It Takes a Thief
Norton up against Brando and De Niro in the crime drama 'The Score'
By HENRY CABOT BECK
New York Daily News, July 1, 2001
You'd probably not notice him on a subway or in a crowded street. He appears, in person, largely unremarkable, as comfortably commonplace as his name. And unlike many actors, he actually appears smaller on screen than he is in person.
But Edward Norton has used that commonplace quality to tremendous advantage in a relatively small number of movie roles that have already guaranteed him a place among the first rank of modern motion picture actors.
What's more, when he's onscreen you can't stop watching him for an instant, which means that in the last six years he has managed to steal the show from Richard Gere, Woody Harrelson, Matt Damon, Brad Pitt and, in his new picture, The Score, from Robert De Niro and Marlon Brando.
Norton's first appearance, as a Janus-faced killer in Primal Fear (1996), was so unexpected and powerful that a shudder ran through the film industry, and the grazing herds all lifted their heads in his direction. Norton was nominated for a supporting Oscar and won a Golden Globe; since then, he has been nominated 18 times for a variety of awards, bagging eight of them. And while the Yale-educated Norton would be the first to say that awards and nominations are not the true measure of an artist, the fact that he has only been in seven features suggests he's doing something right.
Norton followed Primal Fear with Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You and a standout part as a lawyer in The People vs. Larry Flynt," both 1996 releases. Two years later, he nearly swiped The Rounders right out from under Damon when he played a reckless gambler on the road to perdition. In many ways, the picture is a poker-faced updating of Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets (1973), in which De Niro's self-destructive street punk, Johnny Boy, pulled the viewers away from Harvey Keitel, the movie's other lead.
Norton followed that with two of his most audacious roles, a skinhead in American History X and a white-collar worker with a world-threatening case of insomnia in David Fincher's Fight Club." Based on a novel by Chuck Palahniuk, the ending of Fight Club was nothing short of apocalyptic, and that's the way Norton likes it.
"I love body slams," says Norton. "I don't like mitigation in movies."
'History,' Tragedy and Comedy
Norton got to do a lot of body-slamming In American History X, a brutally powerful movie about a white supremacist who turns against his neo-Nazi clan and his former mentor in order to rescue his young brother from that dead-end life. It was a daring portrayal because Norton had to allow his character to be both sympathetic and vile.
"I thought that the way to approach it was from an Aristotelian tragedy sense," Norton says. "Back then, there were very specific ideas about what the point of tragedy was, as a genre, and of the tragic hero who falls, as a prescriptive lesson for the audience. They believed at the time in a cathartic ideal, that an audience can be purged of certain things through the witnessing of a certain kind of story. That was my approach to the material."
Last year, Norton directed his first feature, a moderately light comedy, Keeping the Faith, which told the story of three childhood friends who grow up to be a rabbi (Ben Stiller), a workaholic (Jenna Elfman) and a priest (Norton). Although it was only modestly successful, it showed that Norton was willing to take his shot without cheapening the material.
Overall, Norton's choices as an actor and the work he has done since Primal Fear have earned him a reputation as one of the most versatile and intense actors since, well, Brando and De Niro. Frank Oz, who directed The Score, makes it clear that it wasn't his intention going into the project to line up the constellations in precisely this fashion, but that it seemed to happen in stages.
The Score is the story of a caper, a heist and a collaboration between an elder-statesman thief, the congenial Max Baron (Brando), and a middle-aged criminal, Nick Wells (De Niro), who is looking to retire and settle down with his girlfriend, Diane (Angela Bassett), but who would also like to be able to buy the jazz club he runs in Montreal.
"[Screenwriter] Kario Salem wrote Max with Brando in mind, and we thought it would be nice if we could get him," says Oz. "But it wasn't until De Niro came aboard that the casting fell into place. We didn't cast this with any kind of deliberate commercial consideration in mind, because the audience can smell it when you bring in a young guy to try to get a younger and older target audience."
When the cocky upstart Jackie Teller (Norton) enters the picture, talking up a job that might net the three men several million dollars, Max persuades Nick to join the team, despite his objections to both the crime and their young, overly aggressive partner.
