Back in 1996, a film was having a tough time getting off the ground with its controversial content and casting problems with the star, Richard Gere, ready to walk away from the project. A young, unknown actor came in, stuttering like the character, read for and won the role beating over two thousand other hopefuls, rejuvenating the film.
This actor kept the project afloat even though it was his motion picture debut; his acting ability earned him an Oscar nomination. That man who saved the film was Edward Norton.
In the late ‘90s, Edward Norton was one of the most exciting young actors to break through and in this time he earned himself two nominations for an Academy award – it could have (and should have) been three. He was the man of the moment, commanding praise for many of his roles from Primal Fear to The People vs. Larry Flynt to American History X and then the cult classic Fight Club. In 2000 he released his first – and so far only – directed film: Keeping the Faith.
In the ‘00s, though, the actor became distant with less successful roles and started disappearing from view. It went from the time where if you saw his name attached to something, you knew it was going to be great; his film choices were sublime but then he became less decisive. Many of his roles of the ‘00s were less complicated and almost shallow compared to his previous choices., two examples are as the villain in The Italian Job remake and Will Graham in Red Dragon. The Score was one of his best film of the early ‘00s in which he starred alongside Robert De Niro and this was where his casual villainy came from; albeit American History X did that but it also showed the paradox of him as well. There are other films around this time which were a lot less successful like Death to Smoochy, Down in the Valley and 25th Hour, directed by Spike Lee which underachieved at the box office and it seemed he was fading into obscurity, doing only indie films and art house cinema.
As time progressed and his name began to lose its credibility and its fame, there seemed to be a rebirth with two successful films. The first was 2006’s The Illusionist which suffered a little when placed in contention with Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige which was similar. The Illusionist grossed less and is perhaps less well remembered but it was a highly successful film earning five times its budget and dragging his name back into the light, being praised by critics for its captivating and mystifying story and its brilliant ensemble. Edward Norton was the centre of the film pulling out a great performance as the calm and manipulative Eisenheim.
His true success was, of course, The Incredible Hulk from which much controversy erupted. This half-sequel, half-reboot of the oft criticised Ang Lee iteration of the 2003 Hulk was more successful than Lee’s but it suffered as a result of being deemed a sequel even though it pretty much ignores its predecessor and Edward Norton played a very different Bruce Banner than Eric Bana had done. Even though this version smashed its way through the box office sales, raking in a lot of money, it was nothing but surface based entertainment of the Michael Bay kind, with the studio trampling all over everything that a had little depth and draining it into a shallow pool of explosions and morphing.
This is where the controversy began. Edward Norton has done a lot in his time; he’s been an actor, a director and he did uncredited writing work for Frida as well as others. Edward Norton is a massive fan of the Hulk and the comic books and he and Louis Leterrier decided that Edward Norton could do a rewrite. In this rewrite – which was primarily dialogue based – Edward Norton gave the character a real back story and a sense of anguish and deprivation because of his condition; he wanted to show us how desperate Bruce Banner really was. This ended up being cut by the producers with the support of the studio. It was supposed to begin with Bruce on the brink of committing suicide but proving that it was impossible for him to as he’s nearly invincible but how can you include that in, what they tried to make, a family film?
Then, when a story was leaked to the press about an argument between Norton and the studio, Norton was portrayed as the villain – much like some of his characters – in something that was just a disagreement from the massacre of the film he helped write. The contract talks broke down and, considering this was a predecessor to the united film and the origin of The Avengers, there needed to be another recast for the Hulk. The actor Mark Ruffalo took over the hulking duties and now, as the success of the franchise reigns supreme and the deadline dawns close with teasers and trailers being issued, Norton was left out and washed away with a stain on his name as a difficult collaborator.
The years after The Incredible Hulk and the flop Pride and Glory are hardly worth mentioning with a small role in The Invention of Lying, a one episode stint in Modern Family and a heavily ignored Leaves of Grass which had no UK release, it’s hard to see how there could be a resurgence. In 2010, Norton reunited with director John Curran and Robert De Niro from The Score in a prison drama where a convicted arsonist tries to manipulate De Niro into believing he has been corrected by using his wife (Milla Jovovich) as a temptress. Though this was a straight-to-DVD import, it is entertaining, thrilling and an interesting take on the human psyche. It’s a character driven drama which gets its success from moral ambiguity and how the correctional officer needs correcting in a sort of ironic power role. Stone was ignored and deemed blasé in America so the UK didn’t get the chance to really see this crime drama/thriller.
This year we have seen nothing from the two-time Oscar nominated actor who has starred in two of the greatest films in recent memory but his current fade after a brief revival as Hulk has left this actor stranded; it has also left fans sulking. Next year he stars in two films which could resurrect this star and bring him in a state of resurgence. Although it’s unlikely that Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom will cement him as a man who can redefine blockbusters and bring great cinema to the many – even in his indie takes via his popularity by cinephiles. It’s quite likely that his role as the villain in The Bourne Legacy sequel, without Bourne but Jeremy Renner as a Bourne-like agent, could bring him back to further glory where he can go back to playing the tortured souls convincingly like he did in Primal Fear, American History X and Fight Club.
He has the ability to play complex characters and can become the villain or the hero. Arguably he is one of the greats who has been ignored in the past decade and discredited but this could decade be the resurgence of Edward Norton? Could it see him truly earn an Academy award? Only time will tell and this could be another Aaron Stampler-esque stutter or the beginning of something big.
Written by Ashley Norris.
Follow me on Twitter @ashleyrhys