Polished Performances

Actor: Edward Norton
Character: Derek Vinyard
Film: American History X

When the legal thriller Primal Fear was released in 1996, it was intended as a star vehicle for Richard Gere and gathered generally favourable reviews. However, the critics singled out one particular performance and it wasn’t Gere that took the plaudits but young newcomer Edward Norton. He stood out for his ability to switch personalities and was so powerful that everyone sat up and took notice. It would be two years later in 1998 with American History X that he had his first leading role, though, and it was a role that proved we had witnessed the arrival of one of the most powerful and exciting actors of his generation.

Norton plays Derek Vinyard a fiercely intelligent but impressionable young man who has succumbed to the far-right ethos of Neo-Nazism. It’s takes a matter of minutes within the film to realise how far he will go to express his hatred and intolerance of black people by brutally kerb-stomping a black man to death. Derek spends time in prison for his crime but he rehabilitates and has to face up to the influences he’s had in his life when he’s released back into society.

It’s the polar opposites of Derek Vinyard that Norton captures to absolute perfection. This is a man who begins the film as a brutal and intolerable individual who shows great pride in the Aryan race and the swastika tattooed on his chest. However, he finds the ability to see the error of his judgment and vows to make amends but despite his best efforts to change, this only brings further difficulties in entering back into a society and a social circle who still view him as the person they once knew.

Gaining 30 pounds of muscle, it’s an absolutely transformative performance from Norton and it challenges him to convince you that he’s a ruthless, racist thug and then asks you to sympathise with him during his time of redemption. Ultimately, it’s the humanity that Norton displays in this role that is so powerful. He’s equally adept in channeling both elements of this complex character and there’s never a moment that he doesn’t pull it off. Derek is a product of his environment and the film sheds some serious light on how parental guidance and the influences of society can essentially create and distort an inherently decent individuals view and personality. Now that a lot of the west are becoming intolerable of immigration and other cultures with far-right politics on the rise, the message of this film and the power of Norton’s incendiary performance is even more important now than it was on it’s release.

Oscars? – Norton received a, well deserved, Best Actor Nomination from the Academy and was considered to be a front runner for the win. However, he was bizarrely overlooked in favour of Roberto Benigni for Life is Beautiful. This was also the year that Shakespeare in Love beat off Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line for Best Picture. I think it’s fair to say, that this is a year that the Academy would rather forget. Norton was even included in Empire Magazine’s list of 22 Incredibly Shocking Oscars Injustices.

(For more Polished Performances stomp your way over here)

11 Responses to “Polished Performances”

  1. Such a good film and such an incredible performance. He was definitely short changed. (Even though I love Life is Beautiful).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Life is Beautiful is a charming little film, Abbi, but I really wouldn’t have even nominated Benigni let alone gave him the award.

      Norton is outstanding here and he should’ve won the Oscar hands down. He really is marvellous.


  2. Oh man, that scene when Norton’s character stamps on the guy’s head on the kerb. Still turns my stomach.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. That’s just absolutely insane Norton did not win for this. I did not know that. Nor about the timing of it, where Shakespeare in Love also won best pic. Jeez. Yeah, I think that year might be one show they can put in the ‘We Fucked This Up’ pile!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I still can’t get over Life is Beautiful winning anything. It was a cute movie and Benigni gave a nice performance, but it pales in comparison to what Norton did here. Norton was phenomenal.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m totally with you on this, Dell. Life is Beautiful was okay. It was charming but not much more and Benigni did not deserve the Oscar at all. How could the the academy overlook Norton? It baffles me.


  5. Man, this performance from Norton is one you just don’t simply forget. Excellent. I should watch this movie again. Fantastic choice Mark!

    Liked by 1 person

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