies I saw her in she was manipulative, cold, self-centered, etc. Now, no matter what role she plays I can't help but thinking she has a manipulative, self-centered motive behind her actions.

The Cinemaphile said...

Excellent post and spot-on. I think there are so many actors who have been a casualty of this phenomenon. The one that comes to my mind first is Louise Fletcher - would she ever get over the Nurse Ratched perception? I think it's a difficult feat.