A native of Boston, Massachusetts, Edward Norton was born the son of a father who was a Vietnam veteran who later became an environmental lawyer and a mother who was an English teacher. Apparently, Edward’s passion for acting began when he saw a production of Cinderella starring his babysitter at the age of five. Just three years later, at the age of just eight years old, Edward made his professional acting debut in a production of Annie Get Your Gun at Toby’s Dinner Theater in his hometown. Fast forward to 1987, and Edward Norton would begin his education at Yale University, where he would study History and Japanese.
However, Edward’s heart was still with the theater, and he participated in university productions. But, it wasn’t until 1996 when Edward Norton scored his first major film role in the noir drama Primal Fear as an alter boy who’s charged with the murder of an archbishop. His performance was praised by legendary movie critic Roger Ebert, he won a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor, and he was nominated for an Academy Award in the same category. It’s safe to say that Primal Fear was the turning point in Edward Norton’s life and career.
From that point on, Norton has landed role after role and delivered some of the most memorable cinematic performances of the last few decades. So, let’s take a look back at Edward Norton’s incredible career and list the five best movies he’s ever starred in.
1. American History X
The 1998 American crime drama American History X is one of the most daring and impactful films of the modern era. And honestly, it can be pretty tough to watch at times. However, as a piece of art and social commentary, there’s no debating this film’s merit. American History X stars Edward Norton as Derek Vinyard, a prominent member of the white power skinhead and neo-Nazi movement in Los Angeles who goes to prison for voluntary manslaughter after he murders two black men who were trying to steal his truck.
While in prison, Derek joins the Aryan Brotherhood but also befriends a Black inmate named Lamont. His friendship with Lamont and his tensions with the Aryan Brotherhood cause him to become disillusioned with the white supremacy ideology. And, once he’s released from prison, he must face his former neo-Nazi associates and announce to them that he’s renounced his racist ways. Edward Norton delivered an incredible performance for this film, making American History X one of the most powerful pieces of film of the 1990s.
2. Fight Club
Perhaps the most iconic role of Edward Norton’s career is as The Narrator in the David Fincher-directed 1999 film Fight Club (in which he stars alongside Brad Pitt). The film, which is based on the 1996 novel of the same name by Chuck Palahniuk, follows the story of a man who’s gliding through life in a daze apathetically. However, his entire life changes when he meets a man named Tyler Durden on a plane. Not long after, The Narrator’s apartment burns down, he gets involved with a woman named Marla Singer (played by Helena Bonham Carter), and he starts an underground fight club alongside Tyler.
Fight Club was definitely one of the more controversial films of the 1990s, as many argued that it perpetuated and glorified a dangerous and toxic image of masculinity. However, this film was also hailed as being incredibly innovative in its cinematic form and style. Whether you love this film or think it’s despicable, there’s no denying that it’s had a massive cultural impact. After all, “The first rule of fight club is you do not talk about fight club” is undoubtedly one of the most famous lines from any movie ever.
3. Moonrise Kingdom
The 2012 film Moonrise Kingdom is definitely different from any movie you’ve seen before or any movie you’ll see in the future. But what else would you expect from the mind of legendary director Wes Anderson? Another hallmark of Wes Anderson films is an ensemble cast of A-list actors, and Moonrise Kingdom is no different. This film’s lineup includes Edward Norton, Frances McDormand, Bruce Willis, Bill Murray, Harvey Keitel, Jason Schwartzman, and Tilda Swinton.
This film is set in 1965 at a summer camp on the fictional island of New Penzance, located somewhere off the coast of New England. Two young lovers, Sam and Suzy, feel isolated from the other campers, so they run off together to a hidden beach. Edward Norton appears in this film as Scout Master Ward, a rule-following leader who loses his cool when the two youngsters go missing. This entire film is hilarious, and Scout Master Ward is probably the funniest performance of Edward Norton’s career.
While the 2014 American black comedy-drama Birdman was recognized mostly for its innovative style of cinematography (the whole film, with a brief exception, appears as though it was filmed in one single shot), Edward Norton’s performance as Mike Shiner was also a major contributor to this film’s success. Shiner is a capable but extremely egotistical method actor that gets involved with a production of “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” directed by Riggan Thomas, a washed-up star who rose to stardom decades ago for playing a superhero named Birdman.
Riggan Thomas (played by the incomparable Michael Keaton) is tormented by an internal voice that takes the form of the superhero Birdman, bordering on schizophrenia. Despite his internal conflicts, Thomas tries to motivate his cast and navigate Mike Shiner’s ego to bring his production to fruition. This film is strange, intense, and hilarious all at the same time. Birdman went on to win four Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Cinematography. Michael Keaton received a nomination for Best Actor, and both Edward Norton and Emma Stone received nominations for Best Supporting Actor.
5. Kingdom of Heaven
Director Ridley Scott is most often associated with the Alien series of films. However, the 2005 epic historical drama Kingdom of Heaven is a film that’s often overlooked in Scott’s body of work. Set in medieval France, this film stars Orland Bloom as Balian, a blacksmith struggling through life after his wife’s recent suicide, which was spurred on by the death of their unborn child. However, when a group of Crusaders visits Balian’s village, he believes that he may be able to gain salvation for his wife’s soul by joining them on their journey to Jerusalem. However, their journey is filled with enemy forces and dangerous storms.
Edward Norton appears in Kingdom of Heaven as King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem, a leper whose health is quickly declining and who wears a facemask to conceal his condition. Nearing his death, he asks Balian to marry his sister Sibylla in order to take control of the kingdom and his army. But Balian refuses, causing power to fall into the hands of Sibylla’s son. The role of King Baldwin IV is one of Norton’s most subtle and sensitive performances. And the film as a whole is an amazing examination of the religion and morality of the Middle Ages.