Edward Norton

Primal Fear (1996) was one of those thrillers from the decade with shocking plot twists (The Usual Suspects, Sixth Sense, Presumed Innocent, Fight Club, The Crying Game, 12 Monkeys, and Se7en). Edward Norton morphed from Eagle Scout to monster and had me thinking he would be one of the more interesting actors to watch for the next twenty years. Norton became linked with other intellectual anti-heroes like Kevin Spacey and zipped through the 1990s on fire, but by the mid 2000s, and now at his twenty anniversary in the industry, he has calmed down. Worse, some of his performances were tepid at best. His ability to consume the screen and steal the limelight made him one of the few actors who could raise my eyebrows with awe when he became the character with conviction.


The Smart Edward

I wasn’t surprised to learn that he had an Ivy League education. Along with college friend, Paul Giamatti, he graduated from Yale. Smart characters share similar characteristics. They are fast-talking, manipulative, and shrewd. They need smart actors to portray them. In the first ten years of his career, his characters exuded arrogance and contempt better than anyone. He played the bored cat in a room full of mice with precision. When he was this character, I felt ambivalence and that takes skill to execute.

The Italian Job (2003)
In this heist film, he was the double-crossing team villain, and the movie revolved around stopping him. I felt the rush of adrenaline with those awesome chase scenes. I’ve wanted a red Mini ever since. Do you prefer the classic with Michael Caine? 

With a raw script, Spike Lee’s 25th Hour (2002) included a strong cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Billy Cox, and Anna Paquin. Angry, flawed, and intelligent, Monty Brogan’s misanthropic rant to himself in the mirror was nothing short of–Wow. “You had it all and you threw it away.”
Multiple Personalities
Norton could play two characters in one film. That’s one reason for his popularity from fans and peers. Playing a character with mental challenges or multiple personalities takes talent few can do.

In the Frank Oz film, The Score (2001) this Canadian crime thriller starred Robert DeNiro and Marlon Brando, legends who paled to Edward Norton’s energy. He flipped-flopped between the challenged janitor and Jack Teller with ease. Nick Wells (Robert DeNiro) got the best of Jack Teller in the end, but it was Edward Norton’s performance that stole the show. I loved the film. What did you think of Stone? 

Primal Fear (1996)
I saw it the other night, and it still holds up over time. One strength of the film is how manipulation affects everyone including the audience. Aren’t we supposed to dislike the hot-shot defense attorney, Martin Vail (Richard Gere) for being that ego-driven, greedy lawyer? Ms. Venable (Laura Linney) is the smart girlfriend who scorns his shallowness and confirms our dislike. Enter Aaron and Roy. If you have not seen this film, it’s on Netflix or rent it soon. This was Edward Norton’s first performance and first nomination for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor. What potential. Another strength of the film is the female cast: Francis McDormand, Alfre Woodard, Laura Linney, perhaps, her finest performance.


American History X (1998) 
Edward Norton’s most savage performance of the 1990s, director Tony Kaye coaxed a profane monster out of Edward Norton who metamorphosed into a buffed, Neo-Nazi. Stomach through the racism and violence, for it is worth it for the last chapter and Derick Vinyard’s transformation. Sucked into the cult of Neo-Nazism, the film demonstrated how hate corrupts every aspect of society. Norton oozed adrenaline. His transformation from evil to culpability was not easy, and he pulled it off.

A seminal film for many men today between the ages of 33-45, David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999) hit a cord. It glorified testosterone, showcased Brad Pitt’s charisma, and defined a new generation of rebels without a cause. Nothing like an unreliable narrator to foster suspense. After this film, Edward Norton had a cult following. But by the mid 2000s, Norton branched out to quieter roles like the love-lorn introvert and it altered our perception of him. Frankly, he lost that wow factor. His performances seemed, well, mediocre.

The Painted Veil (2006) is a period film adapted from the 1925 book classic. Instead of Edward Norton, I was more impressed with Naomi Watts and her performance. The Chinese setting, the cinematography, the complicated love story, the subplots, and Toby Jones made it a fine film, regardless. Of course, the book by W. Somerset Maugham  deserves a reading.

