Saturday, September 15, 2012

Overlooked by Oscars: PSYCHO

***If you have not seen the Alfred Hitchcock classic, Psycho, there will be spoilers in this blog piece.  OK?  Here we go...back to a bad, bad night at the Bates Motel.***
Norman Bates:    "Well, a boy's best friend is his mother."

Was there ever a more memorable screen victim of high drama-with-mama than Anthony Perkins as the psycho, Norman Bates?  One man was overlooked come Oscar® nomination time for his contribution to Alfred Hitchcock's famous, frightening game-changer of a film.  The overlooked man never got an Oscar nomination.  This year, Sight & Sound magazine released its once-a-decade film critics poll of the 10 Best Films.  There was a change.  Hitchcock's 1958 mystery, Vertigo, replaced Orson Welles' Citizen Kane as the #1 film. For decades, the Welles classic had taken the top spot.  I love Vertigo a lot.  But, if I had to pick one Hitchcock classic to top Citizen Kane, I'd select Psycho.  This low-budget, expertly crafted film changed the whole game of the suspense/chiller movie.  A 1978 slasher film like Halloween owed something to Psycho -- and Halloween starried Jamie Lee Curtis, daughter of Janet Leigh who was a Best Supporting Actress nominee for her 1960 performance as a Norman Bates victim.  Like Frankenstein, this movie was the tale of how a monster was made in a big spooky house on a hill.  Hitchcock took that genre, if you will, one giant step further -- into a bathroom with two unlikely actors.  Janet Leigh was a star at the hightone MGM Studios in the 1940s and '50s.  She was discovered by Oscar-winning Hollywood legend and retired MGM screen queen, Norma Shearer (Marie Antoinette, The Women).  Leigh was "the girl next door" type in films such as Little Women and the all-star musical, Words and Music, loosely based on the story of songwriting team, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart.
After Broadway success, Anthony Perkins got before Hollywood movie cameras as "the boy next door" type.  He was the shy basketball player that Jane Fonda's college coed wants to woo and wed in the romantic comedy, Tall Story.  He was Cornelius, the shy young guy ripe for love and marriage to Shirley MacLaine's character in The Matchmaker, the film version of the hit play later musicalized as the Broadway hit, Hello, Dolly!  Perkins received the one Oscar nomination of his career for working with Gary Cooper.  He was a Best Supporting Actor nominee for playing the Quaker son conflicted about Civil War service in William Wyler's  Best Picture nominee, Friendly Persuasion (1956).
Hitchcock's casting turned the tables on their original Hollywood images.  Leigh went from being MGM's girl next door to being a film noir babe in good dramas such as Hitchcock's film, Touch of Evil and The Manchurian Candidate with Frank Sinatra.  Norman Bates became Perkins' most famous screen performance and deservedly so.  He's brilliant in the role.  Two top movie-making game-changer elements of Psycho center on Janet Leigh.  She's the star yet her character, Marion Crane, is killed off early in the film.
Also, she's seen next to a toilet. Hollywood studio stars, especially the ladies, were never ever ever seen in the same movie shot with a toilet.  When movie actors appeared in a bathroom, the toilet was definitely off-camera.  In those days, you couldn't even say the word "toilet" on television. Not even in a commercial about bathroom products.  Leigh's Marion Crane was seen near a toilet -- and it's absolutely right for the realism of the scene.  Later, the toilet holds a clue.  Like Doris Day -- another Hitchcock Blonde -- Leigh started in films with a virginal, wholesome image.  He shattered that image with the opening scene.  Marion had some "afternoon delight" with her sweetheart during her office lunch break.  He's unhappily married.  Sam, her lover, is played by John Gavin.
Leigh and Gavin look like a film noir answer to Doris Day and Rock Hudson in 1959's hit romantic comedy, Pillow Talk.  Masterful Hitchcock directorial touches are plenty in Psycho.  The responsible Phoenix bank employee, Marion, goes "a little mad" and embezzles the money of a dishonest and rowdy aging cowboy customer.  I love how she makes her getaway and imagines how he'll react to the crime.  She's delighted at the thought of his anger.  He practically bragged about cheating on his taxes and flirted with her by waving a generous wad of folding money in her face like he was a local park exhibitionist shaking his thrillseeker penis at her.  As she's driving, a rainstorm starts.
Hitchcock cuts to Marion's point of view.  The heavy downpour hits her window and blurs her view.  The windshield wiper whips back and front like a metronome in time to the foreboding Bernard Herrmann original score.  The windshield wiper resembles a long razor slicing through the water.  It's a genius foreshadowing as she pulls into the Bates Motel.  And then comes the iconic shower scene murder with its landmark editing, written about in several film study textbooks.  That scene still works.  It still makes me flinch.
