Edward Norton graduated from Yale with a degree in history in 1991 and moved to Japan to … work for his grandfather’s company, Enterprise Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to building low-income housing. (Norton remains a lifetime trustee of the organization, and he speaks fluent Japanese.) He lasted five months before deciding to give it a go as an actor in New York. Within the first year he impressed Edward Albee and began performing in one-act plays for him, within three he was heading Broadway shows, and within five he was nominated for an Oscar and starring in movies for Milos Forman and Woody Allen.
It sort of makes sense: At his best, Norton is able to make acting look effortless. His ease sometimes gets the best of him, in that he sometimes challenges himself so much that you can feel him showing he’s a Serious Actor. There’s no need: Norton has the chops and does well when he doesn’t feel obliged to show them off. (It’s remarkable that he’s 50 years old, by the way: To many people who saw him first in his breakthrough year of 1996, he’ll always be the altar boy from Primal Fear and the earnest lawyer of The People vs. Larry Flynt.)
With the release of Motherless Brooklyn, the adaptation of the fantastic Jonathan Lethem novel and the second film Norton has directed, we take a look back at his career and rank his performances, from neo-Nazis to Hulks and everything in between.
29. Collateral Beauty (2016)
This infamous Will Smith disaster takes just about everyone down with it, from Smith all the way to the end of the credits. Norton benefits by not having to play “Love,” “Time,” or “Death” — sorry, Keira Knightley, Jacob Latimore, and Helen Mirren — but as Smith’s co-worker who helps put together the plan that will supposedly help him go on with his life (and of course help himself), he ends up with the film’s most treacly moments. May Norton never have to say the line, “It wasn’t that I felt love, it was that I felt like I had become love” ever, ever again.
28. Red Dragon (2002)
This prequel to The Silence of the Lambs — in which Anthony Hopkins, who is 11 years older, is supposed to be 11 years younger — features Norton as Will Graham, the role that Hugh Dancy would play in the (much better) television show Hannibal. Dancy’s not a better actor than Norton, but he’s better as Graham, if only because his Graham is just callow and self-centered enough to think he’s the star of his own story. Norton digs deep into the character but just isn’t able to find much there, leaving him mostly with empty Method shtick. It’s worth noting that no one remembers this movie, or Norton in it.
27. Death to Smoochy (2002)
It is certainly not Norton’s fault that this infamous Danny DeVito/Robin Williams black comedy about the supposed alcoholic monsters who produce our children’s television is such a historic disaster, and he should be able to walk away from it with his head held high. He went for it, you know? Of course, that’s easy for us to say: We’re not wearing the pink rhino costume. In recent years, some have revisited Death to Smoochy to claim that it is some misunderstood classic. Do yourself a favor and do not humor these people.
26. Down in the Valley (2005)
May we humbly submit that Edward Norton never wear a cowboy hat? Norton is not bad in this story of a San Fernando Valley loner who’s mentally unstable and lonely and essentially good but can’t help but come to a tragic end. Norton’s character wears the hat, and his whole Western gimmick, as a sign of his desire to be someone other than himself, and the delusion ends up dragging him even further down. Yet Down in the Valley is too unfocused and wobbly to give the character any sort of consistency, and the results are just a mess.
25. The Bourne Legacy (2012)
Such is the legacy of this Bourne spinoff that, for such a potentially big franchise-extending action movie, it has left zero impression on the culture since its premiere seven years ago. At this point, you’d be hard-pressed to remember that Rachel Weisz was Jeremy Renner’s co-star — she was a scientist — and it’d be miraculous if you knew that Norton was also in this, essentially playing the Scott Glenn role of the Evil Guy in the Government Who Looks at Screens on the Wall and Barks Orders. Norton’s natural intelligence makes him a good fit for a pseudo-brainy thriller like this, but like everything in The Bourne Legacy, it’s merely a faint echo of what happened in the Matt Damon films.
24. Frida (2002)
It’s sort of funny to even think of Norton playing Nelson Rockefeller, but play Nelson Rockefeller he does in this lauded biopic of artist Frida Kahlo. Norton was dating Salma Hayek at the time, which might have something to do with the casting, but he’s not bad in a small part as the capitalist who values the communist Kahlo’s work primarily for the financial value he sees in it. He’s distracting in his walk-on role, but not fatally so.
23. Kingdom of Heaven (2005)
Don’t feel bad if you don’t remember that Norton was in this ambitious misfire from Ridley Scott. After all, the guy plays a leper, King Baldwin IV, whose face is covered by a mask. So, it’s largely a voice performance, and Norton enjoys hamming it up. (In both his intonation and his regal pomposity, he sounds a little like Anthony Hopkins.) Norton actually didn’t want to be credited in Kingdom of Heaven — not because he was embarrassed, but because he wanted to preserve the mystery of who the king was. Doesn’t really matter: Most folks have no idea anyway.
