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.”
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?