I’m not sure what exact moment in Birdman it occurred to me that we were in the midst of a great Edward Norton Renaissance. Maybe it was when the walls of self-professed artistic integrity that his character Mike Shiner wears came crashing down in the face of Sam (Emma Stone), revealing the tragedy and isolation in his existence. Maybe it was when Mike was so in the moment as an actor, he wanted to have live sex on stage. Or maybe it was just the sight of Norton in a speedo wrestling with Michael Keaton. Either way, I finished that movie with the realization that we are in the midst of a rebirth of Edward Norton.
There was a time when Edward Norton was arguably the best actor on the planet. Just look at his filmography from 1996-2006, and count the number of classics he’s a part of. You got Fight Club. You got American History X. You got Rounders. You got 25th Hour. You got him sleazing it up in The Italian Job. You got The Illusionist. He’s a part of so many iconic films in this period, and giving equally iconic performances in them. Who can forget the icy self-satisfied smirk he gives to himself after curb-stomping a guy and getting arrested in American History X? The sight of him beating himself up in front of his boss in Fight Club? Him delivering one of my personal favorite monologues of all time in 25th Hour? The guy was unstoppable. He had his missteps, but they always felt honest. You never got the feeling that even in underwhelming fare like Red Dragon or Keeping the Faith that he was getting lazy.
Then came The Incredible Hulk. Edward Norton made the decision that would soon become synonymous with becoming a leading man in Hollywood: playing a superhero. He did well in the role, and the movie is among my personal favorites in the Marvel universe, thankfully erasing the 2-hour dump Ang Lee took in 2002 from my memory. And this is where the big break in his narrative comes. We all remember the back-and-forth narrative between Norton and Marvel in regards to him reprising his role as Bruce Banner in The Avengers. It’s always been murky what really went down between the two parties, but the general story is that they both had disagreements since the beginning on how to portray The Hulk, and the two sides wouldn’t budge so they parted ways.
The popular narrative then became that Norton was “difficult to work with”. That shouldn’t have changed everything, but it did. It also didn’t help that nobody cared to see Stone or Leaves of Grass, which Norton led (it also didn’t help that those movies weren’t any good). He essentially became a Hollywood outcast following the disagreement with Marvel. But Norton seemed to recognize he was at a stall, and then he started to become something much more interesting: unpredictable. He started getting silly, something he hadn’t really done before. He made a surprisingly funny appearance on Modern Family as Izzy LaFontaine, a wacky British 80s rock star. He then – in the most random cameo I’ve seen – showed up in The Dictator for like 30 seconds in a bathrobe and underwear exiting a closet after soliciting his body for money.
He was a welcome addition to Moonrise Kingdom, fitting in perfectly with Wes Anderson’s whimsical tale as a scout troop leader. He took his silly detour to Anderson’s storytelling and fit right in. Norton had always been committed to his roles, what was different here is that he was committed to being silly – “Jiminy Cricket, he flew the coop!” – as well as finding a way to compliment an ensemble rather than playing the lead. Norton had always been taking risks, but now the biggest risk he could take was to laugh at himself, and it paid off. This film marked the beginning of Norton finding his way as an ensemble guy.
Next came another supporting part in The Bourne Legacy. Everything about The Bourne Legacy is instantly forgettable, except for Edward Norton (and Oscar Isaac’s like 3 minutes of screen time). The movie keeps telling you he’s the villain, but honestly I never believed he was. I don’t think Norton did either, because of his performance I just saw his character not as any sort of villain, but as a guy who was simply doing his job. Norton took what should have been a cookie-cutter villain and made him the most interesting character in the film. He made bureaucratic indifference seem human. He managed to stand out in an otherwise forgettable film.
He reteamed again with Wes Anderson earlier this year in the magnificent The Grand Budapest Hotel, this time in an even smaller role than before – but that didn’t matter, because Norton’s not the same actor he was 10 years ago. 10 years ago you wouldn’t catch him in a role as minor as this, but he’s changed and adapted since then. He brings some authenticity to his role of Henckels, having a small internal battle between what his job is and what he knows is right.
And this whole 5 year period of adaptation all led to the sight of Edward Norton in a speedo grappling with Michael Keaton. You get the feeling that this is just as much of a meta de-construnction and self-confrontational role for Norton as Keaton’s role of Riggan Thomson is. Edward Norton is playing the type of actor Marvel wanted you to believe he was in highly praised Broadway actor Mike Shiner. He gets high and mighty about artistic purity, even going as far as wanting to have live sex on stage when he gets an erection to enhance the performance. But what Norton does to make it all so unique is how he humanizes the role. Throughout the film he peels back the layers to reveal a man just as damaged – and more dead inside – as Riggan is. By the end of the film you don’t regard him as the snobby actor that you did in the first scene, but as a human being trying to reinvigorate his life.
One of the friends I saw Birdman with put it perfectly by saying that Norton was the MVP of the film, and come to think of it, that’s the type of actor he’s become. He’s the ensemble MVP (Being an ensemble guy can be a great line of work, just ask The Rock). Norton took the loss of losing his leading man status and turned it into a win through his ensemble roles. We’ve only really begun to see this stage of Norton’s career, and it will likely see him at the Oscars this year. I just can’t wait to see where this experiment takes him next.