22. Pride and Glory (2008)
A “gritty” family crime drama from Gavin O’Connor (who would make better use of the film’s themes a year later in Warrior), Pride and Glory tells the story of an NYPD cop family that (all together now) has generations of secrets and lies and resentments. The film sat on the shelf for a year, and despite some good performances (particularly from Noah Emmerich), you can see why: It’s virtually indistinguishable from a hundred other cop-family thrillers you can find on the used DVD shelf at any pawn shop.
21. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
This is the Hulk that Marvel mostly tries to keep hidden — though we suppose it’d be okay with Ang Lee’s version never existing either — and, sad to say, a lot of this is because of Norton. As you might expect from him, his Bruce Banner is brooding and sullen … maybe a little bit too much of both. The fun of Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk is how unlikely the mumbling, shambling actor is as a superhero; he’s tortured, but adorably rumpled about the whole thing. Norton is so intense about the whole deal, in a way the later Marvel movies would figure out doesn’t exactly work in this universe. It was a casting misstep for both Norton and Marvel, and one that the studio would eventually correct.
20. The Painted Veil (2006)
An adaptation of the W. Somerset Maugham novel — the third, actually — director John Curran is respectably old-school in the story of a bacteriologist (Norton) who discovers that his wife (Naomi Watts) is having an affair, and punishes her by making her accompany him to a remote area of China. There … they end up falling in love all over again, despite all their history. Both actors are solid, and everything’s very earnest, but it’s all a little bit too tasteful to really come to life.
19. Stone (2010)
One of those occasional movies in recent years that got Robert De Niro fans hopeful that he wasn’t just going to phone in everything, Stone stars Norton as an arsonist and De Niro as his parole officer. It’s a pleasure to see them lock horns in this muted, grizzled prison drama, but the material — and the strange path it goes down when Milla Jovovich shows up as the arsonist’s wife — tends to be underwhelming. Also, Norton, rocking cornrows and a gutter-rat vibe, sometimes seems like he’s trying too hard to play a hardened criminal, as if he wants to convince us (and himself) that he’s capable of portraying this sort of slippery slime ball.
18. Everyone Says I Love You (1996)
The conceit of this Woody Allen musical was that the filmmaker wasn’t concerned about casting actors with polished singing voices or ace dance moves: He wanted the characters to be ordinary folks in a throwback Hollywood romance. It’s a charming idea, but Norton’s performance illustrates the limits of that approach. As a smitten young man, Norton tries very hard to be graceful and effervescent, but he’s so studied that he never comes across as anything but awkward. That’s part of the joke, of course, but it doesn’t entirely work.
17. Isle of Dogs (2018)
As Rex, the leader of the dogs marooned on a trash island because the human population thinks they’re diseased, Norton hooks into the despairing quality of Wes Anderson’s postapocalyptic animated film, which depicts our world as one devolving into chaos. But the film belongs more to Bryan Cranston’s Chief, leaving Norton as an enjoyable addition to a predictably strong ensemble. Truth be told, Norton’s best moment in Isle of Dogs is as the surprise cameo in Anderson’s CrowdRise video that was released on the first day of production, where the director announced a charity auction to play a voice in the movie. Norton is very funny playing a very insecure actor.
16. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
Norton’s second collaboration with Wes Anderson came in this Oscar-winning comedy-drama about a fussy concierge, Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), who’s suspected of murder. Playing an inspector on Gustave’s trail, Norton beautifully deadpans — his amusing mustache does most of the heavy lifting — and while it’s a small role, he doesn’t try to inflate the part with added importance. Henckels isn’t a bumbling fool, but Norton makes him a guy who’s always a step or two behind what’s going on. It’s hard sometimes for smart actors to play less-smart characters, but this is a little gem of understatement.
15. Leaves of Grass (2009)
Step aside, Gemini Man and Living With Yourself: A decade earlier, Edward Norton did the dual-role thing in the far more low-tech Leaves of Grass, about twin brothers who couldn’t be more different — Bill is an Ivy League professor, while Brady is a stoner deadbeat. Tim Blake Nelson’s dark comedy is pretty uneven, but it’s a hoot to watch Norton do his version of The Nutty Professor, sending up his serious side as Bill and having a ball essaying a total loser as Brady. At worst, Leaves of Grass is a one-joke concept, but its very existence is proof that Norton will throw himself into every venture, even if it doesn’t merit the effort.