Neil Berger’s film The Illusionist (2006) was charming and fun to watch Paul Giamatti, but Prestige from the same year was a better film, don’t you think? As Bruce Banner in The Incredible Hulk (2008) Norton played complicated well. Still. What was missing? For one thing, the chemistry was non-existent with Liv Tyler.

Maybe it took Edward Norton a decade to reinvent himself. His recent efforts with Wes Anderson have helped to redefine him. Whether you liked Birdman (2014) or not, Edward Norton was perfect in the role as the puffed-up actor. Here’s my post about


Collateral Beauty (2016) is scheduled for a December 16 release date in the States. Let’s see how Edward Norton handles his role. Directed by David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada), it stars: Will Smith, Keira Knightley, Kate Winslet, Helen Mirren, Edward Norton, Naomie Harris, Michael Peña, and Enrique Murciano. It feels like a romantic dark comedy wiggling into the awards season. What do you know about the film?

72 thoughts on “Edward Norton

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      1. Yes, I’ve seen the classic The Italian Job and I do prefer it. But that’s because Mark Wahlberg’s role compares poorly to Michael Caine’s original, not because of Edward Norton’s participation in it. My clear favorite of Norton’s is Spike Lee’s ‘The 25th Hour’.

  1. The first Italian Job is a very different animal to the slick remake. One of the few occasions where the films are different enough to stop me climbing onto my “Hate Remakes” soapbox, they can more or less be viewed as different films. The original has period charm though, and the much better, original Mini. And it has Noel Coward too. So for me, it wins hands down.
    I have not seen all of Norton’s films, but his presence on screen has always held my attention. I like the fact that he looks like he is thinking about what he is doing, and not constantly playing similar roles.
    I loved The Illusionist, and The Score, but American History X has to be his standout performance.

    Nice to see that you are still blogging about films, Cindy. Doing what you do best.
    Best wishes as always, Pete.

    1. Thanks, Pete. I really like Michael Caine, so I better rent the original Italian Job. I think you’d like Primal Fear if you haven’t seen it. I rent movies on Amazon. That’s a good way to see films of your choosing.

      1. I have seen Primal Fear, Cindy. It’s a good twist, and an excellent performance from the younger Norton.
        The original Italian Job is very much a comedy, in the style of the vintage Ealing comedies of old.
        Best wishes, Pete.

  2. Great post, Cindy. There was a time when Norton’s name would be enough to check a film out. His debut in Primal Fear knocked my socks off as did his turn in American History X. I also agree that he stole the limelight from both Brando and DeNiro in The Score. Then, as you rightly point out, he faded away. He was no longer grabbing the attention he once did. Such a shame as I still think he’s one of the finest of his generation but he needs to prove that again. Birdman was a recent glimmer of how good he can be but he needs to build on it.

    1. Thanks, Mark. He’s 49 now. He doesn’t have to be explosive, but interesting (like Birdman). That’s why I’m hoping this new film in December is good. I know a lot depends on a good script. We will see!

      1. Here’s hoping. To be honest, I think Norton has to start taking the reigns again. I think he needs more leading roles. He’s been pleasant to watch as supporting characters in Wes Anderson’s stuff but I want to see more grit and range like American History X again. That was such a phenomenally powerful performance.

        1. I agree with you. Who knows how his personal agendas have played out over the years. That’s a lot of energy to invest into a character–especially a monster. If I pretend to step into his shoes, maybe I’d think, “Well, you’ll never top that, so try something else and expand the repertoire.” Maybe he felt fear he’d be typecast and wanted more human roles to play. IDK.

          1. Could be that he was trying something else. One things for sure, he is always interesting regardless of what role he’s taken on. I think one of his most natural strengths is his effortless charisma. He’s always an appealing presence. That said, apparently he’s notoriously difficult to work with so that could have contributed to some roles drying up for him and he was left with no choice but to try different paths. ??

          2. Yeah, apparently so. His portrayal of Mike Shiner was supposedly a dig at himself. Can’t fault him for that. At least he’s aware. 🙂

  3. Wonderful tribute to an excellent actor! He blew me away in Primal Fear, and LOVE him in pretty much everything else he’s in, even the HULK movie! He can be scary but understated and romantic as well, I think one of my fave roles of his is The Painted Veil.

