The perfect Mother’s Day movie — for the rest of us

Each year, the Brattle Theater here in Cambridge recognizes Mother’s Day with a screening of what it considers the ultimate Mother’s Day movie. Terms of Endearment? Nope. Steel Magnolias? Not even close.

Thanks to the iconoclastic minds at the Brattle, the major Mother’s Day offering is–-Psycho.

Yes, that’s right. Psycho. Alfred Hitchcock’s classic tale of what can happen when a man who was WAY too close with his mother runs a motel with thick shower curtains. This was the third straight year that I attended the screening. As it was for the previous two years, the theater was crowded.

What kind of person sees Psycho on Mother’s Day? And why am I among them? I’ll answer the second question first. This was the 27th Mother’s Day I’ve marked since my mother died (not that I’m counting.) During my years with her, our relationship was, to put it diplomatically, complicated. These factors make me tend to want to forget about Mother’s Day. When I open my Facebook and see the infinite homages to mothers far and wide, I’m genuinely moved and happy for my friends. But then, there’s always that part of me that’s sad and angry.

In an odd way, watching Psycho helps me deal with that sadness and anger. I don’t think I’m alone. Among the audience, I noticed many people who came to the theater by themselves–as I did. Even among those who came with others, most of the conversations were not exactly out of a Hallmark card. In front of me, a young man wrapped his arms around his female companion and sweetly said, “There’s still time to call your mother today. It would be nice if you did that.” To which the young woman replied “It would also be nice if my mother wasn’t an insufferable bitch.” It was that kind of crowd.

But then the lights went down, the curtain parted, and Bernard Herman’s iconic score began. And for the next two hours, the only sounds coming from us were shrieks and laughter. Especially when you’ve seen the film over and over, you can’t help but laugh at lines like Norman Bates’ classic “A boy’s best friend is his mother.” When it was over, there was thunderous clapping, and even more laughter–like the kind you hear from people after they just got off a roller coaster. As for myself, I felt as though a weighty cloud had been lifted, and all was right with the world again.

As I often do when I re-watch classic films, I notice something different every time I watch Psycho. This year, I dug deeper into how the film handled mental illness. First there’s the famous conversation scene between Norman and Marion in Marion’s motel room. I’ve always loved this scene for its sharp dialogue and the terrific performances by Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh.

But this year, for the first time, I noticed how deeply mental illness factors into that scene. Norman and Marion are have a very nice conversation–until the issue of Norman’s mother comes up. Marion innocently suggests that it might be better if she was put “someplace.” Marion can’t bring herself to say the word “institution,” but Norman knows exactly what she means. Suddenly Norman’s entire demeanor changes, and it’s easy to understand why. Norman is his mother. He knows that any suggestion that his mother should be “sent away” means he should be “sent away.” If mental illness is misunderstood today, I can only imagine how difficult it was in 1960, when Psycho came out. This was a time when just the mention of any mental illness could indeed get someone put in an institution.

The sad thing about Norman is that, by this time, he had already become a murderer. As we find out at the end of the film, Norman had years ago killed both his mother and a man she was sleeping with. He dealt with that by becoming his mother in his own mind. And, for good measure, keeping her corpse at the motel.

That leads me to the second revelation I had when I watched the film again tonight. It was the calm, matter-of-fact tone that the prison psychiatrist uses in explaining Norman’s history and his mindset after he was (inevitably) caught. Schizophrenia and transvestism are brought up (and boy, how loaded must THOSE topics have been in 1960.) But, instead of talking about Norman as though he was a pariah, the psychiatrist simply explains what he thinks was going on in Norman’s mind, and why he would think of himself as his mother. I’m not sure, but Psycho might have been one of the first films to offer an informed explanation of mental illness. Hitchcock goes even father by giving the final words of the film to Norman, who is, by this time fully in the mind of his mother.

In the end, Norman Bates becomes one of the most identifiable — and even likable — villans in movie history. I hate to admit it, but there are parts of Norman that I identify with, especially his loneliness, his hatred of being treated like an outcast, and his efforts to love a mother who treated him so badly (probably due to mental health issues of her own.)

Maybe the reason Psycho always puts I smile on my face is that I get to think that things could be a lot worse for me. I could have been like Norman Bates, living in a time when hardly anyone understood mental illness. I do have fond memories of my mother. But, unlike Norman Bates, I’ve spent my life doing as much as possible to avoid “becoming” her.

Sure, I think of my mom on Mother’s Day. I remember the good times. And there were good times. But when Norman Bates says that “a boy’s best friend is his mother,” I laugh more than most. I laugh because I know better. I’m glad that, every Mother’s Day, Norman Bates is around to remind me of that.

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