For some, acting comes effortlessly. We watch them and wonder how they make it look so easy. Once we get a taste, we attach ourselves to that person’s career and trust they will deliver. Edward Norton is one of those actors. Ever since the late 1990s, Norton’s been one of the most reliable actors working. He has given good to great performances in just about every film he’s in. So with the release of his new film “Motherless Brooklyn,” here is a look at the best performances from one of the most natural actors working today.
10Alan Isaacman in “The People vs. Larry Flynt” (1996)
dir. Milos Forman
In Milos Forman’s “The People vs. Larry Flynt,” Norton plays Alan Isaacman, the lawyer to the Hustler Magazine publisher and editor Larry Flynt (Woody Harrelson). While Harrelson got a lot of the attention for his over-the-top performance as Flynt, Norton’s Isaacman is the more relatable character. Isaacman tries to make everyone understand that his client is just using his right to free speech in his own unique way. While he doesn’t agree with everything Flynt stands for, he fights for him more than anyone. He humanizes Flynt in a persuasive way, trying to show him as genuine business man and not a grotesque monster.
9Lester “Worm” Murphy in “Rounders” (1998)
dir. John Dahl
Following his work in “The People vs. Larry Flynt,” Norton took another meaty supporting role. In “Rounders,” he plays Worm, a con man who is best friends with poker expert and soon-to-be lawyer Mike (Matt Damon). Recently released from prison, Worm has old debts that he needs to take care of and enlists Mike to help him clear them up. While Mike is a great poker player, Worm is a compulsive liar and the pair work beautifully on screen. Damon’s Mike is the straight man, and Norton gets the juicer part, playing an unreliable fool that keeps getting Mike into trouble. Charming yet slimy, it’s a role that works only due to the dedication and fun he brings to it.
8Walter Fane in “The Painted Veil” (2006)
dir. John Curran
The early to mid-2000’s was a peak time for Norton, who was giving stellar lead performances left and right, each different from the last. In “The Painted Veil,” he plays a more stripped down character named Walter. He is a quiet, focused doctor determined to save people from infectious diseases. When he discovers that his wife Kitty (Naomi Watts) is cheating on him, he decides to take her on his journey to China so she can help him. As time passes, and the more healing the couple provides the Chinese patients, the more they start to heal their broken marriage. Norton’s ability to show Walter changing with time is what sells this performance. His growth from focusing on his work to his marriage feels right and just, thus the performance is uniquely tender.
6Harlan in “Down in the Valley” (2005)
dir. David Jacobson
“Down in the Valley” is one of the most layered characters Norton has ever played. As Harlan, he comes across as a sweet but mysterious figure that Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood) is instantly drawn to. But as the story plays out, we understand just how flawed he is, discovering something might be wrong with his mental state. Harlan starts making strange choices, but you can’t stop rooting for him due to Norton’s intriguing portrayal. He engraves his charisma into the film so much that you can’t help but want him to get away by the end. Charming yet troubling, Norton elevated this film into something truly special.
Eisenheim in “The Illusionist” (2006)
dir. Neil Burger
Released at the same time as Christopher Nolan’s “The Prestige,” Neil Burger’s “The Illusionist” is an equally fascinating drama led by a soul crushing turn from Norton. He plays Eisenheim, a popular magician involved in a love affair with childhood best friend Sophie (Jessica Biel). She is a duchess engaged to the Crown Prince of Austria (Rufus Sewell), who is power hungry and not fit to rule. When tragedy strikes Sophie, Eisenheim sets out on mission to seek justice for her and expose the Crown Prince as a fraudulent leader. Norton’s emotional range is on full display, using magic to bring emotional relief to his heartbreak. By showing a confident yet broken man, he keeps the audience guessing till the end.
5Monty Brogan in “The 25th Hour” (2002)
dir. Spike Lee
In Spike Lee’s ode to New York City post-September 11th, Norton plays the most honest character of his career in “The 25th Hour.” As Monty, a drug dealer about to go away to prison, he gets to explore one last night of freedom. But what is meant to be a happy night turns into one of reflection and regret, leading to self-meditation. Monty comes to understand that by the end of his time in prison, he will have to change his ways. He learns he will miss valuable time with the people he loves and he won’t get it back. Norton shows Monty rise from a selfish man to a responsible adult and makes the 24-hour transition feel sincere.
4The Narrator in “Fight Club” (1999)
dir. David Fincher
1999 is considered by some to be one of the greatest years in all of cinema, and with that comes David Fincher’s “Fight Club.” Norton plays the narrator, an average guy that meets the bombastic Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt). Together, they create an underground fight club, where men come to beat each other within an inch of their lives. What ensues from there is an evolution to cults, multiple personalities and a full manifestation of toxic masculinity.
Norton is our guide through a world turned into chaos by his own hand. It is tantalizing to watch this weak character become who he is by the end. While we understand everything he has done has caused the world to set to flames, it is also disturbingly entertaining to watch the ramification of the narrator’s action come to life.
3Aaron Stampler in “Primal Fear” (1996)
dir. Gregory Hoblit
Norton gave us one of the best debut performances of all time in the crime thriller “Primal Fear.” As Aaron Stampler, he plays a shy young man who is on trial for his life, accused of killing a popular Catholic archbishop. Working alongside Richard Gere as his lawyer, he is unpredictable with everything he says and does, especially when he switches to his menacing alter-ego Roy. Norton blurs the lines of what is true so the audience can never guess if Aaron committed the murder or not. The performance was so engrossing and memorable, it earned him his first Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
2Mike Shiner in “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” (2014)
dir. Alejandro G. Iñárritu
In what can be seen as playing a version of himself, Norton turns veteran stage actor Mike Shiner into the scene stealer for Alejandro G. Iñárritu‘s “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).” Mike comes to fill in a supporting part of Riggan Thompson’s (Michael Keaton) play and save the show before it’s even had its first preview. Things seem good at first but as the play goes on, Mike becomes a loose cannon.
Norton channels the criticism stage actors have, despising Hollywood actors who think they know what true art is. In doing this, Mike comes off as a toxic, destructive force in the way of Riggan making his play, thus proving stage actors can be just as destructive towards art. The bombastic performance earned him a third Oscar nomination, his first in over 15 years.
1Derek Vinyard in “American History X” (1998)
dir. Tony Kaye
Violent, raw and deeply moving, Norton made a powerful statement with “American History X.” As Derek Vinyard, he portrays a neo-Nazi skinhead who abandons the life he knew after seeing how destructive and wrong it is. While he is changing, he also tries to keep his brother (Edward Furlong) from going down the same path.
Norton is electric, showing a multitude of feelings he must go through in order to become a new man. You feel for Derek by the end, which is a testament to the performance for making you feel a connection to such a vile human. But “American History X” isn’t about celebrating that hateful belief system, it’s about rising out of it to become a decent human being. Through Derek’s eyes, we see the cost and the suffering changes like these can bring but it’s the right thing to do. Norton earned his second Oscar nomination for his work as Derek, with this being the only time he has been nominated for Best Actor.