In the opening scene of Bates Motel, the compelling new “contemporary prequel” to Alfred Hitchcock’s iconic 1960 horror film Psycho that premieres tonight on A&E Network, 17-year-old Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) jerks awake in his bed as, behind him, a 1940-ish black-and-white Rosalind Russell movie plays on an old-model TV set. Norman seems disoriented, even drugged, as he hauls himself from his bed and staggers unsteadily down the hall. In the kitchen, an unattended steam iron hisses in disuse, while a meal on the stove simmers messily on the brink of burning. He makes his way into the next room, a garage/work space, to find the bloody and lifeless body of his father lying on the floor.
As a freaked-out Norman races down the hallway to the bathroom where his mother, Norma (Vera Farmiga), is taking a suspiciously leisurely shower, we share his disorientation. Where are we? No, more to the point: WHEN are we?
Flash forward six months from wherever the heck we are. Norma is driving Norman from their former home near Scottsdale, Ariz., to the coastal town of White Pine Bay, Ore., where Norma has bought a ramshackle motel for the two of them to manage. The property, as well as the adjacent house looming above, are virtual clones of the buildings from the Hitchcock film, so it’s only as Norman sits waiting for the bus to take him to school on his first day and we see him listening to music on his smartphone that we realize we’re really in the present day.
It’s an interesting creative decision and one that some critics already have jumped on as a flaw in an otherwise provocative series, but that sense of time being out of joint seems to be very much by design. How else to explain why that distinctly non-digital TV set in the original Bates home in Arizona is tuned to a classic movie channel or, even more striking, there are vinyl LPs playing on a ’60s-style hi-fi console in Norma and Norman’s sinister abode adjacent to the motel?
Given that the show’s two executive producers – Carlton Cuse and Kerry Ehrin – hail from such Emmy-winning shows as, respectively, Lost and Friday Night Lights, I’m inclined to cut them some slack for now, especially since Bates Motel is anchored by two absolutely spellbinding performances by Highmore and Farmiga.
In terms of degree of difficulty, I have to award points to Highmore, the former British child actor who tore your heart out as the little son of doomed Kate Winslet in 2004’s Finding Neverland and took the title role in Tim Burton’s uneven 2005 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Now lean and lanky at 21 in real life and managing a credible American accent, Highmore is inspired casting in a role that previously has been inextricably associated with Anthony Perkins. The show’s creators have indicated in interviews that they hope viewers will grow attached to Norman and his mom in a way that de-emphasizes the grisly events that will, eventually and inevitably, follow and Highmore does a splendid job of playing a younger Norman Bates who is both already seriously damaged yet heartbreakingly salvageable at the time the events in this series play out.
The reason his sad fate is sealed is spelled out by Farmiga’s uncompromising and multifaceted portrayal as a woman who wants to be all things to her son: protector, companion, confidante, even surrogate lover. Watching her scenes, you get a sense that this actress, who has been plugging away for so many years without the appreciation she deserves, recognized a career-changing role when she saw it, because she delivers an utterly fearless performance. Her Norma is determined to keep Norman bound to her in a you-and-me-against-the-world dynamic, and what she does to assure that is one of the creepiest things about Bates Motel.
By the end of the premiere episode, we’ve seen (probably) two murders, a violent attempted rape, plus evidence of a sex slave ring, with hints to follow that this Pacific Northwestern community is so kinky that somewhere there’s a diner that serves a damn good cherry pie (Cuse has freely acknowledged that Twin Peaks is an integral part of the show’s DNA).
This early 2013 TV season includes such other serial killer projects as the popular but probability-stretching The Following on Fox and NBC’s upcoming and very bleak Hannibal, but it’s Farmiga and Highmore’s dazzling double act that will keep me checking into Bates Motel week after week. It’s wonderful to see A&E, once a front-runner in terms of original dramatic programming, raise itself out of the muck of low-budget reality shows to deliver such an audacious new original. Bravo.
Kim Novak: Live From the TCM Classic Film Festival, premiering tonight on Turner Classic Movies, is a fascinating combination of interview, confessional and therapy session. Still beautiful at 80, the semi-reclusive Novak, who left the Hollywood spotlight for life in Oregon with her husband , an equine veterinarian, seems a bit nervous at the start of the one-hour special, but host Robert Osborne soon has her talking freely about her spectacular, if rather short, career trajectory.
After growing up in Chicago in a Catholic family with a father who struggled with mental illness and found it all but impossible to express love, Novak came to Los Angeles as a rookie model in 1953 and almost immediately got movie work as an extra. A screen test and contract at Columbia Pictures followed just as quickly and within two years Novak was a full-blown movie superstar.
Supportive executives at Columbia handed her plum roles in major projects such as Otto Preminger’s The Man With the Golden Arm and the all-star 1955 movie adaptation of the Broadway hit Picnic. It was the latter film that sealed her stardom, yet she had some tense moments with director Joshua Logan, who had directed the stage premiere. Logan made no secret of the fact that he had wanted actress Janice Rule to reprise her Broadway success in Novak’s role and on occasion he grew frustrated with Novak’s reluctance to, you know, act. Novak, who had virtually no technical training as an actress, felt it was more important for her to experience the character’s emotions personally, rather than stretch herself to play things that were out of her comfort range.
She much preferred to work with directors like Preminger and Alfred Hitchcock (on Vertigo), who, according to Novak, simply gave her instructions on the externals and left the emotional facets of the performance to her.
“They told you what they wanted you to wear, and they wanted you to know your lines, come on time and you bring the character,” she tells Osborne.
And that character, beyond a certain point, always was Kim Novak in some aspect, which may help explain why the actress seldom has received a lot of critical adulation or an Academy Award nomination, despite a string of high-profile roles. She admits that the lack of acknowledgment does bother her in retrospect, but she also freely concedes that her career path pretty much followed the path of least resistance. A strong believer in destiny, Novak says she took the roles that came to her and, when the juicy stuff stopped coming her way after the death of Columbia chief Harry Cohn in 1958, she eventually just packed it in.
It’s probably telling that when the director of her screen test asked her to stand in front of the camera and talk about what she wanted out of life, Novak says she replied, “All I want is to be loved.” That’s a recurring theme during the special, and the actress – who reveals that she takes medication for a bipolar disorder – often seems to be struggling to contain her emotions. They finally spill over near the end of the hour, when Novak begins to weep as she tries to articulate her own perspective on her performances.
“It’s not acting,” she tells Osborne. “To me, what I’ve always wanted to be is not an actress, but a realist, and just put out what I feel about life, who I am.”
She insists she has no regrets about leaving Hollywood for a simpler life in the Pacific Northwest, but concedes that occasionally she wonders whether she should have fought harder to get roles she wanted instead of just waiting to see what came to her. Ultimately, though, it’s hard not to believe Novak made the right choice. Her star was seriously waning just as American movies were entering a more visceral period in which actors and actresses tried to vanish inside characters that were far removed from their own personalities, and directors were less inclined to value beauty and glamour if it came at the expense of artistic credibility.
In addition to this Novak interview special, tonight’s TCM lineup includes four of the actress’s best-known films: The Man With the Golden Arm and Picnic (both from 1955), Bell, Book and Candle (1958) and Of Human Bondage (1964).