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April Showers: Edward Norton x 2

Hope you've enjoyed the April Showers series. There are SO many films we could have covered. (Tangent: I'm dying to know, for example, when the first shower sequence ever filmed was. The earliest I personally know of is Marilyn Monroe in Niagara (1953) which I meant to write about. Oops. But there has to be something earlier, right? I've searched but can't find any definitive info.)

Though I hate to end on a disturbing note I haven't been able to get Edward Norton out of my mind recently so we have to look back at American History X (1998).

Edward Norton as "Derek" in American History X

I'm not sure how Mr. Norton became lodged in my brain recently but if I had to guess it'd be the combo of Mark Ruffalo taking over the Hulk (they just started filming The Avengers) and a random flashback to The Painted Veil. Then at some point last week I said to myself "Edward Norton was Ryan Gosling before Ryan Gosling was Ryan Gosling" i.e. the actor that everyone thought was The Actor of His Generation, The Future. And then I really couldn't get him out of my head.

Norton famously gained much of his Great Actor reputation from American History X (1998), and won a longshot Oscar nomination for Best Actor. In the film he plays Derek, a loathsome racist who, after realizing his world view is full of shit while serving time in prison, tries to turn his life around before his younger brother follows his same dark path. It's disturbing to note how much acting cred can come from playing racist skinheads; Russell Crowe (Romper Stomper) and Ryan Gosling (The Believer) had similar artistic breakthroughs.

I've never known quite what to make of American History X -- it's one of those films like, say, Natural Born Killers, that seems to struggle with its own theme merely by addressing it. If you keep visualizing something awful through strong visuals and hugely charismatic acting, aren't you actually glorifying what you're supposed to be condemning? So this post is also a call for your opinions. I'm just curious how readers feel about the movie because it's one of those key late 90s Oscar players that I don't believe we've ever discussed. (I was in the Sir Ian McKellen camp that year but I was enormously pleased that Norton managed a nomination.)

As Derek begins to form a tentative friendship with a black prisoner, his neonazi counterparts turn violently against him. Showers are always bad news in prison movies. More after the jump [NSFW]

Derek looks around nervously when he first hits the showers after breaking the unspoken rules of the prison by playing basketball with a mixed race group. But strangely he doesn't stay nervous when people begin leaving the showers en masse. Instead he sinks into his shower and seems lost to the world.

The saddest image of what follows might be the prison guard, head lowered, backing out of the room, eyes lowered, fully complicit.

Movies often paint characters into easy corners of good guys and bad guys but when you're protagonist IS a bad guy, things get more complicated. Do you feel sympathy for the devil and wish him well on his reform or do you think he has pain and violence coming to him because that's what he's always dished out? The following sequence is entirely queasy -- hateful dialogue and violent rape (I'll spare you photographs)



The director Tony ends up cutting away briefly to a shower nozzle recorded in slow motion -- water looks so surreal and beautiful when its frozen in time like that. Surely it's an apt decision since people often go out-of-body when they're experiencing trauma. But it still brings up questions of how to visualize awful events. The scene ends with Derek facedown on the tile in what is more or less a beautiful photograph, just as the water in slow motion was. Are beautiful images okay when you're conveying ugly events?

The Tyler Durdens: Norton in 1998 and Pit in 1999

I mean how is this much different than a fashion magazine photo of Brad Pitt, Edward Norton's next co-star (Fight Club), taken the following year?

But I digress. After Derek is out of prison, Edward Norton has one more shower scene to go. This one is of the Cleansing Shower Scene variety where the hero or heroine attempts to wash their past worries away, to emerge rejuvenated. This time we also get close ups of shower nuzzles and water moving in slow motion, but no violence. Only nostalgic memories of childhood in cutaways.

But the cleaning magic of the second shower scene is all in the superbly handled mirror scene. Derek sees himself, still wearing that tattoo representing everything that's wrong with his life, the tattoo he's been so proud to show off earlier in the film, and he covers it up with his hand, blotting out the ugliness. Norton shifts his face so subtly in the scene from recognition to confusion and regret and hope and pride and self-loathing that it's probable that different viewers project different emotions onto it.

