Last year, I wrote a small piece about Mo’Nique’s big Oscar win for Precious and I marveled over the fact that she had won an Oscar before Edward Norton. As great as Mo’Nique was in that film (and I’ve gushed repeatedly), no one could’ve seen that coming.
“Don’t worry, Edward,” I wrote. “I’m sure you’ll be getting one of the gold guys soon enough.”
On second thought, maybe I’m not so sure.
When Norton first stormed onto the scene with Primal Fear, it was more than just a great performance, it was a calling card, a young actor showing off his incredible bag of tricks. He played a con-man (it wouldn’t be the last time)—a teenage sociopath who deceived a gullible attorney into thinking he was a stuttering innocent, when, in fact, he was a calculating killer. There’s a great moment—the big reveal—when Norton’s sweet slack face curls into a malevolent grin. It’s chilling.
Norton was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for that film, and although he didn’t win, a major actor had clearly arrived.
After Primal Fear, Norton made some very canny acting choices: The People vs. Larry Flynt, where he proved he could do intelligent supporting work; Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You, where he showed he could be a sweet, self-effacing romantic lead; Rounders, where he played a twitchy, De Niro-style delinquent (Norton was good; the film was just so-so); American History X, where he pumped up his physique to play a white supremacist thug; and, of course, the zeitgeisty hit Fight Club, where he made that all-important shift from actor to icon.
After that, a period with only one really good film (The 25th Hour), one decent one (The Italian Job), and a bunch of bad ones (Death to Smoochy, Red Dragon, and The Score, co-starring his hero, Robert De Niro).
Then, another ripe period that included some great work in films like The Illusionist, The Painted Veil, and Down in the Valley.
But Norton hadn’t had a hit in a while and he swung for the fences with 2008’s The Incredible Hulk. Although, he never said so publicly, one can assume that he noticed that two of his contemporaries—Tobey Maguire and Christian Bale—had found tremendous success with smartly adapted comic book franchises.
But while the film was a modest success (and by most accounts, an improvement over Ang Lee’s moribund 2003 version), it didn’t demand a sequel. Norton still didn’t have his franchise.
Since then, Norton’s done three feature films—Pride and Glory (I actually had to check out the imdb page to remember what that was about—it focused on a family of cops), Leaves of Grass (which had very limited release in theaters and is now available on DVD), and the recently released Stone, where, once again, Norton was working with Robert De Niro. And once again, the film got mixed reviews and had tepid box office returns.
To add insult to injury, there was the recent controversy over the Hulk character in Joss Whedon’s highly anticipated The Avengers. Norton made it clear that he wanted the part. Whedon and co. went with Mark Ruffalo instead.
All of this compels me to wonder: What gives? What has derailed (temporarily, one hopes) the career of this prodigiously talented star, a guy I’ve been a huge fan of forever (my admiration for Norton was only buoyed by a B-mag cover story I wrote about him in May 2006).
Here are a few theories.
1. He has more important things to do. Norton’s taken to Twitter to advocate for a host of social and political causes, particularly the environment. He made a documentary about the Obama presidential campaign, and ran a marathon with Maasai villagers to promote their conservation efforts. He’s written op-eds and grant proposals, stumped for favorite progressive politicians, and even started an online charity giving site. Acting was never going to fulfill him completely. Norton is a Rouse, after all. He comes by his activism honestly.
2. He’s his own man. It’s inevitable: Once somebody acts in a movie and shows some talent, they become this commodity. We the audience have a certain expectation of how they will continue with their life and career. Hell, we demand certain behavior. The fact that Norton has been choosy with his films, the fact that he hasn’t adopted the “one for them, one for me” strategy (an actor’s practice of paying for indie work by doing mainstream genre roles), the fact that he hasn’t dated super models, gone to rehab, had a fall from grace, had a comeback, cried on Oprah—it troubles us. It’s almost like we make a bargain with our celebrities: We make you famous and you play by our rules. Norton, clearly, has thrown away the playbook.
3. He’s tough to work with. Or so goes the rumor. I don’t buy it. I mean, I’m sure he’s clashed with some directors (he famously took over the final edits of American History X, and did uncredited screenplay work on both Frida and The Incredible Hulk) but I’m also sure that just as many directors find him to be a valuable and invigorating collaborator. Yeah, the whole mysterious The Avengers thing didn’t help his reputation. But when you’re as good an actor as Norton is, you don’t exactly need to be Mr. Congeniality.
4. He’s picking the wrong films. Okay, here’s where I stop praising Norton, who I obviously admire a lot, and get a little critical. Frankly, I think he’s made some cruddy choices lately. Norton reminds me a bit of a virtuoso violinist who only chooses to play Paganini concertos (i.e, super fast and technically difficult). It’s clear that Norton is drawn to characters with slippery motives, who may or may not be trustworthy—we saw this in The Illusionist and Down in the Valley. He also loves to play dual roles—either two completely separate characters (Leaves of Grass) or one character with an alter ego (Primal Fear, Fight Club, The Incredible Hulk). When he’s not playing a hustler or grifter, he gravitates to characters that couldn’t be farther from his, let’s face it, well-heeled, Ivy educated self—the corn-rowed convict in Stone, the tattooed white supremacist in American History X, the fast-talking loser in Rounders, etc.
Don’t get me wrong—I’ve liked a lot of these films, but when you put them all together, a pattern emerges. I think Norton needs to stop picking roles that challenge him technically as an actor and just pick good characters and good stories. The rest will take care of itself.
Look, it’s hard to say what Norton will do next. He might abandon acting altogether and go into public service full time. He might move overseas, a la Kevin Spacey or Johnny Depp. He might decide to direct. But I suspect he’ll continue to do what he’s doing now—cherry-pick a select number of acting projects that appeal to him and go forward with his activism. The problem, though, is when you are so selective with your films, each choice counts that much more. I’m a fan and I want to see him do great work. And yeah, I want him to get one of those gold guys, too.