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Take Two: Edward Norton

Edward Norton in Motherless Brooklyn

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Edward Norton in Motherless Brooklyn

It’s no coincidence that actor/director Edward Norton finally made his 1950s-style film noir, Motherless Brooklyn, when a real-life madman occupies the White House, and the United States is torn asunder with political, social and racial unrest. Yet, neither Norton nor his challenging drama, ever mentions Donald Trump or anything happening today. The film (which opens November 1st) is instead set nearly 70 years ago. It just happens to deal with the zeitgeist of current events in America.

Edward Norton plays a 1950s Brooklyn private eye who suffers from Tourette Syndrome.
Edward Norton plays a 1950s Brooklyn private eye who suffers from Tourette Syndrome.

“That is a fairly vital role for movies to play,” explains Norton. “Take Chinatown, which is a look back to the California of the ’30s, made in the ’70s. I don’t think it is coincidental at all that that movie comes at the end of the Vietnam War when the Watergate scandals were breaking open, made by a director (Roman Polanski) whose wife was murdered by a bunch of maniacs. It’s a very challenging film – this idea that the California of the American dream was built on crime, and that the people who committed these crimes raped their daughters, too.”

With other Canadian film journalists, I am sitting with Norton, and his co-star Gugu Mbatha-Raw, in an interview room at the Toronto International Film Festival, chatting about Norton’s first directorial effort in 19 years. This was a passion project for the highly regarded American actor, who is known for films as disparate as Rounders, American History X, Fight Club, Frida, 25th Hour, Moonrise Kingdom, The Bourne Legacy, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Birdman.

For Motherless Brooklyn, Norton worked on his adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s novel for years, reorganizing the storyline and moving it from the 1990s to the 1950s. He fictionalized all the real-life characters from the ’50s. “The wisdom of doing literary versions of these things is that there is a lot of freedom to distill the essence of certain truths rather than have to explain everything,” says Norton. “There’s a reason that Citizen Kane wasn’t called Citizen Hearst,” he adds, referring to Orson Welles’ 1941 masterpiece. It was a fictionalized version of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst’s abuse of power.

Motherless Brooklyn follows a detective named Lionel Essrog, played by Norton. Afflicted with Tourette Syndrome, Lionel works for a tough, taciturn, yet sympathetic, boss played by Bruce Willis. Left alone after a tragedy, Lionel tries to unravel a multiple-murder mystery buried inside a gigantic redevelopment scheme that has racial, social and criminal implications.

Norton consulted with Lethem. “I told him that I felt that there was an issue – that he had written a ’50s hard-boiled bunch of characters, but he set them in the modern world. In film, which is very literal, I didn’t want it to feel like the Blues Brothers. You know, guys in fedoras in the modern world. And he agreed with that 100 per cent.”

Playing a man with Tourette’s, while also directing the film, posed another challenge for Norton. It was an added complication. “There were many arguments against directing and acting in this,” says Norton. “One of the arguments for it was knowing that I could experiment with the condition a lot, but also be the one who sculpted the balance of it later [in the editing room].”

Risky? Yes, but worth it, says Norton. “There aren’t a lot of things that end up being good that aren’t creatively risky on some level.”

Bruce Kirkland‘s career spans more than four decades, working as a film critic for The Toronto Star, The Ottawa Journal and for 36 years at The Toronto Sun.

A life-long film buff, Bruce now shares his passion and insight with Active Life readers.

bruce.kirkland@hotmail.com


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TAKE TWO: Moral Dilema

Moral dilemma: How do we separate the work from the person?

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Moral dilemma: How do we separate the work from the person?

by Bruce Kirkland

The #MeToo movement has already had a profound effect on society in general, and the entertainment industry in particular, especially in the United States.

This of course is a good thing, with the rules of engagement beginning to balance out in the Battle of the Sexes. The day of reckoning for perverts, deviants and sex criminals has become a year of vengeful justice, at least in the court of public opinion. Former film producer, Harvey Weinstein, is now a pariah who faces multiple charges. In September, comedian Bill Cosby was finally convicted of aggravated sexual assault and sentenced to prison after decades of eluding punishment. There are many other guilty parties, many of whom have had their careers, reputations and lives disrupted and/or destroyed.

The fact that #MeToo has done nothing to effect change in the White House, where an accused sex offender remains as U.S. president, is no reflection on the movement. Instead, it illustrates the insanity of American partisan politics.

But this column is not about politics – it’s about the entertainment industry. Getting Weinstein out of action and into court is a blessing. With dozens of accusers, and at least 13 women who allege that Weinstein raped them, this man should never be allowed to wield power and use it to abuse women. Nor should anyone else be so empowered, on any scale.

However, I’m struggling with an unfortunate side issue. How should I, or anyone else who supports the #MeToo Movement, deal with the cultural artifacts left behind? People I know, and respect, have struggled for years when watching actor/ director Woody Allen’s films, which include a clutch of American classics. Likewise, the often stunning work of actor/ director (and convicted sex offender) Roman Polanski is under scrutiny as he continues his career in exile. Polanski is about to shoot J’accuse, a truelife, 19th century drama about the Dreyfus affair – a miscarriage of justice.

Meanwhile, what do we do about our feelings towards the dozens of films produced by Harvey Weinstein since 1981? It’s easy to forget about his debut The Burning, a cheesy horror flick. It is difficult to deal with Pulp Fiction, The English Patient, Good Will Hunting, Shakespeare in Love, Gangs of New York, Cold Mountain, The Aviator, The King’s Speech, The Artist, Django Unchained, Lion and many, many more titles.

CAPTION: Harvey Weinstein

Can we free ourselves of guilt by ignoring Weinstein’s involvement, instead focusing on the writers, directors, actors and technicians who made the films? This is my choice, but I do not feel 100 per cent confident. Doubts remain. Did any of these filmmakers know of Weinstein’s behaviour during their productions? If some of them did know, did they choose to let it slide for personal gain?

Other films not involving Weinstein are easier to deal with directly. But the moral choices are still challenging. American Beauty is also an American classic. Yet it happens to star Kevin Spacey, who is under investigation for a series of alleged sexual assaults in the U.S. and Britain. Right now, and perhaps forever, I cannot look at Spacey’s face in American Beauty, in past episodes of the otherwise brilliant TV series House of Cards, or in anything else.

And the sad truth is that Spacey is not the only one who has already ruined the experience of watching great films or TV shows.

Bruce Kirkland‘s career spans more than four decades, working as a film critic for The Toronto Star, The Ottawa Journal and for 36 years at The Toronto Sun.

A life-long film buff, Bruce now shares his passion and insight with Active Life readers.

bruce.kirkland@hotmail.com


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