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Five Underrated Edward Norton Performances for his 50th

by Abe Fried-Tanzer

Norton directs and co-stars with Bruce Willis in "Motherless Brooklyn"If you had asked me fifteen years ago who my favorite actor was, I surely would have said Edward Norton, though I’m not sure he’s worked enough since then to continue to hold that status. (My other choice of the time, Kevin Spacey, also bears reevaluation... for other reasons). With Edward Norton turning 50 today paired with the recent announcement that Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn, which he wrote and directed and stars in, will be closing out this year’s New York Film Festival, it’s the perfect time to take a look back at his career.

His feature film debut in 1996 in Primal Fear demonstrated an incredible ability to shift back and forth between different personas, earning him an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of an altar boy on trial for a brutal murder. Two years later, he scored a second Oscar bid for a more staggering and gradual shift in worldview as a reformed neo-Nazi trying to prevent his younger brother from going down the same path in American History X. It took sixteen years for Norton to return to the Oscar lineup, this time in Best Picture winner Birdman as an actor who, by many accounts, is closest to what Norton is actually like on set, with a penchant for attempting to exert control even if he’s not actually the one in charge... 

Three years – 1996, 2002, and 2006 – have delivered three separate Norton performances, but it’s much more common to see Norton on screen only every few years.The most dependable place to see him these days is as a regular member of Wes Anderson’s ensemble, with three collaborations to date, most recently Isle of Dogs (2018). It’s probably for the best that his stint in Incredible Hulk didn’t result in a featured part in the Marvel Cinematic Universe series since Norton’s talents are best reserved for psychological transformations rather than uncontrolled physical manifestations. From Norton’s resumé, which we all wish was longer, here are...

Edward Norton's 5 Most Underrated Performances

5. Keeping the Faith (2000)
This comedy, Norton’s lightest project, might seem like an unusual choice since it demands the least of the actor. But in addition to marking Norton’s directorial debut, this enjoyable film also finds Norton taking on the more challenging role as a priest vying for the affection of his best friend, played by Jenna Elfman, with his other best friend, a rabbi played by Ben Stiller. It’s far easier to find sympathy for Stiller’s charismatic and popular Jake, while Norton’s Brian, whose chosen vocation is far more prohibitive when it comes to being with a woman, no matter what religion, is likeable because Norton makes him so. For those without positive memories of this film, it’s worth another watch.

4. The Score (2001)
Few would call this crime thriller a great movie. It was one of several high-profile genre films that year including Heist and Swordfish that aren't discussed much now. Robert De Niro certainly isn’t putting in too much effort as an aging thief, but Norton takes a completely different approach. He’s delivering the kind of performance more likely to be found in an independent drama, playing a skilled criminal who is able to transform completely into the role his character is playing, that of a mentally-challenged janitor. Norton is as natural as ever, showing that, at least in this case, the film he’s in doesn’t affect his level of commitment to a role.

3. Down in the Valley (2006)
Critics paid much more attention to the other two movies Norton starred in this year, The Illusionist and The Painted Veil, but this little-seen drama from director David Jacobson (Dahmer) features the strongest and most mesmerizing Norton turn of the three. He plays a man who believes he is a cowboy and who begins to pursue a young woman, played by the pre-Westworld Evan Rachel Wood. Norton immerses himself in the delusions of his character, and his most impressive feat is remaining focused and fascinating even when the film falters. 


2. Leaves of Grass (2010)
This comedic drama comes from the mind of writer-director Tim Blake Nelson, and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a pretty solid frame of reference for those unfamiliar. Norton doesn’t play someone with two personalities here but two completely different characters. Twin brothers Bill and Brady have little in common – one is an Ivy League professor and the other grows pot in Oklahoma – and it’s a twisted delight to watch them both together and apart in this fun and worthwhile film that knows just how to use both its Nortons.

