When I was 14, Fight Club was the coolest thing in the world. But like a lot things I loved as a teenager—Catcher In The Rye, The Marshal Mathers LP, early South Park—it doesn’t totally hold up. When the unnamed Narrator complains about filling his condo with soulless Ikea furniture, I just look from 2015 and wish I could afford a flat in London, let alone the stuff to put in it. It’s full of one-line zen quips that seem profound when you’re a teenager, and naïve when you’re half a decade out of university. But yet, despite all that, the film is still pretty damn great. And a big part of that is Edward Norton.
Edward Norton has just missed out on the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role in Birdman (losing to the equally-deserving J.K .Simmons in Whiplash). He’s only 45—he’s pretty much in the same generation as Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio and Will Smith. Yet he’s only had the lead role in two films since 2008 and both of them went straight to DVD in the UK. He might just have another supporting part in Birdman (as an egotistical actor clearly based on his own reputation), but he’s got the highest profile he’s had in years. I dunno if one Oscar-losing role is enough to call it a full-on Ed Norton comeback, but damn it’s good to see him back on our screens.
Much like Fight Club, Edward Norton now feels like something from a previous era. It’s hard to imagine where he’d be in modern Hollywood. He’s not really going to play a superhero (his stint as the Incredible Hulk was so underwhelming that Joss Whedon quickly replaced him with Mark Ruffalo). It’s hard to see where he fits in 2015. He’s not a hipster. He’s not a geek. He’s just a normal dude. I suppose he’s a bit normcore, but he’s far too cool for that label. He’s also not really an indie guy. Really, Edward Norton should be making the sort of intelligent adult mainstream dramas that Pacino, DeNiro, Robert Redford or Dustin Hoffman made in their prime. But Hollywood abandoned them for comic book movies a long time ago. He’s the everyman, but a cool as fuck everyman.
As a teenager, Edward Norton was basically everything I wanted to aspire to be as a man. Sure, Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden was cooler. But he’s Brad Pitt. I ain’t never gonna be Brad Pitt. But Ed Norton was the dude you could be. He wasn’t ripped or have a chiselled chin. He was a wiry, slightly scruffy guy who got by on deadpan humour. He was intelligent without necessarily being intellectual. He was the crystallisation of wry 90s cynicism—the product of grunge and The Simpsons and Bret Easton Ellis.
Norton's stock-in-trade roles were working class/ lower middle-class guys with a deep sense of dissatisfaction and lack of excitement or meaning in life—though Norton is far too good an actor to just turn in the same performance over and over again. Fight Club is the most obvious example, but it’s something he also did in American History X and in the underrated Down In The Valley; plus there’s element of it in his supporting roles (crime ensemble The Score), and his few more commercial films (the highly driven FBI agent chasing Hannibal Lecter in Red Dragon). He played guys who aren’t super-privileged or anything and don't have the worst lives in the world—yet they really want something more. Guys who are too intelligent to submit to the daily grind. They need some danger in their lives, be it anarchy, the Ayran Brotherhood or chasing serial killers. They don’t want to just want to sit there and do what society tells them to do. You can see why it’s so appealing as a teenager, and in a lot of ways it’s an admirable worldview.
But this was in the late 90s—the time when the West had never had it so good. The economy was booming, we felt relatively safe, and the worse America had to worry about was the President boning an intern. And then the 00s happened, and 9/11 and the credit crunch. Suddenly we could be attacked on home soil and we struggled to afford the roof over our heads. Whining about Ikea just seems trivial now. You should be glad you’ve got a steady job and can pay the rent. Ironically, one of Norton’s best roles comes in Spike Lee’s The 25th Hour, the first great American post-9/11 film. He plays a middle class drug dealer facing a seven year stretch, and the film follows his last 24 hours of freedom. It captures New York’s raw scars and rage, and makes Norton’s spoilt idiot fuck-up look like an idiot for throwing away all the freedoms that America affords him.
Despite seeming like he’d be one of the most iconic actors of his generation, Norton slowly slipped from view during the 00s. He made less and less films. Some, like The Illusionist and Pride and Glory, were decent, and he also did the odd unremarkable blockbuster part in The Italian Job remake or Matt Damon-less Bourne film no-one wanted. His last two leading roles, both in 2010—Stone and Leaves of Grass—were both barely released, and since then he’s mostly stuck to memorable cameos or supporting roles in things like Birdman, and Wes Anderson’s last two films. He’s also got a reputation for being hard to work with, which might very well contribute to his decline, but it’s sad to see him not making more films.
I kind of think Mark Wahlberg has replaced Norton in a way. Wahlberg is a great actor, but he has a bluntness about him. He’s unrefined. Acts first, thinks later. He don’t take no-one’s shit, and that’s what people like about him. Wahlberg famously said one that had he been on one of the planes during 9/11 with his kids, he’d have stopped it going down (“There would have been a lot of blood in that first class cabin and then me saying ‘OK, we're going to land somewhere safely, don't worry’”). That’s a really dumb thing to say, but it’s also admirable. Wahlberg is like that in his movies.
It’s hard to imagine Edward Norton punching a guy out (that’s partly why Fight Club works so well). If you knocked over Mark Wahlberg’s drink, he’d hit you. Norton would just say something sarcastic. And probably really clever. It seems like a sign of the times that Wahlberg is more of a box office draw at the moment. People are so angry these days. Everyone is screaming death threats at each other on Twitter over the smallest thing. Maybe we need a few more Ed Nortons, who aren’t so quick to fight but are striving for something more.