Often labeled one of the finest actors of his generation, Edward Norton has appeared in some of the greatest films of the last 20 years and is a fan favorite. He has a habit for picking fascinating, twisted and complex characters, and this allows him to demonstrate his phenomenal acting skills in every film he appears in. He has picked up three Academy Award nominations over his career and won dozens of other awards, and whether he is the lead, in a supporting role, or a minor character, he has a commanding onscreen presence and often steals the show.
10. The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996)
In one of his very first roles, Edward Norton put in an assured performance in Milos Forman’s 1996 biographical drama, The People vs. Larry Flynt. The film follows the rise of pornographic magazine publisher and Editor Larry Flynt, and this resulted in heavy clashes with the law and religious institutions. Woody Harrelson stars as Flynt, whilst Courtney Love plays Anthea Flynt, who was his wife and co-publisher. Norton plays in a supporting role as Alan Isaacman, who befriends Flynt and goes on to become his attorney. This sees him have to put up with Flynt’s wild courtroom antics which leave the young attorney red faced, and the relationship the two share is an intriguing and key one in the film. One notable highlight for a young Norton is his compelling courtroom monologue surrounding the virtues of free speech. All three actors and Forman were lauded by critics for the film.
9. The Score (2001)
By the time The Score arrived in 2001, Edward Norton had already developed a solid reputation in the industry. It still must have been a daunting task to take on The Score, which saw Norton star along with legendary performers Robert De Niro and Marlon Brando in his final film role. Although not a fantastic film and a familiar heist story, the brilliant cast make it an intriguing watch and Norton certainly holds his own alongside his heroes. Norton plays the role of Jack Teller, an ambitious young thief who is reluctantly accepted to join the heist (to steal a scepter worth $4 million from the Montreal Customs House). He and De Niro have some brilliant scenes together as it comes to a thrilling climax, and, for many, this film marked the passing of the torch from De Niro and Brando to Norton and his generation of actors.
8. Rounders (1998)
This 1998 drama film from John Dahl saw Matt Damon and Edward Norton land the leading roles, and it is fascinating to see these two fantastic actors perform together with each playing very different characters. Damon plays Michael McDermott, who is clean-cut, in law school and a gifted poker player, whilst Norton plays his childhood friend, Lester “Worm” Murphy. Worm is released from jail and needs money to clear his outstanding debt, but unlike Michael, he wants to cheat to win which gets the pair in trouble. This contrast in characters makes for an entertaining and fascinating watch, and, as always, Norton excels in his role as the voice of unreason in the film. The film has gone on to become a cult hit, and this is largely thanks to the gripping poker scenes and the rise in popularity of Texas hold ‘em in America.
7. The Illusionist (2006)
Edward Norton has made a career out of playing intriguing and mesmerizing characters, and this includes his role as a magician called Eisenheim in the 2006 period drama film, The Illusionist. Norton is the star of the show and puts in a fantastic performance, and this is aided by the impressive supporting cast of Paul Giamatti and Jessica Biel. Eisenheim is a talented illusionist that was once in love with the Duchess of Teschen (Biel), but the pair were forbidden from seeing each other due to Eisenheim being a peasant. Fifteen years later, The Duchess is to marry the Crown Prince Leopold, who is rumored to be violent towards women. Much like a magic trick, the plot slowly unfolds to reach a dramatic and cunning conclusion. Norton excels in the mysterious role of the Illusionist, who is a fascinating character both on and off the stage.
6. The Painted Veil (2006)
Also in 2006 was The Painted Veil, directed by John Curran, which is based on the 1925 novel of the same name. It stars Edward Norton as Walter Frane, a bacteriologist who volunteers to treat victims of the Chinese cholera epidemic. In the beginning of the film he becomes infatuated with a London socialite, Kitty Garston (Naomi Watts), and the pair marries, but she soon has an affair. Discovering this, Walter tries to punish her by threatening divorce on the grounds of adultery if she doesn’t accompany him to China. The pair have a frosty relationship as Walter attempts to make her as miserable as possible, but the experience forces them to see each other in a better and more caring light, and they reconnect as the epidemic claims many victims. In addition to a fine performance, Norton also had a hand in the writing and production stages too.
