The 5 Non-”Psycho” Anthony Perkins Movies You Need To See

Anthony Perkins in Goodbye Again

Happy birthday to the man I call my Time Machine Husband (TM), Anthony Perkins. The effete, beautiful actor best known for his astonishing performance as Norman Bates in Psycho would’ve been 81 today, and without even reading Charles Winecoff‘s gripping biography Split Image, you can tell in Mr. Perkins’ performances that he was enigmatic, complicated, and conflicted. Though Perkins died of AIDS in 1992, his silver screenlegacy endures thanks to his lengthy, strange filmography.

Hollywood wanted Perkins to be the next James Dean, but his vulnerability and (frankly) apparent gayness stood at odds with that demand. As I like to say, we can’t rewrite cinematic history to include all the wonderful gay characters we deserve, so we as gay entertainment anthropologists have to find our stories in the nuances, innuendos, and otherwise untold stories hidden right onscreen (perhaps unintentionally), right within all the stated heterosexuality. Though he almost certainly didn’t mean to do it, Tony Perkins gave us plenty of fascinating gay portraitures on film. I’ve included some of them below in this list of the five Perkins films, Psycho excepted, you should really check out. 

1. Friendly Persuasion

Thank God you’re getting this recommendation from me, because I’m about to give you a valuable piece of information about Friendly Persuasion: Skip all the parts without Tony in it. In this tale of a Civil War family’s struggle to remain a moral unit, Tony shines (in an Oscar-nominated role) as a sensitive youth whose objection to war reduces him to near-tearful monologues and the kind of inner conflict that has always read well on his adorable mug. Furthermore, this role feels gay. Really gay. He doesn’t fit in with other gents his age (In fact, he’s repulsed by a pugilistic exhibition at a local fair) and can’t quite put his finger on why. You wouldn’t be surprised if his father Gary Cooper (who is awful in this, by the way) grumbled, “It’s ‘cuz you’re a queer, son.” 

2. Pretty Poison

In Pretty Poison, we watch as weirdo arsonist Perkins recruits Tuesday Weld for his bizarre adventures, and soon it’s clear that she’s weirder, darker, and more mysterious than he is. Tony starts out a little shaky in this role, though he emits a cynicism and monotone angst worthy of an offbeat criminal. The best moments of the film are the exchanges between Tony and Tuesday, who is one of our greatest actresses who truly, markedly rejected fame. Her seeming guilelessness is the movie’s greatest asset, and the arc of her character gives us a fantastic payoff. (Could Tony look any more like James D’Arcy, the actor who played him in Hitchcock, than he does in this photo?)

3. Play It As It Lays

It’s a rare gem, but this 1972 adaptation of Joan Didion‘s landmark book features yet another haunting pairing of Tony Perkins and Tuesday Weld. She’s a dejected Hollywood starlet who narrates the events leading to her own breakdown, and Tony plays her friend BZ, a hopeless, confidently joyless gay film producer. The bright-eyed Tony Perkins of the ’50s and ’60s sinks away here, and every word of his dialogue feels unforced, authentic, and cruel. 

4. The Last of Sheila

Mr. Perkins doesn’t appear in this Agatha Christie-esque whodunit, but he cowrote the screenplay with pal and fellow puzzle lover Stephen Sondheim. The movie has achieved cult status among fans of exotic ensemble mysteries, and while I can’t say I love everything about its endlessly twisty plot, it’s a cut above familiar Christie capers like Murder on the Orient Express (in which Tony plays a VERY MOODY MAN; recommended for his smirks alone) and Death on the Nile. Imagine if Dyan Cannon was a cast member on the old reality series The Mole. That’s what’s going on here. Also: James Coburn‘s mouth? How freaky is that thing. 

5. Mahogany

Oh God, you guys. The world outside of truly doesn’t understand how insane this campy-ass movie is. Most gays think they know, but not enough Gen Y homos have truly given this weird, darkly ’70s, freakishly overwrought movie the fearful ogling it deserves. Sure, Diana Ross is captivatingly underweight as the titular montage-hogging fashionista, but Tony’s performance as a maniacal photographer features two scenes that defy sense (and Tony’s determined self-closeting): 1) Protective Billy Dee Williams threatens villainous Tony with a gun and pins him to the ground. Tony responds with what can only be described as… spreading his legs. It is an eye-popping gay spectacle. 2) Tony physically brawls with Mahogany (!) in a car (!!) while he’s driving it (!!!) and photographing her (!?!?!). Thank God for this movie. It reeks, but we need it.

What are your favorite Anthony Perkins roles? My runners-up would be Phaedra (glamorous Melina Mercouri! One of the all-time coolest celebrities!), The Trial (Orson Welles’ deeply alienating adaptation of the Kafka work) and Fear Strikes Out (about baseballer Jimmy Piersall‘s battle with mental illness).

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