Friday, October 31, 2008
Point-Counterpoint: Edward Norton vs. Brad Pitt
One of the features we'll be doing regularly here at RTS is a point-counterpoint, where Chris and I debate two sides of an issue. It may include sports, music, or even personal hygiene habits (Graham: I shower every day; Chris: Daily bathing is overrated).
The first installment is trying to determine the finest actor of our generation: Brad Pitt or Edward Norton. Unfortunately, Christopher Mintz-Plasse didn't make the cut.
This won't exactly make for an incendiary intra-blog war, because the reality is you can't go wrong with either. Brad Pitt is a terrific actor. Se7en is one of my favorite movies. Ocean's 11 was a romp (sorry, had to channel my inner pretentious movie critic there), even if Ocean's 12 and 13 were annoying vanity projects. Hell, he was even funny on an episode of Friends, no small feat.
And while the volume of Pitt's body of work far outweighs Edward Norton's, I'm taking Norton.
I first saw him in Primal Fear. Actually, everybody first saw him in Primal Fear. Because according to his IMDB page that was only his second acting gig. No bit parts anywhere, no failed tv pilots, no working his way up the ladder. His second acting gig was a leading part in a very difficult role. Go back and watch the movie: his speech patterns, mannerisms, everything: it's phenomenal. And the way he handled the turn at the end was outstanding.
From there he had a nice part in the otherwise terrible People Vs. Larry Flynt, playing Flynt's put-upon attorney. But next came leading roles in one of the strongest three-movie stretches in any actor's career: Rounders, American History X, and Fight Club. All three are legitimate classics of that time period.
Sadly, the next few years things were kind of dry for him, but in 2002 he did what I'd previously considered impossible: he made a Spike Lee movie - The 25th Hour- enjoyable. It's an outstanding concept for a movie: drug dealer sentenced to jail, and the movie follows him around for the last 24 hours before he has to report to prison. The entire cast is terrific: Philip Seymour Hoffman (who might deserve his own entry in this finest actor debate just for his role in Capote), Barry Pepper (criminally underrated), Rosario Dawson (smokin' hot and a legitimately good actress), and Bryan Cox.
I love this movie. I love Norton in it. The scene where he reconciles with his father. How he interacts with his two best friends, who are polar opposites. How he's not sure if it was his girlfriend who turned him in. The recognition that he alone is responsible for his fate. It baffles me that no one ever talks about this movie, because it's one of the best of the last 10 years, and he's a major reason why.
Granted, since then, the well has run dry. Yeah, the Italian Job was fun, but that's been about it. Frankly, he needs to start making better decisions.
But here's the thing with Norton vs. Pitt: apart from roles where Pitt's looks play a major part, Norton could play Pitt's parts. Norton could have been the cop in Se7en. The tortured lawyer in Sleepers. Clooney's good buddy in Ocean's. On and on.
But I don't see Pitt doing Norton's Primal Fear role. I can't see Brad Pitt as a neo-nazi. And I don't think he could have pulled off 25th Hour. So I'm giving the edge to Norton.
I have to confess before that Edward Norton was my favorite actor for the longest time. As a matter of fact, he was probably my favorite actor until last Saturday. What happened last Saturday to change this? Pride and Glory with Colin Farrell happened. How could Edward lead me astray like this? What had I done to deserve this? I sat through Hulk just because Ed was in it and I told myself it wasn’t that bad, that he deserved a paycheck too. But this has been a reoccurring thing: I watch Edward Norton movies and become extremely disappointed. Down in the Valley wasn’t just the worst Edward Norton movie I’ve ever seen, it was unwatchable. By my count, Norton hasn’t made one good movie in the past five years. He had a nice run with Primal Fear, American History X, Rounders, Fight Club, Death to Smoochy, Red Dragon and The 25th Hour. Those days are gone my friend. I should’ve seen in coming back in Fight Club in ’99. The best actor of his generation was in that movie but it wasn’t Norton, it was Brad Pitt.
Pitt probably doesn’t get the credit he deserves because his devilishly good looks probably keep people from seeing that he’s actually a superb actor. Pitt’s best movies (and performances) stack up with Norton. Pitt’s legacy includes A River Runs Through It, Se7en, 12 Monkeys, Sleepers, Fight Club and Ocean’s 11. I’ve yet to see Burn After Reading but I assume not only will it be good, but that Pitt will be hilarious as well. He also has The Curious Case of Benjamin Button coming out later this year which looks fantastic. Here’s the trailer:
Even when Pitt makes a blockbuster, it’s better than Norton. I’d rather watch Mr. and Mrs. Smith than Hulk. I also give the Pitt the edge over Norton in range. Norton is at his best when he plays the seemingly normal guy that’s really hiding some deeper problem: see Primal Fear, Fight Club, The 25th Hour. Besides Death to Smoochy, Norton can’t really pull off a comedy. He’s not suited to do action movies either. Pitt, however, can do comedy (the Ocean’s movies), action (Mr. and Mrs. Smith), drama (Se7en, A River Runs Through It) and sci-fi (12 Monkeys).
Pitt isn’t immune to making a bad movie but at least he sprinkles them out between good ones. The only real stretch of time where he made some questionable movies was when he had the Snatch, The Mexican and Spy Game trio. And sadly, I’m in the minority on Snatch. Even the Pitt movies that I’m not a big fan of, most others seem to like (Snatch, Babel, Interview with the Vampire, etc.). Compare that to the 5-year stretch of crap that Norton has going on (Down in the Valley, The Illusionist, Hulk, Pride and Glory, etc.)
The bottom line is that both are great actors. But a great actor isn’t judged by just his method but by the roles he chooses as well. Unless Norton can start making some good-to-great films again, Pitt will continue to dominate.