Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Birthday Take: Edward Norton in "American History X" (1998)

Edward Norton
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Edward Norton
Born: August 18, 1943 (72 years old)
Nomination: Best Actor (Won) for Raging Bull as Derek Vinyard

The Take

There are some performances throughout history that can only be described as arresting. If you are unprepared, they will shatter your world, possibly even altering your view on an actor in irreparable ways. While I had known for years about American History X, it felt like this specific film that was very challenging, kind of violent, and one that was made solely for adult audiences. When I came out, I definitely had to stand up and applaud this fact, even if it was something that I likely wouldn't find much desire to see again. It is a phenomenal film, but it sure is bleak and uncomfortable in ways that the director effectively pulled off.

But what about that performance I spoke of? If you have seen it, you likely are familiar with Edward Norton's Nazi tattoo-sporting supremacist. This is a film explicitly about racism to the point that anyone in the PC police will die from a heart attack. While it inevitably leads to a fantastic message on the subject, it's everything before that will punch you in the gut, not leaving anything untouched. That is mostly because Norton plays a brutal racist whose violence is so convincing that you cannot help but feel that you are watching a supremacist in action. If it doesn't make you uncomfortable, then I question your sanity. This is a performance that made me scared of Norton. It made me feel he was too intense for his own good, like if Daniel Day Lewis ever took on more challenging contemporary characters.

I had the bizarre chance of seeing American History X within 24 hours of seeing an advanced screening of Moonrise Kingdom. While Norton's role is considerably smaller there, it was like comparing day to night. Where I had been shaken to my core by his performance, I am forced to reckon with an innocent camp leader who is more twee than offensive. It was confusing in some ways, but gave me further appreciation of what Norton could be as an actor. While I haven't seen too many films as challenging as American History X, I still respect Norton for what he tries to do. His work is intense and I feel that the early darkness only complimented him taking on more light roles. If anything, it explains Birdman quite well.

So. what is the merit of a great performance? Every year, there are those that will stick in our subconscious - whether for awards season or just in general. I find that the best aren't always in the best films. What makes the performance great is an actor trying to shoot for the moon and bringing something new and visceral to viewers. It doesn't have to be the most challenging topic in the world, but it has to sway itself into our memory. For me, American History X is a tough film to beat simply because of how aggressive it is. While the film has earned a much deserved legacy, I don't know that Norton has gotten his credit as a great actor. Even if he never did anything as problematic in subject as this, he deserves more credit than the comedic pervert in Birdman.

I hope that I have made myself clear when I say that you simply don't just watch American History X. You have to prepare to experience racism firsthand and live with the horror that is displayed. Mind you, it isn't exploitative or without purpose. It simply tackles the subject in ways that most mainstream films won't. It is why the film remains somewhat timeless. Even if Norton received most of the credit, the cast is strong and director Tony Kaye made something that effectively rattles core. It wouldn't be the same without Norton's performance. For that alone, I feel it deserves credit among the best performances, at least in American cinema that decade.

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