14. Sausage Party (2016)
This outrageous R-rated animated comedy is a Who’s Who of funny voice actors, but it was particularly inspired to cast Norton as Sammy Bagel Jr., a nebbishy roll who sounds a lot like a Woody Allen character in the midst of a panic attack. (It was Norton who had pitched himself for the role. As producer, writer, and star Seth Rogen recalls, “He was like, ‘If I’ve done my job properly, people won’t know it’s me until the end of the movie when they see my name in the credits.’ And I was like, that’s fantastic!”) This is one of Norton’s most straight-up goofy performances, and it’s incredibly winning.
13. The Score (2001)
De Niro! Brando! Together for the only time! It’s a shame that their lone appearance onscreen together was in this mostly sleepy Frank Oz (???) crime thriller about a bank robber (De Niro) talked into doing one last score by his fence (Brando, weird as usual) but ends up being double-crossed by up-and-coming thief Jack (Norton). Norton seems particularly eager to show that he can keep up with the two legends, but he ends up being much more invested, probably unnecessarily so, than either one of them. They both seem to like him though.
12. Motherless Brooklyn (2019)
Norton has been trying to adapt Jonathan Lethem’s acclaimed 1999 novel for decades, and the years spent in that pursuit are felt in every frame of the film, only the second he’s directed. (He also wrote the screenplay.) Moving the action to the 1950s, Norton casts himself as Lionel, a detective with Tourette’s trying to uncover who killed his boss and mentor (Bruce Willis). The movie is a handsomely mounted, somewhat mannered noir, highlighted by the actor’s committed performance: He integrates Lionel’s outbursts organically into the character, helping to keep it from feeling gimmicky. As a result, this is one of Norton’s most vulnerable turns: Lionel is a smart, decent guy whose condition has marooned him from the rest of the world, leaving him fragile and uneasy. Motherless Brooklyn aspires to be a sprawling, big-city crime epic, which it ultimately fails to achieve, but his performance, imperfect but also intriguing, keeps you engaged. As passionate as he was to make this movie, you almost wish another, more seasoned director could have gotten behind the camera — it might have helped sharpen both the film and Norton’s portrayal.
11. Keeping the Faith (2000)
Until Motherless Brooklyn, this was the only movie Norton had directed, and it’s sort of remarkable how … light and sweet it is? Norton plays a Catholic priest who is best friends with a rabbi (Ben Stiller) until an old childhood friend (Jenna Elfman) returns to their lives and causes all sorts of romantic conflicts. Norton is such an intense actor’s actor that it’s really a surprise how silly and good-natured the film is: It’s just a frothy little romantic comedy that also has some interesting thoughts on faith in a modern world. Keeping the Faith was not a hit, which might be why Norton didn’t direct another film for 19 years, but it should have been.
10. Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
The more earnest side of Norton has never been better utilized than as a rigorous scoutmaster in this endearing Wes Anderson love story. He’s Randy, who loses camper Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) and goes on a hunt to bring him back. Before working with Wes Anderson, Norton sometimes struggled to seem lighthearted onscreen, but in Moonrise Kingdom, he’s wholly comfortable, plugging into the character’s nerdy, rule-following demeanor with ease. It’s a small thing, but the sight of Norton in tan shorts and long socks is never not funny in this movie.
9. The Illusionist (2006)
In hindsight, it’s surprising it took Norton so long to play a magician: Like Eisenheim the Illusionist, he’s got a flair for brooding showmanship. The Illusionist is a self-consciously dreamy and lush slab of romanticism, but Norton is commanding as a heartsick man convinced he can pull off his greatest trick, which is to win the heart of his beloved Sophie (Jessica Biel). It’s probably not worth treating The Illusionist as seriously as it takes itself, but the film allowed Norton, just a few years after The Italian Job, to demonstrate some true star power without compromising the intensity that’s woven into his DNA.
8. The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996)
Norton burst on the scene in 1996 with movies from Woody Allen, Gregory Hoblit, and Milos Forman, and while Primal Fear got him the Oscar nomination, it’s possible more cineastes saw him in this biopic. He is the straight man here, the earnest First Amendment lawyer who defends Larry Flynt (Woody Harrelson) and basically plays the Regular Guy you can cheer for while ignoring Flynt’s excesses.
7. Rounders (1998)
The movie all your bro friends still won’t stop quoting to you 20 years later, Rounders is basically Citizen Kane for gambling addicts and … perfectly fine for everybody else. Norton gets to play a character named “Worm,” who, as you can probably guess, is a sneaky cheat who’s constantly trying to scam all the other players around him. He ends up causing Matt Damon’s Mikey all sorts of trouble, and just when he’s starting to get interesting, he vanishes from the movie altogether. Norton has the strongest, most interesting character here, but the movie never quite realizes it or accepts it.