It's really a marvelous performance and what's shocking about it later on in years is how unstrained and natural it feels. The films subject matter is so purple but Norton's performance doesn't ever go as big as you would imagine just hearing about the character.


Norton had a similarly self-confrontational climactic moment in 25th Hour (2002) his best work from the past decade. But he may have peaked right here with American History X just as we all were assuming he'd Arrived.

That often happens in the fickle world of the movies. Let's hope that Ryan Gosling is the new Ryan Gosling and not the new Edward Norton. It shouldn't be ending just as it's begun.

For the comments:
What do you make of the 1998 Best Actor Oscar race? Benigni vs. Hanks vs. McKellen vs. Nolte vs. Norton?
Who gets your retroactive Oscar vote? What do you think of American History X?

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Reader Comments (37)

I actually really enjoyed American History X, especially because of Norton's performance and the way it challenges audiences to accept a skinhead as a hero. Derek's hard to like, but he wins you over. Of course, its far from perfect, but it did a lot of things right.

As for Oscar, I haven't seen Nolte or McKellen yet, so Norton's my favorite thus far. Hanks just didn't do it for me (that was Spielberg's movie, not his actors'), and Benigni...the less said about him, the better.

April 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJason H.

Oh goodness, I've thought about how Ryan Gosling is where Edward Norton was 10 years ago so many times, I hope his career does not go that way. Not that Norton is terrible, I just want electrifying Half Nelsons and Blue Valentines all the time from him, not Fractures.

He is definitely more good looking than Norton. Norton is not hard on the eyes, though.

April 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca

I think suggesting that American History X is glorifying racism because it's showing racism is a rather silly argument. It doesn't make sense. How else can these issues be addressed on film? Such a notion is taking political correctness to absurd lengths. All that matters is the intention behind the film, and we know Tony Kaye's intention was an indictment of racism.

Anyways, great film, great performance, and possibly the peak of Norton's career as you put it. Since that late 90s/early 00s heyday Norton's chosen to star in an assortment of bad/mediocre indies (Down in the Valley, The Illusionist, The Painted Veil, Leaves of Grass, Stone), and his two studio forays weren't memorable either (Incredible Hulk, Pride and Glory). If he wants a comeback he needs to focus on projects that will possibly garner awards attention, or work with filmmakers like Nolan, Abrams, Fincher, etc.

April 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTony Rock

Side note...I'll admit that History X does seem to have a cult following with semi-racist individuals. But I don't believe that's the fault of the filmmakers.

April 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTony Rock

For some unexplainable reason, in every movie that Edward Norton has been in since this, I just see him as Edward Norton and not the character. He and Tom Hanks are the only actors for which this is a problem for me. It's strange because in theory, I think he's a good actor.

I think American Histroy X is a great movie beacuse the ending really puts all of the borderline glorifications of the film into a clear perspective of being in vain.

April 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDean

I must have seen this film for the first time, when I was 14, and Edward Norton was my favourite actor at the time, because of this, 'Fight Club', 'The People vs. Larry Flint' and 'Primal Fear' and 'Keeping the Faith' (which I still quite like). 'Red Dragon' and "25th Hour' were just coming out, and he was still in demand, so it was a glorious time.

Norton and McKellen are definitely my favourites of the 1998 Oscar race, but I never really understood the hatred for Benigni. Clearly, he's not a great actor, but he's doing it with a lot of passion and the least you can say, is that he certainly never intended to win an Oscar for this. So, why do people resent him and his film so much? It is a wonderful story about a father who wants to protect his son from the terrors of war. And I really don't think it ridicules the Holocaust, as so many people seem to think these days.

April 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterChris

he did not peak! it was by far the juiciest role he's ever gotten, but i think he's been nothing less than ingenious in recent performances, like leaves of grass and kingdom of heaven. the latter never fails to impress me - how much charisma and character he brought to one that was onscreen for less than 15 minutes and had his face hidden the entire time to boot.

