Tuesday, September 6, 2011

MY FAVORITE MALE DRAMATIC PERFORMANCE ON FILM


Picking a favorite male dramatic performance is difficult as there are just so many to choose from. I could probably make the case for a dozen or so. Al Pacino in THE GODFATHER, Paul Newman in THE VERDICT, Alistair Sim in SCROOGE, and William Holden in SUNSET BOULEVARD, those were just a few of my runners-up. In the end though I’ve picked a performance that has so many shadings and nuances to it. And it is always a marvel to watch it, viewing after viewing after viewing. It’s Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (1960).

(NOTE: If you haven’t seen PSYCHO be warned as I will be giving spoilers away throughout this blog entry.) 
Why Norman Bates/Mrs. Bates (Anthony Perkins) wouldn't hurt a fly in the last scene of PSYCHO.
For starters, Perkins’ performance is an extraordinary achievement because when you see the movie the first time Norman seems fairly innocent. He comes across as an earnest, hard-working, well-intentioned young man, a bit eccentric and troubled perhaps, but at first a very nice guy. The worst we think of him throughout the movie is that he’s protecting his mother and covering up for her fiendishness. Then all that changes with the last 10 minutes of the movie and everything that preceded it demands to be viewed differently. Norman is not the innocent he appeared to be but rather, a psychotic and deceitful monster.

When I watched PSYCHO the second time, after knowing what really happened, every act of Norman’s now meant something completely different. His hesitation in assigning Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) room #1 at first seemed merely like awkwardness but in actuality it shows the calculation of a dangerous man. When the gently intrepid detective Arboghast (Martin Balsam) gets the best of Bates during his questioning we feel sorry for the na├»ve Norman but after a second viewing, you cringe because you realize that the cop is poking the lion and sealing his own doom. Even Norman’s taxidermy, which seemed like merely an eccentric hobby, means a whole helluva lot more. And some of his lines are so laden with irony they almost make you laugh, as when Norman tells Marion, “Mother, uh, what is the phrase? She isn't quite herself today.” 
Anthony Perkins was a tall, handsome leading man before he took on the role in PSYCHO.

At the climax when Norman rushes to the cellar to knife Marion’s suspicious sister Lila (Vera Miles) the two impressions of the man collide in the same scene. Lila can’t imagine why Norman is dressed up in drag. She thought he was just a nervous young man covering up something about her sister’s disappearance. But we in the audience are forced to see things as they truly are. Norman is not what we thought he was. And this new clarity changes everything that has gone on beforehand.

None of this could have worked so brilliantly had it not been for Perkins’ astute rendering of Norman. If he had tipped his hand too early, revealing Norman’s evil side too transparently, the audience would have gotten ahead of the story and the rest of the narrative would have been ruined. If Perkins had played Bates too naively, without the shades of gray conveying pride, intelligence, even a sense of humor, then we wouldn’t buy that rug pull when it showed up and realized that there was so much more to Norman. It was a very tricky, delicate task but throughout Perkins deftly walked the tight rope between being victim and villain.

My favorite scene in the movie is in the parlor where Norman and Marion enjoy sandwiches and conversation. It’s probably the longest and most intimate discussion Norman has ever had in his life. It thrills him to have a beautiful woman interested in him, even flirting a bit. But the talk also scares him because he’s not used to chat being so personal. Marion draws Norman out and he responds by being cordial, laughing, and letting go of his shyness. And the audience responds in kind and is drawn to him. If Perkins hadn’t succeeded right there the rest of the movie would not have worked. We have to find Norman likable and root for him in some way. After all, Janet Leigh only has a few more moments to live and the rest of the picture requires a character for us to empathize with. Perkins ensures that by playing Norman as both likable and mysterious. We want to know more about him and we invest in this troubled man. 
Norman enjoys the company of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), albeit for a short time.
I love the way Perkins uses his nervous energy throughout the role. Norman looks like a clean-cut, all-American boy but he’s never very comfortable. He appears always on edge. Something isn’t quite right there. Perkins suggests that Norman is not all that he appears to be. And in doing so, he properly sets up the big payoff at the end.  But even though Norman turns out to be quite monstrous, Perkins never lets us lose sight of the sadness consuming the man. Norman is a loner, a lost child never allowed to really grow up, and thus destined to fail in the complicated adult world.  

Perkins plays it all with such tenderness and tragedy and I think, more than anything else, that is what has given PSYCHO its true legendary status. Yes, Hitchcock was working at the top of his game, and Joseph Stefano’s script is brilliantly tight and clever, and Bernard Hermann’s all-strings score enriches the terror and suspense and has become a classic. But if you don’t care about Norman you don’t care about the film. Janet Leigh dies 45 minutes into the proceedings. The rest is all Norman Bates.
Norman is aghast at the things his 'mother' has done. And so are we.