Psycho brought Alfred Hitchcock an Oscar nomination for Best Director.  The man who never received an Academy Award nomination in his career and was grossly overlooked for his major contribution to this suspense classic is the late Joseph Stefano.  He wrote the screenplay, based on a novel by Robert Bloch.  Stefano gives you clues into Norman's true nature.  School teacher friends of mine say that a kid's mistreatment of animals is a red flag to a possibly dangerous personality in later years.  Look at his relationship with birds.  Does he trap and terminate them for his pleasure?
When Norman Bates, in a room with his stuffed birds on display, reveals to Marion his hidden anger at his mother and says "understand I don't hate her, I hate what she's become"  THAT is one of the most inspired lines of self-loathing ever written for a film -- especially once we discover that Norman has "become" his mother.  The first time I saw this movie was on local TV's late show one weekend when I was in high school.  Scared the bejeebus out o' me.  When I was well into my adult years and living in New York, I rented the home video.  One line and the way it was delivered really stood out to me.  Sam and Marion's sister, Lila (played by Vera Miles) urgently visit Sheriff Chambers.  While begging him for help, they tell him that old Mrs. Bates was spotted in the house.  Sheriff Chambers responds, "...are you sure you saw an old woman?"  It's the sheriff's curious look on "old."  Then I realized that Stefano's screenplay was darker, more complex than I'd realized.  And more innovative.  It was his idea to focus on Marion's embezzlement and then kill her off within the first half hour.  We viewers, like Sam and Lila, think of Mrs. Bates as an old woman.  A grey-haired, wicked witch of a mother.
Then we learn that single mother Mrs. Bates was having an affair with a married man when she died.  Norman was a youngster.  Why would a married man want to hop in the sack for hot sex with a pruny old hag?  Mrs. Bates never lived to be old.  The grey hair in a bun and the frumpy housedress is how Norman aged her in his demented mind.  Mrs. Bates and her lover shared her bed in that house.  Her little boy was also in the house.  When Lila enters Mrs. Bates' room, it looks like the room of a bordello madam.  Lila finds Norman's room.  The old stuffed toys are signs that a grown-man is still trapped in a psychological childhood.  Classical music records and hardcover books probably containing erotic pictures are found.  The room has a fetish vibe to it.  Norman is a voyeur.  So are we from the first glimpse of Marion and Sam in a hotel room after sex.
Who knows what young Norman may have seen while his irresponsible mother was having an affair?  He hated feeling less important in her life after being a loyal, good son.  She started to treat him like a domestic.  My theory?  Norman was aroused by and kills Marion Crane...because she resembled his mother.  Norman killed two other women.  I bet they too resembled Mrs. Bates.  The only man Norman/Mother killed was a private investigator who questions Norman and senses mischief in the Bates Motel.
If Marion Crane had looked like...say...Rosie O'Donnell, she would lived to have coffee the next day, steal some towels, pack, pay the motel bill and get back on the highway.  I think killing Marion was a Norman's twisted way of killing (punishing) his mother and -- in a way -- killing part of himself too.  Marion aroused his erotic sensations and also ignites his dangerous childhood rage.  With her inappropriate behavior, Mrs. Bates made a monster in her residence just as Dr. Frankenstein made one in his.
Joseph Stefano wrote a great and groundbreaking screenplay.  It's subtle, shocking, complex and, when you see it again, laced with dark humor (Norman:  "My hobby is stuffing things.")  In Perkins' performance, we see the monster.  There's a deadness in his eyes.  We also see the guilt, shame and self-loathing in his moments of sanity.  In the insane moments, Perkins lets us glimpse the little boy inside the grown monster.  As he submerges Marion's car containing her corpse into a swamp, he watches like a kid watching a new water toy in action.  Creepy yet cute at the same time.  Above all, his Norman is human.  He's the dark side of the All-American boy.  No more "Mr. Nice Guy."
If Anthony Perkins had received a second Academy Award nomination and if it came for his performance in Psycho, that would not have been a shock.  He'd have totally deserved it.  Watch Hitchcock's masterpiece again and see if you agree with me that Joseph Stefano should have been in the 1960 Oscar race for Best Adapted Screenplay.  The 1970s was a top decade for made-for-TV movies.  A lot of very entertaining ones have yet to make it to DVD.  Stefano wrote a 1972 made-for-TV that is so cool and one of my favorites from back then.  Dysfunctional family members get knocked off around Christmastime in Home for the Holidays.  That ABC TV murder mystery starred Eleanor Parker, Julie Harris, Walter Brennan, Jessica Walter, Jill Haworth (the original Sally Bowles on Broadway in Kander & Ebb's Cabaret) and a new actress named Sally Field.
Sally Field, just like Janet Leigh, started with a "girl next door" image and went on to make Oscar history for playing against type.  As for Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho... was shot from one of the best Hollywood screenplays not nominated at Oscar time.
Norman:  "Oh, but she's harmless.  She's as harmless as one of those stuffed birds."

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