      1. Yes indeed! I have such a fondness for that film, it’s a beautiful love story that shows how imperfect love is. I like Liev Schreiber in this too, who’s Naomi’s real life husband.

  4. He was one of my favourite actors for a long while, but I tuned out as his performance levels dipped. I think there are encouraging signs of recovery though, based on his supporting turns in Grand Budapest Hotel, Moonrise Kingdom and (especially) Birdman. I generally admire him in the roles you and others have highlighted above – Fight Club, Primal Fear, American History X, etc – but also worth mentioning is Down In The Valley, an indie he made about 10 years ago. Not a great film but his performance is pretty good.

    1. Hiya Stu. I’m glad you brought up Down in the Valley. I don’t claim to have seen everything he’s done. I was wondering about that one and am glad you liked it. We share similar tastes. I think the first time I was surprised I was bored was when I saw The Red Dragon. Anyone could have played that role. The People vs. Larry Flint–missed this, but I know people really like the film. If I saw Rounders, I fell asleep. I don’t remember a thing.

      1. I haven’t seen all of his films either, though I was surprised as to how many I had seen when I went through IMDB. I remember enjoying Rounders at the time but rewatched it a year or two ago and it wasn’t particularly good. John Malkovich hams it up spectacularly as a Russian gangster, but Norton has a good go at chewing the scenery too.

  5. Great line-up. I’ve always loved Norton as an actor though I would agree with you about the 2000’s, the Hulk movie was not a good idea. I really enjoyed him recently in Moonrise Kingdom, he was my favorite part of that movie.

  6. Love the guy. I have yet to see him in something I haven’t liked. Then again, my sample size is pretty small. Hehe

  7. Great piece Cindy! I used to be a HUGE Edward Norton fan, and would watch him in anything. Recently, he hasn’t really done much (though he was goon in Birdman), which is a pity. I loved his work in American History X (probably hands down my favourite role – how disgusting and cruel and then that change, wow), and Fight Club (of course) and Primal Fear.

    Unfortunately for all magic movies, The Prestige has thrown them all into some sad, forgotten pile. Really.

    1. Weird, huh? He has distinct periods. Maybe a lack of interesting scripts. Maybe he didn’t want to be typecast as a monster/smartass anymore. When he tried another avenue of expression, his performances seemed wooden, as though any number of actors could have played the role.

  8. Awesome post Cindy. You really dive deep into film and always have me thinking about things differently. Norton was my first fave actor, way back in the day when I was 22 or so and saw Fight Club. I’ve seen it about 50 times since and I’ll never get sick of Norton in that role. Or Pitt for that matter.

    And American History X, wow, what a monster character he portrayed. Its been a long time but I need to revisit that, and also 25th Hour, which I remember liking back in the day.

    I agree that The Prestige was better than The Illusionist in almost every regard. I also agree that his recent performances (the two with Wes and Birdman) might signify a resurgence. I sure hope so.

    I still can’t believe Primal Fear was his FIRST film! He was bloody incredible!

  9. One of the best actors of his generation. Primal Fear has one of best debut performances ever. I’m very anti-Fight Club, but I thought he was superb in American History X (probably his best work to date) and Birdman (I have my issues with the film though). I also think he is the best movie Bruce Banner.

    Okay, I hated the new Italian Job movie. The original isn’t exactly a great movie, but it does have charm and style. I really enjoyed The Score. You get three generations of method acting in one film. I could make an argument in favor of Norton as Brando’s current heir apparent. He, unfortunately, doesn’t get many strong roles.

    1. Sorry for the delay, I’ve been away. So yes, Eric, I was excited to see three generations of method actors in The Score. I believe I remember a long time ago reading that DeNiro saw himself in Norton. I am curious how the 2010 Stone was. Birdman–why don’t you like it? The only think I didn’t care for was Emma Stone’s character. I liked it very much. The best Bruce Banner, huh? There was something off with the chemistry between Liv Tyler and he. I don’t know who’s fault it was, but they didn’t look good together, IMO. As far as The Italian Job, I can understand your derision, but I forgave its faults. Why? I don’t know except I just loved the Mini chase scenes. Maybe if I revisited it, my older eyes would be more critical.

