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Perhaps this striving to use film as a sort of cultural reportage has something to do with why Norton has often been held up as some kind of exemplar of his peer group. Some of this is put on him by others — try to find a magazine profile that doesn’t brand him as “the best actor of his generation,” at least up to his broad comic turn in the widely maligned Death to Smoochy — but a lot of it he steps into himself. In interviews over the years, Norton’s frequently invoked the notion of generational responsibility, whether talking about the fight to save the planet or the fight against Oscar gifting. When Fight Club was released to polarizing response, he complained on the record about critics like The New Yorker’s David Denby, who insisted that the David Fincher film glorified fascism, telling W, “It amazes me how baby boomers reject the art of my generation.”
“I do sometimes think they should take away a critic’s pass at about age 45,” Norton, 41, says today. “I kind of think they’ve seen too many movies, and when they’re writing about movies I see them interacting with their own erudition.”
Norton is, as you’d expect, an intense presence in a room, but for most of our conversation he’s been subdued, speaking calmly between sips of tea. He becomes much more animated when the topic turns to film criticism, and the state of “entertainment journalism” — a phrase he annunciates slowly, mockingly. He suspects that the entertainment media’s process of instant and knee-jerk evaluation gets in the way of the audience’s organic interaction with art.
“I don’t think Guernica is, like, intended to be an easy picture to look at,” he says. “A lot of what you come to understand about that painting is in fact the inheritance of a couple of decades of people thinking about it. I’ve been through this experience a few times, where you begin to realize a deep conversation takes time to evolve between a thing and people. When you experience that, it’s very freeing because you realize, what gets said 10 minutes after [a movie] comes out is not that relevant.”
So why does Norton do press at all? For certain films he has put forth a minimum of effort — at the peak of Hulk’s promotional tour, he took off for a charity trip to Africa. But he says he’s ready and willing to promote the movies that need his star power to reach an audience. “I don’t want the very few people that are brave enough to put up the money to make a film like Stone — which is very, very few people — to get stung by the experience when they reach out to you and say, ‘Will you help us support the film in a way that attracts more people to go out and see it?’ I think you gotta kind of ante up on some level.”
Norton went all in for Leaves of Grass, which finally opened in limited release last month after distributor First Look yanked its release just days before its initial scheduled opening in April. At the time, Norton says, First Look, frustrated at not getting any higher offers for the film they financed, had booked a token two theaters — until Norton and director Tim Blake Nelson intervened. “Tim and I were pretty much begging them, like, ‘Would you give us some time to try to find a different situation?’ They did, very nicely, and we took it to a couple more festivals and it played really well at the festivals, so that’s how we persuaded them to go a little bit wider with it now.
“It’s tough, it’s just a tough moment to be selling,” Norton says. Over the past decade and a half, he’s watched the film industry evolve in a number of meaningful ways, particularly the collapse of financing and distribution models for midrange movies. But when it comes to the end of the studio indie-arm era, he sees an upside.
“It’s never bad for people to have to fight to get their films made. I think inevitably something will come that’s authentically a revolution. Some really well-known filmmaker is going to make a film and they’re going to put it out like Radiohead did with their record and they’re going to say, ‘Hey, what do you think it’s worth?’ [You’ll] download it in HD and watch it on your big screen at home and there’s not going to be any studio in the mix — and that’s when I think [the studios are] going to start trembling, because this whole notion that they’ve got some special sauce in the distribution, that they’re essential to reach people, it’s going to start to evaporate. At that point, if you’re a filmmaker, then you can’t really say, ‘The studio’s keeping me down.’ You’ve got no one to blame but yourself.”
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