5. Birdman (2014)
The most recent Edward Norton performance, Birdman was one of the greatest films of last year and was universally praised by critics, seeing it pick up Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director (Alejandro G. Inarritu), Best Original Screenplay and Best Cinematography. The film stars Michael Keaton as a faded star, Riggan Thomson, who is famous for playing the superhero “Birdman,” and he is now struggling to create a Broadway production to re-launch his career and silence his critics. Norton plays Mike Shiner, an excellent but explosive method actor who causes more stress for Riggan and breaks character during previews after his gin is replaced with water. Other supporting cast includes Emma Stone, Naomi Watts and Zach Galifianakis, ensuring it is a star studded production which is an excellent satirical look at the entertainment industry. He may not have starred, but it is another outstanding performance from Norton.
4. 25th Hour (2002)
Edward Norton puts in a stunning, powerful and moving performance in Spike Lee’s 2002 drama 25th Hour, which is based on the novel of the same name written by David Benioff (who also wrote the screenplay). The film tells the story of a man’s final 24 hours of freedom before going to jail, where he is set to serve a seven year sentence for dealing drugs. Norton stars as Monty, and it is, clearly, a challenging day for the character who is forced to re-evaluate his entire life, as well as say goodbye to his loved ones, prepare for a difficult chapter, and even attempt to get to the bottom of who had betrayed him. It can be a difficult watch at times, as he is clearly terrified of what awaits him in prison, and it forces you to empathize heavily and particularly as the film draws to a close.
3. Primal Fear (1996)
Astonishingly, this was Edward Norton’s very first film and it sees him completely steal the show from lead actor Richard Gere (an impressive feat). Primal Fear is a 1996 neo-noir crime thriller, directed by Gregory Hoblit and based on William Diehl’s novel of the same name. The film follows a Chicago defense attorney (Gere), who loves nothing more than to be in the public eye and therefore volunteers to represent a young altar boy, Aaron Stampler (Norton), who suffers from a severe stutter but is accused of brutally murdering the Archbishop Rushman. Aaron also has an alter-ego, Roy, who is a violent sociopath that admits to the murder. Seeing Norton switch between the two is entirely absorbing and chilling, with the film then reaching an unforgettable conclusion which made this much more than your average legal drama. His thrilling performance earned him an Academy Award nomination; not bad for a debut.
2. Fight Club (1999)
Arguably the most popular film that Edward Norton has appeared in, David Fincher’s Fight Club is a fascinating, funny, dark and twisted film which stars both Edward Norton and Brad Pitt. Norton is famous for playing complex characters, and that is fully on show here as he is the unreliable narrator of the story and the main character who hates his job and suffers from insomnia. On a flight home from a business trip he encounters Tyler Durden (Pitt), who is a soap salesman that he befriends, moves in with and forms “Fight Club” with. This soon evolves into an anti-materialist and anti-corporate organization called “Project Mayhem,” and after Tyler suddenly disappears, the film takes a twist before reaching a gripping and unforgettable end. Norton and Pitt make a brilliant duo, and when this is combined with the film’s narration by Norton it makes for a strange and compelling watch.
1. American History X (1998)
A dark, harrowing, tragic and fantastic film, Tony Kaye’s American History X is Norton’s most powerful performance to date, seeing him take on the role of Derek Vinyard. Derek is a former neo-Nazi leader who committed voluntary manslaughter and has just been released from prison, where he changed his outlook on life. He attempts to stop his younger brother, Danny (Edward Furlong), from following in his footsteps, but Danny has become heavily involved with the white supremacist gang. The story is expertly crafted, alternating between Danny and Derek’s past (in black and white), and present day (shown in color). Derek is utterly terrifying, violent and fierce in his past, with one scene seeing him deliver a shocking hate speech. We also see his transformation into a remorseful, enlightened and hopeful character. It is a career defining performance which earned him (another) Academy Award nomination, which he criminally did not win.