April 19, 2012

A Letter to Edward Norton

Filed under: Movies — DB @ 11:43 am

Dear Mr. Norton,

Rarely does an actor have as amazing a debut year as you had in 1996. It started with Primal Fear – what a breakout! The movie was a slick Hollywood thriller, but your performance elevated it and announced the arrival of a special talent. Your audition tape burned through the industry, landing you juicy roles in Milos Forman’s The People vs. Larry Flynt and Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You before Primal Fear had even come out. By year’s end, all three movies had been released and you were winning critics awards for your work in all of them. You took home a Golden Globe for Primal Fear, and an Oscar nomination for the same. After this hat trick of superb supporting performances, leading roles seemed yours for the taking. Yet instead of going that route, you chose another supporting part for your next film, playing wingman to Matt Damon in the poker flick Rounders. Granted, you had the more colorful part, that of a cocky gambling addict whose irresponsible behavior gets him – and his friend – in trouble with the wrong people.

To me, you were the second coming of Dustin Hoffman. Like him, you had the combination of unconventional handsomeness and fierce talent that would make you a leading man even though your true nature was that of a character actor. Hoffman could have headlined any number of movies after The Graduate, but instead he chose to play second lead to Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy, a strategy you seemed to be following. Next up, you were front and center as a terrifying Neo-Nazi who reforms while serving jail time in American History X. You earned your second Oscar nomination. The following year? Fight Club.

It should have been the beginning of a legendary career, the kind to rival the 1970’s runs of Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, Robert Duvall and Gene Hackman. But that trajectory never materialized. You were a movie star, no doubt, and your talent was unquestionable. But you didn’t take the roles that would have secured you the place in film history held by those gentlemen. I have to assume such roles were available to you, but I suppose it’s possible that you weren’t getting the offers. You followed up Fight Club by directing the comedy Keeping the Faith, written by your college friend Stuart Blumburg, and playing a priest who falls in love with a childhood friend (Jenna Elfman) and vies for her affection with another childhood friend, now a rabbi (Ben Stiller). Okay, fair enough – you had come off a couple of intense dramas. Keeping the Faith showed that you were interested in mixing things up, and it provided the opportunity to test your skills behind the camera.

But as the years went on, none of your films broke out. There were no movies that became cultural touchstones. No Best Picture nominees, and no additional acting nominations. It’s not that you didn’t do any good work, but rather that the dramas which should have been your showcase roles – like Down in the Valley, The Illusionist or The Painted Veil – were interesting, but not particularly memorable. You didn’t seem to be choosing projects that would push you as an actor. There were no creative risks, even though you clearly had the talent and intelligence to take them. In 2003, Martin Scorsese wrote a piece for Rolling Stone entitled, “The Leading Man.” He first talked about the greats he admired as a child, like Humphrey Bogart, James Dean and Marlon Brando. Then he talked about his contemporaries, like Nicholson and De Niro. When he got around to talking about younger actors, you were among those he cited. After describing Johnny Depp as an actor who would try anything, he segued to you. “Edward Norton is the same way,” Scorsese wrote. “I’ve been talking to Ed a lot. He has extraordinary energy and vision.”

Surely you did. But for some reason, it wasn’t coming across in the films you made. Where was your Chinatown, or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? Your Taxi Driver, or your Raging Bull? Your Lenny, your Dog Day Afternoon, your Great Santini or your Conversation? Were you just not finding them? Or did you miss out on them because you opted for more commercial projects like Red Dragon, The Italian Job and The Incredible Hulk? Hey, nothing wrong with doing a comic book movie. Brando did Superman between Last Tango in Paris and Apocalypse Now. But around the time you were working on Hulk with the guy who directed The Transporter, Philip Seymour Hoffman was working with Sidney Lumet. Leonardo DiCaprio was working with Scorsese. Sean Penn was working with Gus Van Sant. I suppose that Spike Lee’s 2002 film 25th Hour had the potential to be one of those “special” movies that would leave a lasting impression on the cinemascape. Unfortunately it didn’t happen, despite a worthy premise, a talented cast and positive reviews. Even though critics like Roger Ebert and The New York TimesA.O. Scott included it among their top ten movies of the decade, it’s not widely regarded as a movie for the ages. Does that take away from the film itself, or your work in it? No, of course not. My point is only that it doesn’t seem right that an actor of your talent hasn’t appeared in a larger number of transcendent films. Frida was a good movie, but you played only a small role in that, and were really just involved because you were in a relationship with Salma Hayek at the time. (And if ever there was a case where sleeping with someone to get a part was justified, that was it.)

Look, no one expects you to have a crystal ball. Nobody ever knows what projects are going to connect and which ones are going to falter. I’m sure that during production of movies like Cuckoo’s Nest or Dog Day Afternoon, the people making them had no idea they would turn out to be enduring American classics. Sometimes a phenomenal script becomes merely a good movie at best. Maybe some of your choices seemed brilliant on paper. And sometimes, you gotta just do one for you. I mean, who would have passed up the chance to work with De Niro and Brando in The Score? Three actors of their generation together in one movie, and you being the one working with two idols? Of course you’re gonna make that movie! It was a fun caper flick, if not ultimately worthy of that trio of talent. That’s alright, though. Not every time at the plate has to yield a home run. Still, I have to think there were times when you knew you could be doing better. It’s just hard to believe that an actor of your talent and range couldn’t have been in more Great Films over the last decade.