"Let's be honest," says Norton, "here's a movie with Robert De Niro and Marlon Brando, and I'm just going to go and do it for all the obvious reasons, to work with those guys. But beyond that, tweaked the right way, I thought this could be a classic genre movie, a genre that I like, from The Lavender Hill Mob to Heat.
"I love those movies. I call them process movies, men-at-work movies, where it's all about watching guys do arcane, cool stuff.
"It's a puzzle and it has to do with risk, and I like seeing people who know what the hell they're doing in weird little worlds, like Jimmy Caan in Thief.
"Thief is one of the first ones I watched where I said, 'Wow, this is how they really do it. This is not a caper movie, per se, this is how guys bust safes.' On a personal entertainment level, it's great."
Unfinished Script, Finished Performances
Oz, who started out as a puppeteer with Jim Henson, has done mostly comedies since becoming a feature-film director. His resume includes such hits as In & Out, Bowfinger and What About Bob? With The Score, he moved into crime drama not only with one of the most formidable casts ever assembled, but, he admits, with an unfinished script. Wisely, he sought advice from the talent surrounding him.
"I got the best actor of one generation with Marlon, the best actor of another generation with Bob and arguably — except perhaps for Sean Penn — the best actor of another generation," says Oz of Norton.
Producer Gary Foster thinks that art was imitating life in regard to Norton's performance and his role.
"[Norton] said to me, 'One of the reasons I'm doing this movie is to see if I'm as good as I think I am. I have to go toe to toe with De Niro and Brando and see how it works,' " Foster says. "Norton's the young hotshot who thinks he can take the world — in the film and in real life — and I mean that in the best of senses.
Oz agrees: "As characters, that's the chemistry I wanted. It was very fortuitous casting, because it mirrored, to some degree, the actual characters in the movie, and their motivation and feelings."
Everyone agrees that the scene in the film that most underscores the relationship among the three main characters — and actors — is one in which Jackie (Norton) asks Nick (De Niro) for some advice, and Nick tells him to ask himself where he wants to be in 25 years and then do everything to accomplish that. Norton wrote the scene.
"I wrote it remembering an interview Bob gave where he talked about the importance of being disciplined, and that the choices of material are as important as the choices made within the material," Norton recalls. "That had always stayed with me, and I remember thinking that thieving and acting are both high-wire acts. That to me was the first real entry point of something a little more interesting between us in this movie.
"And if there's a piece of advice this guy can give the younger guy, it's the idea that there are a lot of talented people who disappear off the face of the Earth because they don't have the discipline to make the right kind of choices."
To tell whether Norton's character takes that advice would spoil an element of the picture — but as to Norton himself taking any such advice, only time will tell.
BORN: Columbia, Md., on Aug. 16, 1969
FAMILY: Grandfather James Rouse designed Faneuil Hall marketplace in Boston; father Edward Norton Sr. was a federal prosecutor in the Carter administration; mother, the late Robin Rouse, was a schoolteacher; has a younger brother and a sister, James and Molly.
EDUCATION: Attended the Columbia School for Theatrical Arts in Maryland from age 6-14. Graduated from Yale University in 1991 with a B.A. in history. Later, studied acting with Terry Schreiber in New York.
EARLY JOBS: Has worked as a musician, writer and proofreader.
MILESTONES: Starred in world premiere of Edward Albee's "Fragments" at the Signature Theater in Manhattan in 1994; made auspicious film debut in "Primal Fear" in 1996, for which he received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination.
OTHER NOTABLE FILMS: Played lawyers in Woody Allen's "Everyone Says I Love You" and Milos Forman's "The People vs. Larry Flynt," both in 1996; co-starred with Matt Damon in "Rounders," 1998; played a white supremacist in "American History X," 1998; starred with Brad Pitt and Helana Bonham Carter in "Fight Club," 1999; made producing, screenwriting and directorial debut in "Keeping the Faith," 2000.
COMPANIONS: Dated Courtney Love from 1996 to 1998; although both denied having a relationship, he played with her band, Hole, on a few occasions; currently dating Salma Hayek.
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