This “Character Showdown” almost doesn’t seem fair, but it does warrant a serious discussion. When you say Norman Bates, it’s impossible not to immediately think of Anthony Perkins. And for quite a while there, it seemed as if no one else could possibly touch the role of Norman Bates without stepping on his toes. After all, at the time of PSYCHO’s release in June of 1960, casting Perkins whom at that time was known as the romantic lead; the boy next door, was intended to be an unsuspecting shock tactic from director Alfred Hitchcock. And it worked. No one could’ve possibly expected this sweet, shy, good looking young man who takes care of his sick old mother to actually be the murderer, right? But therein lies the power of that performance, something that forever was both a blessing and curse to Perkins for the remainder of his career.
But you have to think back, even when Perkins was still alive, there was another actor that did a brilliant job at portraying his most famous alter ego. In PSYCHO IV: THE BEGINNING, a young Henry Thomas, known primarily for his role in Steven Spielberg’s ET, was cast as the 18 year old Norman Bates opposite Olivia Hussey as mother in the Showtime original feature directed by MASTERS OF HORROR creator Mick Garris. Part of what made a “new” Norman Bates acceptable to audiences was having Perkins appear in the sequel/prequel to narrate the story of his troubled childhood, which would then flashback to Thomas portraying him as a teen. It’s actually quite amazing just how many of the nuances, the body language, and even the mild ticks that Henry was able to emulate. It’s truly a great performance and underrated movie that often gets overlooked and forgotten about, no doubt because several short years after its video release came the 1998 remake of PSYCHO done by Gus Van Sant.
In that version, hot off of the success of SWINGERS, Vince Vaughn took a stab at the iconic character. In all fairness, despite my personal feelings of the experiment that is the PSYCHO remake, it’s unfair to judge Vaughn for his work here as he was extremely limited. Rumor has it that Van Sant wanted to remain so faithful in his “shot for shot” remake to the original film, that he timed out (with a stop watch!) each and every scene to ensure they matched and copied what Hitchcock has done perfectly and to the second. I find this an odd approach, especially considering there are random additions to the Van Sant version which include unnecessary masturbation and visions of what’s going on in Norman’s head. As an actor, it’s difficult to concentrate and give a proper performance where limitations such as delivering lines in a very specific time period can distract from being natural. For this reason among many others, Vince never had a chance.
Cut to now and we’ve got an all new Norman Bates played by Freddie Highmore on the successful A & E original series BATES MOTEL. Set in modern times, it was pretty easy to immediately see the potential and greatness in Freddie Highmore’s performance. It definitely plays proper tribute to what Perkin’s had done, but he’s done a wonderful job of completely making it his own. I think it’s because in the movie series, there was always a vague notion that Norman was either a product or result of “nature vs nurture,” and we never quite knew which of those contributed to him becoming the “psycho” we know and love. In the TV show however, it’s clear fairly early on that he’s mentally ill. Nothing will stop him from his inevitable fate, but his mother (played brilliantly by the beautiful and fearless Vera Farmiga) keeps hiding the truth from him and everyone that knows him. This ain’t going to end well as we know from the first PSYCHO!
Anthony Perkins will always be Norman Bates, but let us not forget that even those well versed with the original Robert Bloch source material knew Norman to be a 40-something, slightly overweight and balding unsympathetic character! Perkins onscreen version of Norman is the one we hold as the quintessential version of that character. Is he still the absolute best Norman? I think so.
What about you?