April 30, 2011 | Unregistered Commentercaroline

Help! Who gave the best performance among them? I am stretched ranking them and I do not know how. They are all good performances to me. need help in ranking them.
a. Annette Bening in The Kids Are All Right
b. Jennifer Lawrence in Winter's Bone
c. Tilda Swinton in The deep end
d. meryl streep in a cry in the dark
e. julia roberts in erin brockovich
f. julianne moore in the kids are all right
g. sandra bullock in the blind side

April 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBrokeback Bovary

I remember being happy Begnini won when it happened (I was 14 at the time and hadn't seen the other nominees), now that I see who he beat...damn. That's...upsetting. Norton was fantastic and McKellan in Gods and Monsters I now consider one of my favourite performances of all time.

April 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterOwen

Ian McKellen hands down. The way he acted through the twists of Gods and Monsters is magnificent. Although I have to admit that at the time, I was mesmerized by American History X.

April 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPedro

American History X always struck me as a version of To Sir with Love. The 'saved by teacher' trope brought the movie down. Yet you've got a shot of my favorite scene, the laundry sorting encounters between Norton and the black prisoner. It's so unaffected.

April 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDeborah Lipp

Although I had big a crush on Norton that time (didn't we all?), I would go with Ian McKellen.
Gods and Monsters is so good. Love the interview scene near the pool.

To be honest, I'm way more comfortable with Benigni winning best actor than best director.
Big fan of Central do Brasil here!

April 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

When I was younger I used to try and defend 'American History X' from the glorifying racism arguments, but then after watching it for the first time in like 10 years not long ago, it's kind of hard to. Especially during the basketball scene. The triumphant music that swells once the skinheads have "won" the court from the "niggers" is more sentimentally manipulative than when the Scots beat the evil English in "Braveheart".

April 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterThe Jack

Jeff Bridges should have won best actor in 1998. Ian McKellen rocked the shit but I can only abide so much on behalf of the Dude

April 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCasey Fiore

The Jack -- that's the kind of thing i'm talking about. I get why Tony (and others) think it's too much of a kneejerk response to say that visualizing something is the same thing as endorsing it (i hate it when people call Lars von Trier's a misogynist for example just because his movies often show women crushed by misogynistic societies) but AHX seems to veer into weird places in terms of what it's condeming versus what it's enjoying.

I dunno. this is exactly why i was curious about your group opinions. we've never discussed this one.

Casey -- THE DUDE. I always forget that was the same year since he got no traction anywhere (not even a GOLDEN GLOBE COMEDY NOD if you can believe it . and yet it's probably the performance from that year that is the most beloved now.

April 30, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

The author is a big dud. What're you even talking about? Bad guy? You fail to understand the character; labeling him good and bad. Talking about ugly scenes shown beautifully. It's a great film and Norton gave one of the best performances of all time.

April 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRohit Ramachandran

I am sorry I am late to this conversation, but I have to say it: Benigni earned his Oscar. It's a marvelous performance.

Anyone who ever had any acting experience knows that clown is by far the most difficult kind of performance to pull off. You have to go big, be a good mimic, don't fear your expressions are to over-the-top, have a perfect timing to slaptick, control your line delivery all the time not to lose the gag and make something special out of it (buongiorno, principessa!) and still be able to touch people in a very emotional way. Make them laugh and make them cry. Even if you do the same part over and over again, like Chaplin, for instance, it's still a hell of a job.

Benigni clearly got all this backlash because of his annoying speech, but his clown is absolutely stunning, and was the best performance of that year, hands down (and I love McKellen).

April 30, 2011 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

I don't dock the movie for it's supposed glorification of racism. It is necessary to show how such a bright character could be taken in by this kind of evil. Where the movie falters is in not having a redemption that is equally convincing, making the story waaaay out of balance.

Norton's brilliant performance actually makes the redemption less convincing. I can't buy that his character is going to be shaken by the revelation that - whoa - some white supremacists are not nice people and that, hey, what do ya know, this black dude is pretty cool. Way too pat and unconvincing. Avery Brooks's one-dimensional nobility can't compete against Norton's frighteningly realistic hate speech.

