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Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

The Duality of Edward Norton

I, and the rest of the world, think that Edward Nortonis a phenomenal actor, but right upfront I will tell you that I don’t believe Edward Norton is our greatest actor right now; I have long thought that that distinction belongs to Daniel Day-Lewis. But as I was sitting in the theater watching him in The Incredible Hulk, stuffing fistful after fistful of popcorn down my gullet, I started to get a very strange feeling. I looked around the theater and everybody else was just like me, eyes transfixed on the screen while mindlessly munching away on popcorn and nachos and other assorted goodies. I sat back down in the chair and realized – this wasn’t the first time I had ever eaten popcorn during an Edward Norton movie and that felt oddly discomforting because I had never thought of this talented actor as a matinee idol.

It seems that somewhere along the road, Norton decided that he wasn’t merely a working actor that delivered unique performances; he decided that he was, in fact, a star. I’m not saying that this is necessarily a bad conclusion to reach (especially in light of the monster opening weekend for Hulk), but rather one that I never figured this actor would come to. In his first few years on the scene, he had always seemed like the kind of guy who eschewed big-budget cookie-cutter blockbuster films in favor of edgier, grittier work with established and visionary filmmakers.

In the last six years, he’s worked with Louis Leterrier (The Incredible Hulk), John Curran(The Painted Veil), Neil Burger (The Illusionist), David Jacobson (Down in the Valley) and F. Gary Gray (The Italian Job) and all are good filmmakers, but it’s a far cry from his first three years where he worked with Milos Forman (People Vs. Larry Flynt), Woody Allen (Everyone Says I Love You), John Dahl (Rounders), Tony Kaye (American History X) and David Fincher (Fight Club). It seemed that in the beginning of his career, that he was willing to show up and be an actor, ceding power to more established and intimidating names. In recent years, it seems as if Norton has chosen directors who aren’t as famous (or talented) as he is, which gives him the upper-hand. I’m not giving credence to the rumors that he is controlling or that he manipulates things behind the scenes, I’m just looking at the facts and they show that he prefers to work these days with directors less established than he is.

2002 seemed to be a pivotal year for him because in that same year, he worked with Spike Lee (25th Hour) and Brett Ratner (Red Dragon), Julie Taymor (Frida) and Danny DeVito(Death to Smoochy). So who was Ed Norton? Is he the guy who gives a transcendent lead performance in a masterpiece by Spike Lee or the guy who inherits a role originated byWilliam Petersen in a needless film by Ratner? Is he the guy who takes a supporting role in a film by a visionary like Julie Taymor or the guy who takes a supporting role in a mess of a dark comedy by Danny DeVito? In the six years since, there are no clear answers as to who he wants to be. He was just in a big-budget summer blockbuster that is a “restart” of a film that came out five years ago, but he was also working hard to get a difficult film like Down in the Valley made at all.

The reason I care so much is that I think Edward Norton has been lucky enough (and talented enough) to be a part of the two best American films of the last ten years: Fight Cluband 25th Hour. I happen to think that both of those films are defining films for this generation both pre- and post-9/11 and Norton is the star of both, giving two of his most knowing, nuanced and subtle performances. He might have given his best performance in American History X because he had a great role to play, but in Fight Club and 25th Hour he took characters that might not necessarily be so interesting on the page and brought them to life. In both of those films, he could easily disappear while the other actors have a field day with oddball characters (and he was acting opposite some expert scene-stealers in Brad Pitt andPhillip Seymour Hoffman), but instead he commands the screen and owns the films.

So when I see this guy playing Bruce Banner, I have to say, it really irks me. I actually likedThe Incredible Hulk and preferred it to Ang Lee’s more cerebral (and more plodding) original, but it seemed so far beneath Norton’s ample talents. There is nothing wrong with blockbuster films whose goal is to entertain, but did we really need Norton in this role? Wouldn’t the film have been just as entertaining if it was, say, Mark Wahlberg? Bruce Banner in this film is not the same kind of wisecracking cat that Tony Stark is in Iron Man, so there was no way that Norton could replicate the kind of energy and sense of humor that Robert Downey, Jr.brought to that part. Instead, he is the ultimate straight man that only becomes interesting when he’s replaced by a CGI version of himself. Long story short: it’s not a particularly juicy role for an actor to play, but not only did Norton agree to star in it, but he actively pursued it and even insisted on doing a re-write.

I’m guessing that something about the duality of the character must have appealed to Norton, as he seems fascinated by that theme; in most of his movies, he explores the character’s dual nature. In Fight Club, he is very literally two different people, but in 25th Hour his character struggles with who he used to be as a kid and the friends he used to have and trying to reconcile that with who he has become as a drug dealer and the new friends that aren’t there for him; in Primal Fear, the twist of the movie revolves around Aaron Stampler’s ability to act as two very different people at will; in The People Versus Larry Flynt, his Alan Isaacman tries to fight for the laws that he believes in while fighting for Larry Flynt, who he finds abhorrent; in American History X, his Derek Vinyard goes through a transformation from a crazed neo-Nazi skinhead to compassionate, humbled older brother looking out for his family; in The Painted Veil he is both a cold, cuckolded husband and a sympathetic, caring doctor; and in Down in the Valley, he is both a cowboy from North Dakota and a Jew from California, a sensitive soul and a deranged lunatic.

So I see what drew him to Bruce Banner, but despite his best efforts to amplify Banner’s desire to stop himself from “hulking out,” we don’t get to enjoy the transformation because he very literally turns into a CGI beast that doesn’t have real emotions. So at a certain point in every big sequence, Norton can no longer act and he doesn’t really have a part in what happens once the transformation is complete. Ultimately, because of this, it’s not a total performance; it’s only half of one.

I still think the motivating factor for him to be the Hulk was to give him the ability to make smaller movies and get them funded with first-time filmmakers. There is something unbelievably admirable about a talented actor working with neophytes, making their dreams come true. But, I would prefer to see an MVP play on a winning team with a veteran coach and I would like to see Edward Norton work with a seasoned, visionary filmmaker like he used to. I would like to see him team up once again with David Fincher or Spike Lee or Woody Allen or to perhaps work with a filmmaker like Alfonso Cuaron or Paul Thomas Anderson.

More than anything, I want Ed Norton to fulfill his promise. There is no doubt that he will win an Academy Award and probably more than one, but I want him to be discerning and I want him to work with people in his league. The Incredible Hulk is an entertaining diversion, but I expect more from Norton and I hope he expects more from himself.

– Noah Forrest
June 24, 2008

Noah Forrest is a 25 year old aspiring writer/filmmaker in New York City.

The opinions expressed in these columns are the writer’s and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Movie City News or any of its editors or other contributors.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

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I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

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~ Hampton Fancher

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~ David Simon