Edward Norton has a talent level that is off the charts. He has embodied so many wonderful, compelling characters, receiving numerous nominations and awards for many of these. But with all these accolades, why haven’t we seen Norton lately? And even though we know the name and the face, why isn’t Edward Norton in the top echelon of Hollywood actors?
EDWARD NORTON GETS A “PRIMAL” START
Edward Norton opened eyes immediately with his first starring role. He co-starred in the 1996 Richard Gere thriller Primal Fear. For Norton, he played a role that brought him immediate recognition by critics and the award industry alike. The story follows Gere’s Martin Vail, who defends an altar boy accused of brutally murdering a priest. There are so many twists and turns in this movie that you won’t even see the final big one coming.
For Norton’s performance, he was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar Award and he won a Golden Globe for the same thing. In fact, his performance not only got him the Golden Globe, but he also won seven other various awards for this role. That’s a start any actor or actress would love to have and while it does sound good, it can be a blessing or a curse.
X AND THE CLUB
Edward Norton quickly turned that performance into more work. He was next seen in the Woody Allen film Everyone Says I Love You and then The People vs. Larry Flynt. Both films continued Norton’s rise but it was the 1998 controversial film American History X that solidified Norton’s status as an up and coming Hollywood heavyweight.
In it, Norton played reformed neo-Nazi skinhead Derek Vinyard. It was an unflinching and oftentimes brutal look at the life of Vinyard, who was the leader of a violent white supremacist gang who was out on parole after serving three years in prison for brutally killing two black men who were trying to break into his truck. Upon his release, a newly reformed Vinyard now must make sure his younger brother doesn’t follow in his footsteps.
Up next was Rounders which Norton then followed up with another critical hit, Fight Club which also starred Brad Pitt and the greatest singer in the world, Meat Loaf (Bat Out of Hell, The Rocky Horror Picture Show). Norton’s career was off to a blazing start.
EDWARD NORTON KEEPS IT ROLLING
Edward Norton kept things moving along. After the success in Fear, X, and Fight Club, he moved on to others. Keeping the Faith, his first shot at a romantic comedy, then The Score, Death to Smoochy, Frida, and then he took on the character of Will Graham in Red Dragon, played first by William Petersen in the movie Manhunter. The character was also played by Hugh Dancy in the TV series Hannibal. While Red Dragon wasn’t the major hit Norton was hoping for, it was a solid effort in the Hannibal Lecter series.
Norton’s career continued with more high-profile movies. 25th Hour, The Italian Job, Kingdom of Heaven, and The Illusionist were just a few. Then Norton made his leap over comic book fare with his portrayal of Bruce Banner in The Incredible Hulk. The whispering began.
THOSE BRUCE BANNER REWRITES
Edward Norton was reluctant at first to take on the role of Banner. The reason was the first Hulk movie, in his eyes, deviated. He told Total Film, “I just think that what people felt about that one was it strayed far afield from a story that was familiar to people and that people respond to, which is a fugitive story really.”
So, Norton’s involvement with The Incredible Hulk came down to one thing. The script and his rewriting of it. “To be honest that was the only way I was going to do it. Over the years I’ve had people come at me with comic-book franchise films or things like that and I felt they were just woefully under-realized as scripts. You always hear a lot of assurances and protestations about what’s going to make them great, but my better instincts have always prevailed and said, “I don’t really see that happening… and I don’t have the time to be the one to do it.”
But this one fell at a moment where I actually didn’t have big plans and as I began to noodle on it and talked to Louis Leterrier [the director], who is great, I thought, “This is amazing, if we’re really being given the chance to take one of these things seriously on its own terms.” But it was his level of involvement that began to ruffle feathers, even though director Leterrier, whose initial choice, believe it or not, was Mark Ruffalo who eventually became Marvel’s Hulk, denied that Norton’s desire to rewrite had become an issue. But again, those whispers.
THE DIVA EFFECT
Some people just can’t get out of their own way. Some people feel their worth is more than anyone else’s. Both hold true for Edward Norton, who over the years has been described as being difficult on movie sets. His reputation of overstepping greatly on film projects has followed him from movie to movie and even though his talent is unquestioned, his overstepping has left a bad taste with many in Hollywood.
Norton’s difficulty on set has become legendary. His reaction in a New York Times piece by David Marchese seems to fall in line with Norton’s famous attitude. He was asked about his feelings towards his perceived reputation, “Honestly, I find the whole line a little boring. You’re pulling on a narrative from things when I was 28 years old. That’s not even a contemporary meme around me.”
Norton also spoke about his interactions with Marvel president Kevin Feige and how their initial vision for Hulk was two movies. As things played out, Norton finally bailed on the idea, which prompted Feige to release a statement concerning Norton, and Norton’s reaction was sincere, “Yeah, which was cheap. It was brand defensiveness or something. Ultimately, they weren’t going for long, dark and serious. But it doesn’t matter. We had positive discussions about going on with the films, and we looked at the amount of time that would’ve taken, and I wasn’t going to do that. I honestly would’ve wanted more money than they’d have wanted to pay me. But that’s not why I would’ve wanted to do another “Hulk” movie anyway. I went and did all the other things I wanted to do, and what Kevin Feige has done is probably one of the best executions of a business plan in the history of the entertainment industry.”
This reputation has continued to follow Norton throughout his career, which could be the reason of his slow down in making films. But according to Norton, it is more of a choice rather than Hollywood saying no to the actor. “…the experience of doing these things is not novel anymore. It’s also just not real life. I don’t want to look back on my life and see the large majority of it colored with me playing pretend instead of actually doing things. That’s not to pooh-pooh the work or knock anybody else, but I don’t think that actors are better for working more. If you take a Daniel Day-Lewis or Sean Penn, the fact that you see them a lot less means that when they return there’s a potency to their acting. There’s a point at which any actor starts to become their own pollution.”
EDWARD NORTON: ACTIVIST
Edward Norton has given much of his time to worthwhile causes. He has narrated a number of documentaries, has been an influential voice in renewable energy, and a supporter of the African Wildlife Foundation. Norton is also heavily involved in the political spectrum, going as far as producing the documentary By the People: The Election of Barack Obama.
WHAT COMES NEXT
So, what does come next for the mercurial actor? His last starring role came in the feature Motherless Brooklyn, a movie that saw Norton star in, write, and direct. Maybe this is the only way he gets himself back on the big screen, by doing it all himself. Or maybe not. His talent is unquestioned, but the question begs, how willing will those in Hollywood be in dealing with an actor with Norton’s difficult history? Hopefully, talent wins out.