      1. I found Birdman clever, interesting, but ultimately cold, very cold; I just couldn’t connect on an emotional level. That tends to be my reaction to Iñárritu’s movies — technically proficient movies that don’t do much for me. And I don’t like Stone; an overrated actor.

        I’m a big fan of Ang Lee’s (unfairly maligned) Hulk. IMHO, the best modern superhero movie. That being said, Eric Bana, and Mark Ruffalo for that matter, failed to captured Banner’s tormented personality. Bill Bixby go it. Norton got it too. Unfortunately, Norton’s Hulk movie is flawed.

  10. Interesting correspondence between a top education and good, intelligent characterization – I didn’t realise both Norton and another one of my favorite actors Paul Giamatti attended Yale. Norton’s done some exceptional work – a love the fact he can mix dark with comic, sometimes at the same time.

    Favorite performance..? I’d go with his late 1990s work – American History X followed by Fight Club. More recently, Moonrise Kingdom and he was brilliant in Birdman.

    1. Dan, you and I agree. I thought he was charming in Moonrise and yes, brilliant in Birdman. Looking forward to December to see what he does with Collateral Beauty. Thank you for stopping by!

  11. Edward Norton as the one taken advantage of by the priest (archbishop), was a shocking, absorbing and great film career jumpstart! It reminded me of Christian Slater was so unique in his mute character role, in the movie with Sean Connery, “The Name of the Rose.”
    It is also taking me to the Leonardo Di Caprio, early career role as the main character in”This Boy’s Life,” (Robert DeNiro played his father, I knoe you realize this, more for the ones who may drop in. . . ) Each of these lucky young men were paired with a fine actor in their prime, Cindy. 🙂

    1. I remember This Boy’s Life. It’s based from the memoir by Tobias Wolff. He was pretty popular writer when I went through lit classes.
      I’m going to email you now. We need to chat about June 13!

  12. Very nice analysis of Norton’s career.
    I’ve been following Edward Norton (and appreciating his talent) since Primal Fear: his performance blew me away!
    Among his films I love best American History X, Fight Club and The 25th Hour.

  13. Wow great post Cindy, encapsulating how his career has declined in recent years from the promise of those early performances. It’s hard to impress with something new when you’re no longer fresh and lots of bad films get made with good intentions but Norton was in some of the most interesting original films of the late 90s. My best friend recommended American History X as the best film of 1998, Primal Fear which actually was a comeback hit for Richard Gere who had a string of flops leading up to it, Rounders a boring disappointment for me too was seen mostly on the promise of Matt Damon and Edward Norton being in the same film with John Malkovich no less and you’re bang on that Fight Club is a film that speaks to a whole generation of men. Most of these films were not big hits but they’re mostly beloved classics of their era and they’re known primarily as Edward Norton films regardless of his billing. The Italian Job remake was the beginning of the end, a blockbuster where rumours of backstage fighting and isolation was followed by a lacklustre performance in a decent but forgettable genre flick. The Score may be average as well but at least Norton shines in it. His lack of pop in a blockbuster would be repeated in The Incredible Hulk as well but at least he impressed with his yoga positions. The Illusionist and One Day in the Valley are the only recent things that I’ve heard good things about that I’m yet to see. It could be Norton really doesn’t play well with others and it could be that’s why he’s better suited to indie flicks but the Birdman proves there’s still talent there even if for the past decade it’s been grossly under tapped.

    1. Hi Lloyd, thanks for your thoughts regarding Norton and I’m agree we for the most part. I loved him in Birdman, most likely parodying himself in it as the difficult actor who grates on everyone around him. His Wes Anderson collaborations show the softer side of Norton. A number of actors could have fit the build. Not so with is 90s fims. He was mesmerizing.

    1. I’m sure you do. Charlize is breathtaking. I love Caine–I think this winter I’ll investigate his filmography. Have you seen him and Harvey Keitel in ‘Youth’? Excellent film!

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