6. American History X (1998)
It’s important to remember that these rankings are based on the performance, not the quality of the film, which explains why American History X is this high on the list. As a movie, it’s cheap, manipulative, and risible — an overblown, oh-so-serious depiction of a skinhead that can’t stop congratulating itself for its “daring” — and yet, it’s hard to argue with Norton’s commitment to portray Derek, a piece of human scum, who slowly begins to gain a conscience. Norton’s scenes with Derek’s younger brother Danny (Edward Furlong) are tender and volcanic, and the actor’s coiled anger is genuinely frightening. That it’s in service of a simpleminded drama diminishes its power somewhat, but you can’t look away. One suspects that he was given an Oscar nomination, if for no other reason, because Academy members didn’t want to piss off an actor capable of something so lethal.
5. The Italian Job (2003)
This heist remake came along just as Norton was transitioning from respected character actor to movie star, and it finds him comfortably bridging that gap. (That’s even more impressive considering that Norton absolutely wanted nothing to do with The Italian Job, only doing it because Paramount threatened to sue him — he owed the studio one last film as part of a contract he had signed.) He’s perfect as the steely double-crosser who betrays the team (including Mark Wahlberg), giving us a bad guy who’s no supervillain but, rather, just a very smart man with no soul. Lots of actors can do this kind of thing, but it’s fun to see him, no matter how much against his will, acquit himself in a snazzy thriller. He probably hated every minute of The Italian Job, but it’s still a low-key blast.
4. Primal Fear (1996)
Norton had been working on Off Broadway plays and with legendary playwright Edward Albee but had never been in a film when he got this part over, supposedly, 2,000 other actors. Unknown at the time, Norton couldn’t have asked for a better introduction, playing an altar boy accused of murder and defended by Richard Gere. Without giving away the big reveal, we’ll just say that Norton’s ability to look innocent, and be believable about it, while also being able to muster up reserves of menace, comes in handy in Primal Fear. He was the breakout star of the otherwise-mostly-pedestrian film, and it earned him his first Oscar nomination.
3. Fight Club (1999)
It’s not a shock that Fight Club director David Fincher — a demanding, meticulous filmmaker — would clash with Norton, an actor with a reputation for being pretty strong-willed himself. “I think Edward had this idea of, ‘Let’s make sure people realize that this is a comedy,’” Fincher later recalled of Fight Club. “He and I talked about this ad nauseam. There’s humor that’s obsequious, that’s saying, ‘Wink-wink, don’t worry, it’s all in good fun.’ And my whole thing was to not wink. What we want is for people to go, ‘Are they espousing this?’” It seems like Fincher largely won the argument — 20 years later, people still wrestle with whether Fight Club is indulging its characters’ toxicity — but Norton was superb in the trickier role of the pushed-around nobody who befriends a charismatic stud (Brad Pitt) with a thing for being punched in the face. This movie doesn’t work if we don’t believe its twist, and Norton conveyed enough desperation and edginess to sell the switcheroo.
2. Birdman (2014)
If you were getting a little sick of Norton’s Serious Actor shtick, his compulsively entertaining performance in this polarizing Oscar winner lets you know that he’s aware of that and even has a sense of humor about it. Norton is able to be every impossible actor everyone’s ever hated and also gets across the overwhelming talent that makes everyone want to work with him: It’s one of the best actor-as-actor performances in memory. Norton’s Mike is obnoxious and full of himself but also still likable and even soulful. You can’t help but be absorbed by him.
1. 25th Hour (2002)
“It’s not my instinct to judge a character,” Norton said of Monty, the convicted drug dealer he plays in 25th Hour. “I ask: Does the story, as a whole, make a statement I can get behind? And this film is a very strong and unequivocal statement about the consequences of not examining the morality of what you’re doing.” Spike Lee’s character piece doubles as a post-9/11 tribute to New York, and those two elements are merged in Norton’s performance. Monty is a criminal and a bigot, but neither he nor Lee ever quite decides how we should feel about him. And that’s the point: Like the city he loves and disdains in equal measure, Monty is a frustrating mixture of good and bad, and those extremes are never resolved in 25th Hour. The performance is probably best known for Monty’s legendary diatribe about New York’s different milieus — it was in David Benioff’s book, and Lee and Norton insisted it be in the movie, despite the author’s reservations — but what’s strongest is the sense of a man’s wasted potential. Monty is the quintessential New Yorker — tough, charismatic, ready to explode — and Norton charts his realization, just as prison looms, that he’s the product of a dozen bad decisions. New York will be able to rebuild, but Monty might not be so lucky.