“Sometimes creativity is a compulsion, not an ambition.”—Edward Norton
American actor Edward Norton has become an instantly recognisable acting talent with brilliant performances in some of the best films of recent years like Fight Club and Birdman, among others. His work has been critically acclaimed and has earned him multiple awards and nominations, including a Golden Globe and three Academy Award nominations. Apart from his contribution to the world of cinema, he is engaged in environmental activism and is the UN Goodwill Ambassador for Biodiversity.
Norton was interested in the performing arts since he was a child. At the age of five, he saw the musical Cinderella with his parents at the Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts which sparked a lifelong interest in the theatre. “I used to go to the theater a lot with my parents. Even though I really liked movies, theater had a bigger impression on me,” he later reflected.
Adding: “When I was really young I was affected by movies like Escape from Witch Mountain and Star Wars. But I was affected by the cinema of those movies, not by the idea of acting in movies. In pre-teenage life, my relationship to movies was sort of awe at the spectacle.”
On his 51st birthday, we revisit some of the greatest performances in the spectacular career of Edward Norton.
Edward Norton’s 10 best films:
10. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson – 2012)
Despite being associated with serious roles for the majority of his career, Norton is fantastic as the part-time camp master/math teacher who loses a young camper called Sam (played by Jared Gilman) and embarks on a hunt to bring him back. Norton’s nerdy, light-hearted demeanour as Scout Master Ward is a welcome change from the kind of performances we are accustomed to seeing from him.
“The memory of a fantasy is what somebody said to me in Cannes, last week, and that is what it is,” Anderson said. “I remember this feeling, from when I was that age and from when I was in fifth grade, but nothing really happened. I just experienced the period of dreaming about what might happen, when I was at that age.
“I feel like the movie could really be something that was envisioned by one of these characters.”
9. The People Vs Larry Flynt (Miloš Forman – 1996)
Forman’s 1996 biographical drama features Edward Norton as Alan Isaacman, an attorney who becomes friends with Larry Flynt, the famous pornographic magazine publisher. In what was one of his very first roles, Norton is charming and compelling as a talented First Amendment lawyer who insists that there is no room for censorship in a country like America which champions free speech as a fundamental right.
“Before the release I was really nervous, and so therefore I was smoking a lot,” Forman revealed. “The whole little cinema was full of smoke. Larry was sitting there without moving, half hidden by the smoke from my cigar, and he was staring at the screen. It took me a while to realise he had tears in his eyes.
“The only thing Flynt had seen was a glittering dream version of his Althea – the king of porn was more sentimental than a teenage poet.”
8. The Score (Frank Oz – 2001)
Even though Norton had already established himself as a young actor of a high calibre by the time this film came out, he had to undertake the daunting task of acting alongside Robert De Niro and Marlon Brando.
The film has its flaws but Norton holds his own among these legends as Jack Teller, an ambitious young thief who is reluctantly accepted to join the heist (to steal a sceptre worth $4million from the Montreal Customs House).
Speaking about his co-star, the famous Marlon Brando, Norton said, “I thought he was hampered by the genre. I don’t think I would have done that film if not for those two actors [Brando and DeNiro] being in it. I think Marlon got boxed-in to a limited expositional role. I loved watching the way he went about keeping it somewhat fresh for himself.”
7. The Illusionist (Neil Burger – 2006)
Norton puts up a brilliant performance as an intriguing magician named Eisenheim in Neil Burger’s 2006 period drama. The narrative structure of the film is shaped like a magic trick itself, featuring class conflicts in the form of a love story between the Duchess of Tesche (played by Jessica Biel) and the poor illusionist. Norton puts up a confident performance as he prepares for the greatest trick of his life.
“I was struck that there are seven or eight performances in it,” Norton recalled. “As I was reading them I thought it would really be something to pull these off, although it would take some work to do them convincingly. That alone was compelling to me because I don’t really see myself as this guy. I had an idea of him in my head but I don’t look in the mirror and see that guy. So, that was the initial appeal for me.”
6. The Painted Veil (John Curran – 2006)
Based on the 1925 eponymous novel by William Somerset Maugham, Norton plays the role of Walter Frane, a bacteriologist who volunteers to treat victims of the Chinese cholera epidemic. The film explores the intimate relationship between Frane and a London socialite (played by Naomi Watts) and everything that can go wrong with romantic obsession. Not only is Norton brilliant as Frane, but he also helped with the writing and the production of the film.
