Edward Norton was born in Boston in 1969. He first became widely known to the film world and the public upon his debut in Primal Fear (1996) for which he was nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award. In fact Norton has been nominated for three Academy Awards, also for American History X (1998) and more recently, Birdman (2014). Sadly however, he has never won an Oscar but he has won many other awards and fans.
Since his debut in 1996, Norton has been in film after film, and is known as one of the finest actors of the last couple of decades. One could most definitely not describe him as a typecast actor; he is particularly adept at playing all different types of role.
Aside from acting Norton is also a writer, director and producer. He is also a committed activist. He is known for being picky over which roles he chooses and for his general reluctance toward the ‘celebrity’ lifestyle.
In 2003 he was contractually obliged to star in a reboot of The Italian Job due to a three film deal he had had with Paramount Pictures since Primal Fear. This ended up in something of a dispute leading to him having to play the antagonist in the film. Although this could all be a rumour, whilst watching the film it does feel as if something is missing from Norton’s usual immersive and detailed performance.
He tends to choose his films wisely and picks roles that appeal to him. He is one of the few actors who tend not to appear in a bad film. He has been in a few ‘flops’ perhaps; The Bourne Legacy (2012) for one and Stone (2010), but then follows these up with two amazing films, Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel (both 2014).
He is a consistent method actor, and that is part of the reason his character in Birdman is so brilliant, you can see him absolutely relishing the role. The marvellous Birdman just won the Academy Award for best film, and rightly so (although it did face some stiff competition in particularly Boyhood).
Norton also enjoys putting in a cameo performance now and then. He pops up in The Invention of Lying (2009) as an eager traffic cop and also in The Dictator (2012) as himself. It’s always a pleasure to see Mr Norton in a film by surprise, so we hope he continues to do these.
Although Norton has been in many great films, this list is more of a list of his best performances, rather than the best films that he is in. For example, we have not included The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) as whilst it is a fantastic film, Norton’s role is quite minor.
10. Everyone Says I Love You (1996)
Written and directed by Woody Allen, this musical comedy film is one of his more critically acclaimed films; however it was not so popular with the viewing public. It was perceived half and half really, some loved it but some hated it. It obviously lost the audience who weren’t a fan of musicals to begin with, but if you can cope with singing in a film it’s certainly worth it.
The film cast a lot of famous actors, most of whom were not known for their singing ability, however Norton actually can sing, quite well, beginning with a lovely sing song with Drew Barrymore.
The film follows one family (a rich New York one, typically Allen) throughout a year, and particularly throughout their romantic trials and tribulations. Norton plays the likeable Holden, who’s about to marry Skyler (Barrymore). He sings with ease and this adds a lovely touch to his character. It ‘s very different to his character of the same year in Primal Fear.
9. The Painted Veil (2006)
The Painted Veil is based on the book of the same name released in 1925 by William Maugham. Norton plays Walter Fane, a hardworking and earnest bacteriologist, who falls under the spell of beautiful socialite Kitty (Naomi Watts).
They marry quickly, on her part just to get away from her overbearing mother. They move to Shanghai where Walter studies infectious diseases. Kitty is unhappy however, she is not in love with Walter and is lonely and thus she quickly ends up embarking on an affair with a married man (played by Liev Schrieber).
When Walter finds out about the affair he agrees that he will let her have a divorce if her lover also leaves his wife. Not to Walter’s surprise, but to Kitty’s sadness her lover doesn’t leave his wife, and Kitty must go to a remote area of China with Walter, where he has agreed to treat victims of a cholera epidemic in the area.
Walter tries his best to make life as tough as possible for Kitty in the process. The two barely speak, until they realise perhaps there is more to each other than they had previously thought.
This film is brilliantly made, and Norton plays the part fantastically, engrossing the character of Walter fully. Norton is such a good actor that his whole appearance can change with each role and here he embodies an angry but kind-hearted man with ease. The film is brilliant, and really packs an emotional punch at the end.
8. 25th Hour (2003)
Spike Lee directed this brilliant film about the last 24 hours of a man awaiting the commencement of a seven year prison sentence. Norton plays Monty; he has been convicted for drug dealing but is a harmless and gentle man. He is not sure who tipped the police off about his crimes.
The film follows the 24 hours before he has to go to prison. He spends the day as well as he can, with his two closest friends, his father and the love of his life as he waits to start his sentence. He is terrified of what will happen in prison when he is removed from his freedom, and is particularly terrified of being raped.
In this moving and touching performance the audience really feel for him, even though they know that perhaps he does need to go to prison for what he did. Like him and his friends (played by the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman and Barry Pepper), and his girlfriend, Naturelle (Rosario Dawson), you hope, just hope that he may be able to get out of the situation, but like him feel the gloomy dread towards the end of the film when he must start his car journey towards prison.
The end of the film at the time was quite horrific and still is, even though the violence is quite tame compared to some these days, however it is emotional and moving and Norton as usual completely envelopes again his character sublimely. The audience can just feel and empathize with this dread of going to prison and the unknown, and it is very sad. Norton is spellbinding in the role and the supporting cast make this one to remember.
7. The Illusionist (2006)
Norton plays a completely different character again in this film, this time a magician named Eisenheim from Austria with supernatural talents. When he is young he falls for the daughter of an upper class family, Sophie (Jessica Biel), but their disallowed love leaves him broken hearted. This culminates in him leaving Austria to travel the world, but he always remembers her.
When he returns to Austria over a decade later he is a well-known illusionist. He hopes to reunite with his love, but Sophie is engaged to the dastardly Crown Prince. They very much want to be together, but the Crown Prince is not a nice person, and would probably have her executed if she ran off with him. Twists and turns ensue.
Norton again adapts to his new character with ease. He appears older, and in pain as Eisenheim. His performance is compelling and enigmatic, made even better by Paul Giamatti’s performance as the Chief Inspector. It’s a role that seems made for him.
6. Rounders (1998)
A film perhaps particularly for poker fans, it stars Matt Damon and Ed Norton who are well matched in this terrific tale. Mike is a poker pro, but loses all of his money on a game which he shouldn’t have risked. A few years later he is content (albeit perhaps a little bored) living with his girlfriend, studying at University and not playing poker.
Norton plays Worm, an old friend of Mike’s who upon his release from prison draws Mike back into the underground world of poker playing, and back into trouble. Worm owes a longstanding debt and Mike has to help him raise the money to pay it back through playing poker.
There are some really tense poker games throughout, especially at the beginning and at the end, and even if not a fan of poker it is still highly tense. Norton plays the part of Worm to perfection, his conveying the cool but sly and untrustworthy character brilliantly.
In fact he is such an unlikeable untrustworthy guy but Norton makes him strangely likeable. He is a friend whom you definitely don’t want in your life, but then you kind of do. This film absorbs from the get go and doesn’t let you off the hook, like a perfect game of poker.