Sunday, August 25, 2013

Sunday Best: Actors of All Time #22 - Edward Norton

photo by Lucas Street


Everyone took notice of Edward Norton when he came on the scene with his role as a murder suspect in Primal Fear.  The movie was suppose to be a Richard Gere vehicle, but Norton stole the show.  This is no slight to Gere, but Norton's part was much showier, allowing him to transform from cherubic innocence to demonic hatred in a fraction of a second.  What impressed most people was how he was able to inhabit those personalities so believably.  You rooted for his innocence but cowered at his evil.

In Rounders, Norton had the daunting task of making us care about a terrible person.  His character, Worm, is best friends with Mike (Matt Damon).  And throughout the entire film, Worm gets into trouble and brings Mike down with him.  He is a liar, a manipulator, and he is nowhere near as smart as he thinks he is.  He is exactly the kind of toxic personality that audiences instinctively revile.  But Norton fills Worm with just enough charm and sympathy to make us care about him.  Like Mike, we cannot help but want to help him even though he is nothing but trouble and refuses to listen.  Norton makes you like him until he hits you with his array of character flaws that makes you realize that you are TOO invested in the character and should backed away a long time ago.

A lot of people focus on Brad Pitt's great performance in Fight Club, but you cannot overlook Norton's.  His character is filled with a sad desperation throughout that only intensifies as paranoia and panic set in.  He inhabits the life of a bland metro-sexual man searching for any kind of catharsis, starving to feel anything, until he slowly starts to lose his grip.

But by far, his best performance was in American History X.  Norton has to play Derek Vinyard, at completely different stages of life in ways that highlight such radically different personalities.  He shows Derek as naive, impressionable teen, as violent, hateful neo-Nazis, and as reformed convict trying to undo his sins.

When watching his performance, what amazed me most was how small, yet powerful his changes were.  It would have been easy to changing from innocent to savage by but gravel in his voice ala Batman.  But instead, the timbre of his voice is the same throughout.  His posture shifts only slightly.  Most of his changes occur not in the obvious ticks, but in the subtleties that only film can capture.  Ben Kingsley once said that film acting is stillness, stillness, stillness.  You need to be able to show great emotion and character with the smallest of shifts.  Very few actors can accomplish this, but Norton did it fantastically here.

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