You can’t control how your films are received, but there is one aspect of your career you can control: the projects you choose. This is why I write to you now. Last week I read that you have been approached to play a major role in a remake of Robocop. My heart sank at the news. There are so many reasons for you not to do this, high among them being that, like 99.9% of remakes, this one is unnecessary and will most certainly be inferior to the 1987 original. But even more important is this: you deserve better! You’re capable of more! The fans and moviegoers who know how talented you are want to see that talent applied to intriguing projects. If you aren’t finding the opportunities to take on dynamic lead roles, than at least go after meaty supporting parts with exciting directors. Even if 25th Hour didn’t take hold as a Universally Regarded Film Classic, working with Spike Lee and digging into that film’s complex material was absolutely where you belonged. The fact that you’re in Wes Anderson’s new movie Moonrise Kingdom is definitely a step in the right direction. He’s exactly the caliber of filmmaker you should be working with. If you like playing offbeat comedy, as you demonstrated with choices like Death to Smoochy and Leaves of Grass, then don’t stop at Wes Anderson. Seek out the Coen Brothers, or Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman. And don’t neglect your serious side. My God, what you could do in a Terrence Malick film! You bring exactly the kind of nuance and dignity required to shine in his projects, where much of your work would probably be silent and internalized. You should be working with Scorsese, Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, Darren Aronofsky and David O. Russell. Get back with David Fincher. Team up with Steve McQueen, who’s making his mark with movies like Hunger and Shame. You must have a passion project that you’re dying to get made; a story that speaks to you and that you’re determined to realize onscreen. Are you pursuing it? Are you meeting with exciting directors who can share your vision? Find filmmakers who can tap into your intellect and your vast abilities. I’m sure they’d be thrilled to work with you. Make no mistake: you could be one of the greats. The last decade should have been the prime of your career, but it’s not too late to take your rightful place as one of the best character actors ever. The talent is there; you just need the movies to match it. If you go after the best screenwriters and the best directors, the filmography you deserve will finally take shape. One thing I can promise you, though: movies like the Robocop remake aren’t going to get you there.

I Am Jack’s Admiring, Concerned Fan


  1. Everyone Says I Love You is my favorite Woody Allen movie. Fight Club is definitely one of my top ten favorite movies of all time. In 1996, I was 15 so you’ve just made me realize how long I’ve been an Ed Norton fan. Clarence really likes Ed Norton’s Hulk movie. Maybe Norton should’ve been a part of the new Avengers movie. Norton definitely needs to pick better projects than Robocop. Sorry for the randomness of my comment – trying to get everything done before baby wakes up from her nap! Great blog post!

    Comment by Denise — April 19, 2012 @ 1:22 pm | Reply

    • I think he clashed with Marvel executives while making The Incredible Hulk, which is why they re-cast the part for The Avengers. He does tend to get pretty involved behind the scenes of a lot of his movies, and I think he may have done a fair bit of re-writing on Hulk. Maybe he has a reputation for being “difficult.” His battles with the director of American History X are kinda legendary, but that director was a total douche, so hopefully Norton hasn’t suffered over the years as a result.

      Sorry to make you feel old.

      Comment by DB — April 19, 2012 @ 1:38 pm | Reply

  2. I remember the first time I saw Primal Fear… whoa. I never saw the twist coming. And Keeping the Faith? I’m irritated just thinking about it. That said, I have my own letter to write:

    Dear David,

    Why don’t you go get your MFA and become a Professor of Film Theory?


    Comment by Amy — April 19, 2012 @ 2:04 pm | Reply

    • Ditto on Primal Fear. I never got around to seeing Keeping the Faith, but I remember writing coverage on the script when I was interning in L.A. during college.

      As for why I don’t teach film theory, haha, well…I remember my theory classes from film school, and it was clear I lacked the intellectual capacity to grasp it. Film theory is some seriously heady shit. I think film trivia game show host is more my speed. But your suggestion is appreciated, Amy. 🙂

      Comment by DB — April 19, 2012 @ 2:43 pm | Reply

  3. Norton has always been one of my favorite actors to watch, and he’s incredibly well spoken (I remember seeing him on Charlie Rose once, years ago, and was blown away).

    That said, he does have a solid reputation for being difficult — which is probably why he’s often focused on his own projects. (He’s been trying to get “Motherless Brooklyn” made for years.)

    Comment by Kevin D. (@Kluv32) — April 19, 2012 @ 2:36 pm | Reply

    • Yeah, the guy is super, super smart and eloquent.

      I totally forgot about Motherless Brooklyn! Is he still trying to get that made? I read the book years ago based solely on the fact that he was trying to turn it into a movie.

      Comment by DB — April 19, 2012 @ 2:48 pm | Reply

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