We are very shortly headed to TIFF where one of the many movies we’ll see is Ed Norton’s passion project, Motherless Brooklyn. While not his first time in the director’s chair, it IS the first one he also wrote, and of course stars in as well, because what the heck. He’ll play a Tourette’s-inflicted private investigator charged with solving the murder of his only friend (Bruce Willis). It looks good, and it’s had me thinking about Ed Norton’s other famous roles, of which there are actually quite a few, though he tends to be a bit under the radar (by which I mean: he’s always been more of an actor than a movie star).
Born in Boston circa 1969, Edward Harrison Norton became an actor because his childhood babysitter starred as Cosette in Les Miserables, and he caught the acting bug from her. He went to Yale as an undergrad where he was friends with Ron Livingston and Giamatti, and though he took some theatre classes, he graduated with a major in history. He was working on the stage, in New York, when he auditioned for a role opposite Richard Gere in Primal Fear; DiCaprio had passed on it, and Norton was chosen out of 2000 hopefuls. At the audition, he claimed that, like the character, he came from Kentucky (he grew up in Maryland), a lie that went undiscovered since his twang was evidently convincing. He picked it up watching Coal Miner’s Daughter, and threw in a stutter for good measure.
Lest you think that Primal Fear (1996) is his first IMDB credit, let me assure you that he wasn’t a complete noob – he’d previously appeared in a plethora of roles (including The Museum Guard) in an educational video designed to help newcomers learn English.
Before Primal Fear was even released, his test screenings were causing a Hollywood sensation, and he was soon offered roles in Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You, and The People vs. Larry Flynt. You may remember that Norton went on to win the Golden Globe for his supporting role in Primal Fear, and secured his first Oscar nomination as well: not bad for his first attempt.
Next he did Rounders (1998) with Matt Damon, and the two bonded by playing cards together (or, I suppose, against each other) in the World Series of Poker.
And then he earned his second Oscar nomination before the age of 30 for his transformative turn in American History X, in which he somehow extinguished the twinkle in his eye to play a Neo-Nazi, yet somehow keeps his humanity. And perhaps you’ve heard of his follow-up, a little film called Fight Club (1999)? Yeah, not to make Matt Damon jealous or anything, but he bonded with Brad Pitt by taking soap-making classes together. Hopefully with all safety precautions strictly followed.
And next we’ve got Keeping The Faith (2000), which is actually his directing debut. He plays a priest, and he and his rabbi friend (Ben Stiller) both fall awkwardly in love with the same woman (Jenna Elfman) even though neither of them can have her.
I took to Twitter to poll people’s favourite role, and American History X had a resounding win with 45%, including a vote from The Telltale Mind, and Fight Club pulling in a respectable 34%. Birdman took a surprisingly small slice with only 6%. Write-ins included Primal Fear, The People vs. Larry Flynt from Reely Bernie, 25th Hour from Matt of Armchair Directors, and even The Italian Job, this according to FilmGamer.
His more interesting roles this century include Death To Smoochy, The Illusionist, Moonrise Kingdom, and an astonishing supporting role opposite Michael Keaton in Birdman, for which he received a third Oscar nomination.
Motherless Brooklyn is his first writing credit but he’s done uncredited script work for 2001’s The Score, 2002’s Frida, and 2008’s The Incredible Hulk.
He lost a role to buddy Matt Damon in The Rainmaker. He turned down Damon’s role in Saving Private Ryan. He was the runner up to Jim Carrey for Man on the Moon (in which he played Andy Kaufman). He turned down the role of Bruce Banner in 2003’s Hulk but accepted it in 2008.
He’s had an incredible career but it feels like Motherless Brooklyn is a new frontier for him, and very likely a successful one (watch for the review – coming soon).
What’s your favourite role of his?