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Edward Norton makes 'History'

Us Magazine, December 1998

In his very first scene in American History X, Edward Norton is wearing nothing but a pair of briefs. He is tone and sculpted, all cuts and angles; his eyes have a piercing intensity. For a brief moment, he looks so heroic that it belies his offscreen contention that "I'm not going to put people in seats on the strength of my head shot," It is a startling transformation for the 29-year-old actor, best known as Drew Barrymore's earnest fiancee in Everyone Says I Love You and Woody Harrelson's straight-laced lawyer in The People Vs. Larry Flynt.

But this is no beefcake pose. Across Norton's chest in that early scene of American History X is a huge tattoo of a swastika, and above his bulging biceps lies the inscription WHITE POWER. Throughout the film, Norton, who plays a fiercely intelligent and charismatic skinhead named Derek Vineyard, utters some of the most virulent hate language ever heard onscreen.

Norton says he wanted to push people's buttons by forcing them to identify with Vineyard. "Then," he says, "they would have to confront the uncomfortable reality that these terrible acts of violence have roots in very complicated and sad human frustrations." Executive producer Steve Tisch concedes that the film will leave audiences more than a little uncomfortable. "You don't," he states with whopping understatement, "come out whistling the theme song."

Audiences are, however, coming out singing the praises of Norton. There is already buzz that his performance will earn him an Academy Award nomination. If it does, it will be his second in just five films. (He nabbed one for his screen debut as a stammering psychopath in 1996's Primal Fear.) Those who have worked with Norton speak of his talent with awe. "Who's out there today who's dangerous and able to disappear inside characters?" asks Michael De Luca, president of production at New Line, the studio releasing American History X. "You're talking Edward Norton and Nic Cage. Everyone else is a pretty-boy movie star."

Norton seems to have only one very vocal and visible critic these days" Tony Kaye, 46, the director of American History X, his first feature film. Unhappy with the studio's cut of the film, Kaye asked the Director's Guild of America to remove his name from the credits. (The DGA nixed his request.) During the past few months, Kaye, an acclaimed British director of TV commercials, has been especially vituperative toward Norton, denouncing the star as a "narcissistic dilettante." In one of a series of bizarre ads he took out in The Hollywood Reporter and Variety this summer, Kaye wrote, " To Edward Norton: Stop looking in the lake and listen to the wind."

What inspired this ire? Last fall, Kaye delivered his director's cut; and according to New Line executives, it scored high with test audiences. But then Kaye took the studio's notes and delivered a second cut of the movie that was "too truncated," says De Luca, and "not in the direction we signed on for." De Luca was so alarmed, he brought in Jerry Greenberg, the Oscar-winning editor of 1971's The French Connection. Then, in a highly unusual move, De Luca invited Norton to sit in on the editing sessions. "He had the character's compass down," explains De Luca.

Kaye was given the opportunity to do another cut of his own. But 10 weeks later, instead of delivering a new version of the film, he showed up at a meeting with New Line executives accompanied by a rabbi, a priest and a Tibetan monk, saying he wanted to add some "spirituality" to the proceedings. Kaye has called the version of American History X released by New Line a "rape." Norton says he is mystified by Kaye's wrath. "There should be no mischaracterization," he says emphatically. "There is no such thing as my cut of the film. Tony's work in this film - the direction, the photography - is eminently on display, and it's stunning. I really don't know what his beef was."

The uproar makes for great spectator sport in Hollywood, but it presents new hurdles for an inflammatory movie that was always going to have a difficult time finding its audience. Most critics agree that Norton's prospects for an Academy Award nomination won't be damaged by the controversy. "His performance is there on the screen," says Kirk Honeycutt of The Hollywood Reporter. Critics say the dispute could, however, destroy any chance the $9.5 million movie may have to earn a best picture nod. "It tarnishes the film in the mind of the Academy voters," says Honeycutt, "in much the same way Amistad was tarnished by the controversy over who wrote the movie."

Norton admits he's worried "that critics will not let the movie speak for itself," so he is promoting it vigorously, campaigning even while shooting Fight Club, with Brad Pitt. But don't look for Norton to open up on, say , Oprah with lively anecdotes about his romance with Courtney Love or what it was like to grow up as the grandson of famed urban planner James Rouse, who developed Boston's Faneuil Hall and New York City's South Street Seaport. Norton is rigorous about protecting his privacy. "As a huge fan myself," he says, "I appreciate that I know very little about Dustin Hoffman or Daniel Day-Lewis. They're able to create these indelible characters. That's a gift they're giving us, and this week's news about who so- and so-'s going to bed with is just junk food by comparison."

If he were going to sit down with Oprah, Norton certainly would have heart-wrenching story to tell. In March 1997, just 11 days before production on American History X began, Norton's mother, Robin, a high-school English teacher, died at 54 of brain cancer. "I wouldn't have done the movie if I didn't feel up to it," he says declining to comment further. Notes producer John Morrissey with admiration: "I think Edward looked at everything that had deeply hurt him and used it in the movie."

Next year, Norton will take a turn with some lighter material, directing and starring in Keeping the Faith, a film he describes as a romantic comedy in the style of The Philadelphia Story. Norton concedes it's a little early in his career to start doing double duty, but he's moving ahead on the advice of one of Hollywood's sagest veterans, Warren Beatty. "I told him I was thinking of directing," says Norton, "but I wasn't sure I was ready. And he said, "I waited too long. Don't worry about the consequences. Just do it.'" Norton says that when he does take the helm, he'll remember the lessons he learned "from some great teachers." He ticks off the names of the masters for whom he has acted: "Milos Forman, Woody Allen, John Dahl ..." And with customary graciousness, he adds, without missing a beat, "Tony Kaye."

Shelly Levitt


Letter to the Editor

The following letter to the editor from Edward Norton appeared in the February 1999 issue of Us magazine.


When your reporter, Shelly Levitt, asked me which film directors I had learned a lot from ["Edward Norton Makes History," December 1998], I quickly answered, "All of the ones I've worked with." I specifically recall beginning my list with Greg Hoblit, who gave me my start in films and is one of the finest directors of actors I have ever encountered. For some reason, he was omitted from my list in the quote that appears in the article. I'm sure that it was unintentional, but I wanted to clarify that the omission was not mine, because without his faith in me and his expert direction of Primal Fear, I might never have had the chance to work with the others.

Edward Norton

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