Perkins was so good as Norman Bates that it changed the trajectory of his career. Before PSYCHO he was a tall, handsome leading man. But his Norman was so vivid that it typecast him. It was too big of an achievement to shake. He turned Norman Bates into an icon: our age's Doctor Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, a split personality with good and evil spectacularly at play in the same man. Perkins characterization of Norman has had tremendous influence in the horror and thriller genres. It can be evidenced in the well-mannered and soft-spoken psychos rendered onscreen since, from Hannibal Lecter to Patrick Bateman to Dexter Morgan to Anton Chigurgh. But none of them create as much sympathy as Perkins did with Norman. Even in the last moments of the film, you can’t help but feel sorry for the lost boy in police custody, asking for a blanket to keep warm. By then the personality of his mother has completely taken him over. Tragically. Hitchcock even super-imposes the grinning skull of Mrs. Bates upon the face of Norman. But when you watch that final scene again, tell me that Perkins’ humanity isn’t still there. He makes this monster worthy of sympathy still. And that might be the most haunting part of it all.
 
So who gets your vote for favorite dramatic male lead in a movie? There are so many great ones to choose from, I know your choice (or choices) will be wonderful. So please share with all of us and as always, thanks for following.

8 comments:

  1. This is a very challenging question that is impossible for me to answer. There are too many icons - great actors and great roles – over the last century for me to choose from and definitively say, this is The One.

    So I tried to approach this from a slightly different angle. Which male dramatic performance was so real that the “acting” and the “actor” completely disappeared into the role and soul of another human being. Which performance was the best at making me believe this was No Act?

    For me, it was Leonardo DiCaprio transforming with painful accuracy into the mentally handicapped Arnie Grape in WHAT’S EATING GILBERT GRAPE (1993). I have a brother in a similar situation so I am familiar with the behavior and emotions and limitations. If you didn’t know who Leo was, you would swear it was all real. Shockingly real. I’ve read some people thought the then-unknown actor really had a disability. That’s acting of the most elusive kind.

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  2. Phenomenal choice, Fan With No Name! Leonardo DiCaprio is a terrific actor, and that performance is one amazing accomplishment. Let's hope he's as good as that when he appears onscreen as J. EDGAR later this fall.

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  3. Jeff, your comment above about Alistair Sim being in a movie titled SCROOGE is the second time I have seen it recently. The movie title is "A Christmas Carol".

    I find it impossible to select a favorite dramatic performance ... too many classic performances that are so identified with the actor that created it, but if creating a role causes you to be typecast, then maybe you're on point about Anthony Perkins/Norman Bates.

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  4. Whogastim, thanks for your thoughts. Always great to hear from newcomers here. If picking one is too difficult, by all means, share a list of those that are your favorites.

    Regarding the title of Alistair Sim's greatest film, it was released in America under the title A CHRISTMAS CAROL. However, it was made in England, and was released there first, with the title SCROOGE. Either name works but I went with the original release.

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  5. Here are the first couple of performances that come to mind:
    1. Paul Newman in The Verdict, for going to dark places that few other actors dared, and for slugging Charlotte Rampling in a scene most actors would want cut out.
    2. Walter Huston in Dodsworth, in large part because of what Alan Arkin writes about Huston's talent in his book, An Improvised Life.
    3. Alistair Sim in A Christmas Carol, whose conversion scene at the end is terrifyingly brilliant.
    4. Donald Sutherland in Ordinary People, unfairly snubbed by the Academy nominators for a beautifully heartfelt performance.
    5. Beulah Bondi in Make Way For Tomorrow, the greatest American film most people haven't seen. The final shot of her is devastating.
    6. James Mason in A Star is Born, subtly stealing the movie from under Judy Garland's nose.
    7. Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, who bravely pulled out as many stops as possible while knowing that the audience would think that she really was Norma Desmond in real life.
    8. Jack Nicholson in Chinatown, possibly my favorite performance of these eight, in large part because the entire film is narrated from his point of view (he's in every single scene), and that Polanski and he were able to achieve that without using a single line of voiceover narration.

    I could probably think of many others, but these are the ones on my mind right now. Anthony Perkins would be up there for me too!

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  6. Peter Fonda in ULEE'S GOLD. The most understated piece of acting I've ever seen captured on film.

    I wish his dad had lived to see it.

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  7. Jeremy, great choices! (Though is Gloria Swanson on this list because her performance conjures up some sense of a drag queen? Ha!) I would pick most of these for my all-time faves as well, and was particularly glad to see you included Donald Sutherland's beautiful work in ORDINARY PEOPLE. Bravo!

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  8. Michael, your choice of Peter Fonda is a terrific one. He was so good in that. And I think he's one of the great underrated actors around. He was also very good as the bad guy in THE LIMEY.

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