Norton explained why he liked the project, “I’m just saying that I thought that it was a kind of romance that I actually liked. It touched me and I felt like it was a story about the long struggle of men and women to actually understand each other in a forgiving way and I found that very touching because it is challenging.”
5. Birdman (Alejandro González Iñárritu – 2014)
Iñárritu’s 2014 film remains one of the best films of the last decade, winning Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Cinematography.
A meta-fictional take on the process of artistic creation, it stars Michael Keaton as a faded star who is struggling to put on a Broadway production. Norton plays Mike Shiner, a talented but problematic method actor who causes a lot of disruptions in the production. He might not have been at the centre of Birdman but his performance as Shiner is still one of the most memorable ones in his career.
The actor revealed, “I had as much fun making Birdman as I’ve ever had making a movie. I think it was one of the most creatively satisfying experiences I’ve had — and I think it’s an incredibly audacious and very rare movie.”
4. Primal Fear (Gregory Hoblit – 1996)
This 1996 neo-noir crime thriller was Edward Norton’s first film and that just speaks to the quality of his acting skills because he manages to outperform lead actor Richard Gere. Norton is mesmerising as Aaron Stampler, a young, stuttering altar boy who is accused of brutally murdering the Archbishop Rushman. At first glance, nobody would suspect that Aaron is capable of such a crime but he has a sociopathic alter-ego who admits to the murder. Norton seamlessly transitions between the two psychologically antithetical personas.
Richard Gere recalled the problems with the casting, “We couldn’t find someone to play the kid. We had all these wonderful young actors, who were very talented, and could play the crazy part, but they couldn’t play the innocent.”
“At the very last second — I was ready to leave the movie [because] we couldn’t cast — Edward came in,” Gere said. “We tested him a couple times and they were both extremely brilliant. It was really Edward that allowed us to make the movie, allowed me to stay in the movie. He could pull that off: that darkness behind a very believable, genuine soft boy.”
3. 25th Hour (Spike Lee – 2002)
Based on David Benioff’s novel, Spike Lee’s 2002 drama follows the final hours of a man who is sentenced to jail for seven years, convicted of being a drug dealer. An engaging and painful study of the anticipation of being imprisoned, Norton stars as Monty and perfectly captures the internal conflicts of someone who is preparing to bid farewell to personal liberty, forced to confront his own mistakes.
Norton had this to say about his character, “It’s not my instinct to judge a character. I ask: does the story, as a whole, make a statement I can get behind? And this film is a very strong and unequivocal statement about the consequences of not examining the morality of what you’re doing.”
Adding, “What struck me, too, is that Spike said it was like a love poem to the city, and that’s true. What Monty is doing is preparing to leave it all. When he does leave, all these things he loves about the city come back to haunt him.”
2. Fight Club (David Fincher – 1999)
Arguably Norton’s most iconic role, the actor is unquestionably brilliant as the protagonist who is disillusioned with the rotting foundations of modern society.
Riddled with anxieties and psychological disorders, Norton’s character internalizes it all until he cannot anymore and starts a revolution from a basement with the help of the enigmatic Tyler Durden (played by Brad Pitt). Famous for its final twist, Norton and Pitt form a formidable duo in one of the most popular psychological thrillers of all time.
Speaking about the film’s initially poor box office performance, Norton said, “It was an interesting experience because we all loved it and we were very confident about it. We were a little stung. You can never completely detach your ego to how does it do when it first opens, but then we all had the very special experience of realizing that the relationship it formed with people was everything you dream of when you get into films.
“I think if you felt more like the guy who plays my boss in the film, then you tended to not like the film. But also, it just was a tough one to distil. It wasn’t financially successful at first, it never was even in conversation about awards and all that crap.”
1. American History X (Tony Kaye – 1998)
Tony Kaye’s 1998 crime drama presented Norton with the most problematic character he has ever played, a former Neo-Nazi called Derek Vinyard who was convicted of manslaughter but prison changed his outlook on life and he got out.
Derek’s dark and terrifying past keeps coming back to haunt him as he tries to stop his younger brother from going down the same despicable path as him. Norton puts up the performance of a lifetime as Derek and it earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.
“Making American History X was really hard,” Norton reflected. “It was — it was a guerrilla kind of experience. The capacity to hit vulnerable moments defines really good actors, for me. Some parts you do from the outside in. “But sometimes you have to go more in the other direction. Get inside someone’s head.”
He added, “For me, it gives a pretty unequivocal message about letting rage control your life. I would have been much less comfortable if on any level he had got away with it.”