1. 25th Hour (2002)
Red Dragon and Death to Smoochy, the other two films Norton made in 2002, have their merits, but there’s no comparison to this exceptional joint from Spike Lee. As a drug dealer facing an impending prison term, Norton is deeply introspective, navigating the many things he has to love about his life and the people in it. Yet those moments are unmatched by the tremendously powerful scene in which Norton’s Monty lets loose on every person he knows and every facet of society he finds objectionable, expressing his rage at the world before realizing that he’s the one to blame for his misfortune. Watch the astounding profanity-laced scene below:

What are your favorite Norton performances? Well, besides the obvious Oscar-nominated star turns. 

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Reader Comments (21)

Even if he had done nothing else, Norton's performance in 25th Hour would mark him as an exceptional actor. I love that film.

August 18, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterRob

The Illusionist is so underrated as a movie. Paul Giamatti is also giving a great performance in that film as well.

August 18, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterTom G.

He's tremendous in his Oscar-nominated roles, and I wish he'd won both times he was up for Best Supporting Actor. But as to the non-Oscar nominated performances my favorites are his work in Moonrise Kingdom, Death to Smoochy, and Fight Club (not a list of films I'd often think of together).

August 18, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterScottC

I actually find him nothing more than serviceable in 25th Hour. I love the film and the rest of the cast, but Norton never digs deeper than what the script already gives us. I wanted to see more of the shades of fear and vulnerability he finally displays at the end when he asks Monty to disfigure him.

August 18, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterBVR

Definitely his turn in The Painted Veil.

August 18, 2019 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

One of my favorite performances from him is in Moonrise Kingdom where he embodied this boyish look and persona of a scout master trying to understand why one of his boys ran away and then deal with the fact that his entire troop later fled as Norton is a perfect addition to the Wes Anderson collective of actors.

August 18, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

Mark -- THE PAINTED VEIL is my favourite of his his non-nominated turns too, well, that and 25TH HOUR (which i adore)

August 18, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

The scene in Moonrise Kingdom where he talks to Sam on the boat is such a finely tuned piece of acting. So glad he joined the Wes team.

August 18, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterasf

"Fight Club", duh!

August 18, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterTheDrMistery

Another vote for The Painted Veil, which for me is a career high point for him, Watts, Desplat, Curran and Dryburgh.

August 18, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterben1283

The Painted Veil! As much as I enjoy The Illusionist, the better of ‘06’s dueling-magicians movies, it’s The Painted Veil that really is his best film of that year. Has he done any (peak) TV?

August 18, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMareko

He was great in "The Painted Veil" a modern classic which deserves more recognition

August 18, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

Fight Club, even if I don’t like so much the film in general but Norton is superb. I’m very happy that we could finally see his passion project Motherless Brooklyn. I hope he could earn him a forth Oscar nom

August 18, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMirko

As much as hes characterized as hard to deal with on set, he tries to remain low-key, so people miss a lot of gems.

August 18, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterkris01

Everyone Says I Love You! His best comedy role

August 18, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterParanoid Android

I do think he is terrific in Fight Club but didn’t think that qualified as underrated.

August 18, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterAbe

I really needed "Fight Club" to be included in this list, since Brad Pitt stole all of the attention there. But nice call on "25th Hour." Norton was very much Oscarworhy there.

August 19, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterIan

The Painted Veil, of course.

August 19, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterCharlieG

Nat any chance of something on his performance in TPV.

August 19, 2019 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

Edward Norton is 50? Wow! And he "only" has 30-something film credits to his name. For me, he had an extremely underrated 1-2-3 punch in his debut year with not only Primal Fear, but also Everyone Says I Love You and The People vs. Larry Flynt. Both of those other performances and how very different they were probably helped boost him to the Oscar nod for a film released in April. He often has a strong year and then there is a gap year before another one, so a lot of his performances are easy to miss amidst a wave. But I'm really looking forward to the long-awaited Motherless Brooklyn and hope it lives up to its years of hype.

August 19, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel

I found him adorablly silly in Death to Smoochy

August 19, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterCésar Gaytán

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