Anthony Perkins would have turned 85 today. Instead he died in 1992 at the age of 60. He had been diagnosed with HIV two years prior, but he and his wife kept it a secret until his death. Forced to keep his sexuality in the closet throughout his career, it is widely rumored he had relationships with quite a few recognizable male stars in his prime, and didn’t sleep with a woman until he was 39 years old, just two years before his marriage to photographer Berry Berenson, which, from all accounts, lasted happily till his death.
Perkins still feels like an enigma among the actors of his era. There is an essential sadness to his roles, and a sense that he knew he was an outsider, and either couldn’t or wouldn’t do anything about it. He was the weird kid in the back of the class whose pants never fit and who gets made fun of by the jocks, but is the secret confidant of most of the girls. That was me in high school, so I recognize my own.
Most people know Perkins from Psycho, and it’s an astounding role, to be sure. I first watched Psycho when I was 13. My older sister lived in Virginia, so we would have epic phone calls lasting hours (this was before the ease of texting or social media). Occasionally, we would queue up movies at the same time and watch them together, commentating over the phone. For Psycho, we both tried to figure out the spookiest setting we could to watch it. For me, that meant toting the family television to our unfinished cellar, a dungeon-like pit with broken concrete and lots of shadows and cobwebs. I turned out the lights, called my sister, and we watched Hitchcock’s classic. Perkins’s creation of Norman Bates remains captivating, both disturbing and empathic. The role catapulted him into the national consciousness, but also resulted in his being typecast as weirdos who shouldn’t be trusted. I’m not wholly complaining, as it resulted in my favorite Perkins role.
It would be difficult to overstate my adoration for Pretty Poison, the 1968 film directed by Noel Black and starring Perkins and the inimitable Tuesday Weld. I can’t imagine what audiences in ’68 must have thought of this film, as it still feels transgressive today. Perkins and Weld are electric together as mutually troubled but charismatic loners who find each other at the perfect (or worst, depending on your point of view) time. By movie’s end, of course, Weld has eaten Perkins alive and spit him back up, which feels about right. Perkins again has a twitchiness, giving off the vibe of a cat whose fur is constantly facing the wrong direction and might just innocently smother the baby. Weld, well…she’s Tuesday Weld. Films warped around her gravity, but Perkins was one of her few costars who ever seemed to wholly understand how to orbit around a mutual center with her. They did it again in 1972’s Play It As It Lays, adapted from the Joan Didion novel of the same name.
Play It As It Lays feels painfully close to the heart for both stars. Perkins plays an out gay man, daring for any actor at the time, but especially so for a man who had been in the closet his entire life. Perkins plays the playwrighting Gay Best Friend of an actress misunderstood by everyone, played by Weld. If these roles seem uncomfortably close to the truth, you can understand the deep sadness of the film. When Weld holds Perkins as he swallows a handful of pills and slowly dies, it’s almost unbearable.
Anthony Perkins was a brilliant actor and a weird one, my favorite combination. He died too young of a horrible disease, but he left behind a bizarre and powerful body of work.