As for 1998, the line up should be -

- Ian McKellan
- Ed Norton
- Jeff Bridges
- Jim Carrey
- Travolta in Primary Colors - Underrated work in my book

My vote - McKellan, by a hair ahead of Bridges - two performances for the all time list

April 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C

Yeah, i have to say. i don't understand what the hell Tom Hanks was doing in that lineup. And I do understand (even if i don't agree with) some of his other nominations so it's not a matter of disagreeing with it. it's just are voters that lazy that they just vote for the leads in best pictures and... oh wait. never mind. answered my own question.

Michael - thanks for the clarification. you said it better than my vague memories of this movie (i watched a handful of scenes over again to write this but not the whole picture.

April 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

cal roth: I'm with you on that. Benigni was the best in 2008. Such a perfectly stylised performance that also manages to hit all the right emotional notes. It must have been fiendishly difficult to pull off, and he makes it look like the easiest thing in the world. The scene where he visits the school in but one example of how great he is in this film.

As for the rest:
Hanks: passable, but far too sentimental a performance;
McKellen: excellent as far as I remember, but I need to see it again;
Nolte: impressively intense, but it's a strange movie (and I'm a Schrader fan);
Norton: yes, very good - but I agree with Nathaniel that it's interesting to consider the extent to which a film can sometimes risk glorifying what it is supposedly condemning. It's been a while since I saw AHX, and I remember thinking that it wasn't glorifying at all - but perhaps the violence in paritcular runs the risk of exciting us in the wrong way. I dunno - I'd have to see it again.

April 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEdward L.

cal roth, baby, no -- Gay Face is the new Black Face -- and I'm no longer rooting for straight men or closted gay actors to win these prizes -- there's no reason why Ian McKellan doesn't have an Oscar right now! Harvey Weinstein has to win at all cost and it cost McKellan two possible Oscar wins in 99, and 02.

April 30, 2011 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtfu11

Oops...I meant, of course, 1998...

April 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEdward L.

@/3rtfu11 Am I supposed to root for McKellen because he is gay? No way. He would be a great winner that year, but I do think Benigni was the best one.

Gay actors don't need this kind of thought. They need to be recognized because they are talented, if they are talented, not because they are gay.

And, of course I'd like McKellen to be an Oscar winner, but you know, it happens to a lot of people, gay and straight, like Peter O'Toole.

April 30, 2011 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

@Brokeback Bovary...Meryl is the best of the lot.

Jeff Bridges was playing himself in Lebowski...where is the artistry in that?

I think Norton and Nolte were way out ahead of the pack here, partly because they both give so much credibility and intensity to movies that are built on shaky, schematic foundations. I'd probably vote for Norton, though I think it's insane that Nolte didn't get any double-nomination traction for The Thin Red Line in the same year, in which he's monumental as Col. Tall. If nominated, he unquestionably would have won. Quality of performance aside, it would have capped a great year for the actor; made it up to a never-Oscared performer; helped the Academy out of a series of five lukewarm nominees that resulted in a strange winner after a totally all-over-the-place precursor season; and allowed a win for the otherwise shut-out Thin Red Line.

My actual picks for Best Actor in '98 were Sean Penn in Hurlyburly and John Hurt in Love and Death on Long Island, but despite the Venice prize for Sean and an NYFCC prize for LDLI, the performances never had a shot with Oscar. I'd fill things out with Norton, Bridges, and either Nolte in Affliction or Christian Bale for underplaying so poignantly in Velvet Goldmine.

April 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNick Davis

(I wasn't clear about this, but by "double nomination," I meant that Nolte ought to have been listed in Best Supporting Actor for Thin Red Line, not lead.)

April 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNick Davis

Nick -- reading this makes me think it's been way too long since I saw TTRL. I have vivid memories of Penn, Chaplin & Caviezel but no one else.

May 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

"Derek looks around nervously when he first hits the showers after breaking the unspoken rules of the prison by playing basketball with a mixed race group."

Sorry Nat, I love you but this is the wrong description for why he got shower-raped. It had more to do with his unwillingness to compromise with the neo-nazi inmates that were unfaithful in their interactions with 'minority' inmates. They were doing business together and big Ed didn't dig, and more than that, expressed it. He got raped as a message from his peers to accept whatever they did, which he didn't. He's right logistically, but those black & white lines he forms are his tragic flaw.

