Monday, May 15, 2017

Star-crossed: the life and times of Anthony Perkins

I keep coming back to Tony Perkins, and have never been sure why. The reasons are complicated: he was mysterious, misunderstood, and summed up in my  mind what it means to be human: conflicted, passionate, vitriolic, kind, altruistic, selfish, brilliant, obtuse, and on and on the list goes.

And he was cute, too, when he was young and first became a big star. Cute in a way women loved, right up to and including the gorgeous, girlish Berry Berenson (sister of supermodel Marisa), who married him in spite of the open secret of his homosexuality. They had two sons and stayed together for 20 years, until he died of AIDS. Tragically, Berry was on one of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Centre on 9-11.

There was something star-crossed about both of them, I think.

I've read lots of stuff about him, including Charles Winecoff's Split Image, which in some ways is the best bio of anyone I've ever read, but which in other ways offends the hell out of me. Never has a biographer been so thorough in ferreting out the real Perkins, penetrating the million smokescreens he put up, but then he wrecks it: he quotes "an unnamed source" who claims to have been Perkins' lover, outlining in excruciating, completely unnecessary detail what he liked to do in bed. Would a heterosexual actor have been subjected to such humiliation, and from a completely unreliable kiss-and-tell source who probably sought some sort of payoff?

I found another book about him, Anthony Perkins: A Haunted Life by Ronald Bergan, and I pounced on it. I thought it might be bland compared to Winecoff's claw-sharpening meow-fest, but on the first page it grabbed me because of a surprisingly bang-on description of his unusual body type.

The author was speaking to the actor backstage after a performance. "He was stripped to the waist, revealing the smooth-skinned svelte figure of a man half his age - he was forty-seven at the time - and what the actor William Chappell described as 'an Egyptian torso, unnaturally broad in the shoulder and small in the waist and so flat it is almost one-dimensional.' Oh yes.

In spite of his great natural talent and versatility as an actor, there was a strangeness about Tony, a remoteness: he was the perennial outsider, but didn't seem to mind it, which made him even more odd. He wasn't a warm actor, but had certain abilities that were unique and eerie. In the Ken Russell turkey Crimes of Passion, he plays a demented minister addicted to sex toys and porn. Kathleen Turner plays a part-time hooker, and at the height of his Byzantine fits of craziness they have this conversation:

"If you're a minister, I'm Snow White. Who are you? You're not a reverend. Who are you?"

"I'm you."

Yes. Tony was us. He needled, he probed, he burrowed inside, he smiled boyishly as he found the subtle flaw and put his hand into it. The cracked cup, the broken building, the chipped tooth, all these were the province of Perkins and his calmly detached fascination. He snooped around the edges of the human condition, not unaffected of course, and capable of a paradoxical deep devotion to friends and family, but still the perennial observer. Why did people like him so much, care so much about a man who seemed almost cold? And they did, they loved him. As he lay dying of AIDS, literally gasping out his last, friends camped around his bedside in sleeping bags. Hundreds of people came to his memorial service, which lasted hours.

Tony loved dogs, but he was definitely more cat than dog, sniffing delicately, warily drawing back. And sometimes lunging forward in almost predatory sensuality. Bergan claims he had charm, but in the original, supernatural sense, a spellbinding power.

A friend once tried to describe his unusual body type with its coathanger shoulders and long, gangly arms, which made his head seem proportionally small: he resembled "some sort of great prehistoric bird". Exotic, a little scary, impossible to comprehend, echoing all those stuffed owls and ravens of Psycho. Oh yes, Psycho, we were getting to that. Or were we?

(BLOGGER'S NOTE. Having just posted about the Anthony Perkins action figure - and I've been looking for a good photo of that '80s artifact for a long time - I thought of this piece that I wrote SIX YEARS ago, and felt I was within my rights to dust it off. Unlike most of my longer pieces, it actually got some views. I used a huge font which I felt I had to reduce. The photos have been changed almost completely.)


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