Norton deserved the Oscar - like De Niro via Raging Bull/Taxi Driver - for his voracity and sequential progression of zeitgeist roles. We all still root for Norton because of this amazing time period - he did no wrong and, even better,, he crowned it lazily with his seminal performance in Fight Club. His Daniel Vineyard, with all its complexities and contradictions, summed up a contemporary reality of ambiguous race relations....love and hate, a jerk is a jerk no matter what color - you can't blame a whole group for your personal woes.

May 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDino

I think Michael C. hit the nail on the head with the redemption being way too easy and I wonder if Norton's performance isn't too intense for the character he's portraying (and script he's working with). His transformation into a neo-nazi is so convincing, and Norton is terrifying when playing a man so consumed by hate that it makes the later scenes when he discovers 'wow, racists are really awful people and black guys can be nice too. Whaddaya know?' seem even more dramaturgically flat.

And a big lol to the poster who said Bridges was just playing himself. Seriously? That's your comment about one of the greatest comedic performances ever?

May 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRax

The basketball scene in AHX is not glorifying racism. I can see why people might think that, but watch the scene again. The point was to show everything in that scene through racist blinders. It was shot and edited through the POV of the neo-nazis, hence the triumphant music and whatnot. It was irony.

May 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTony Rock

As for Norton's redemption...I bought it. I bought it because it happens in real life. It may be hard for us sane individuals to imagine a hard-core neo-nazi having a turn-around like that in such a "duh, of course racism is bad" sort of way. But it happens.

May 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTony Rock

Dino -- i hear you. Perhaps the sentence was too emphatic. It is the scene directly preceding the rape which is why i mentioned it but there's a whole host of issues of why that happened and it's all about Derek not playing along.

May 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R


Greatest comedic performance ever? Hyberbole much?

@Rax yeah, if you're saying it's one of the greatest comedic performances ever (which is fine your world) then you are saying it's one of the best performances ever, period. That doesn't even sound close to being right to me. besides, it probably takes a lifetime to find what's truly the best of any specific thing, I really doubt you've watched enough movies to actually make that assumption. In you're taste this could be true, but don't actually ever say this to someone as part of your criticism\defense.

May 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPoppy

My pick for that year would have been Jim Carrey in The Truman Show. I still have no idea why the Academy overlooked that performance (or any of Carrey's award-worthy work). Truman was a major breakthrough for Carrey at the time, and I think he successfully carried that film. I also love Ian McKellen's performance in Gods and Monsters, and I remember when I first saw American History X, that performance blew me away. I could not breathe after watching it. Also, I don't think this was Norto's peak. I thought he was fantastic in both The Illusionist and The Painted Veil with two very different characters, and while the movie was a mixed bag, I thought he was a better Bruce Banner than Eric Bana was.

May 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRichter Scale

Before I "knew" enough about the Oscars to make decent predictions, I was hoping that either Ian McKellen or Edward Norton would win the Oscar that year. Roberto Benigni winning is still an awful embarrassment on the Academy's part, but what can you do? Absolutely nothing. Nick Nolte was good. I wouldn't have nominated Tom Hanks.

It's sad to me that Norton probably peaked with "AHX." I know that he's considered to be too difficult to work with and all that Method jazz, but I'd love to see him nominated again. It does seem like Ryan Gosling has taken over that "actor of his generation" cred that Norton used to enjoy way back when.

And as ashamed as I am to admit this, beefed-up skinhead Norton was a big ole turn on for me back in the day. Still is if I'm being honest. :-/

May 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterVanz

Am I the only one who thinks Tom Hanks deserved it that year for Saving Private Ryan? I'm a gay man who loved Hank's warmth in Philadelphia but Liam Neeson should have won for Schindler's List. And Don't get me started on Hank's win in 94. (Morgan Freeman or John Travolta or Samuel L. Jackson should have won Best Actor that year) I adored Ian's performance in God's and I even thought Benigni was charming in Lif is Beautiful, but man, Tom Hank's left me breathless in the battlefield. I even hate war movies, but he suprised me with his performance and actually should have won.

May 3, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterchrisconcert

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