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Movies

Edward Norton in "American History X"

Bemuscled Norton takes on a heavy 'History' lesson

Web posted on:
Thursday, October 29, 1998 2:32:15 PM EST

From Correspondent Sherri Sylvester

LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- His is the very embodiment of hate, a looming skinhead with rippling muscles uttering carefully crafted dialogue with the skill that earned him an Oscar nomination.

Edward Norton, who added 30 pounds of muscle mass to be photographed by a director known for his slick commercials, is picture-perfect in "American History X."

The controversial film casts Norton as swastika-tattooed racist Derek Vinyard, a young man who commits crimes of hate, gets caught, and goes to jail. After reforming his attitudes, he comes back home, only to realize that his younger brother (played by Edward Furlong) is following in his ghoulish footsteps.

The pre-reformation incarnation of Derek Vinyard is all the more chilling because of Norton's decision to make him articulate and attractive.

"To me it was important on many levels that he was a heightened character. He was physically forceful, intellectually forceful, charismatic, a compelling leader," Norton says.

Film's message clear

Despite his charisma, however, he says viewers are unlikely to misinterpret the film's message. "I don't think you can come away mistaking what the message of the film is. I think it's pretty unequivocal, this character does not get off the hook for his actions on any level. The consequences of his choices come home in the worst possible way to him," he says.

The rise and fall of the main character is shown through in-your-face violence -- the most brutal, most unreal scene was ripped from the headlines, where news of hate crimes continues to surface.

"You can't pick up the paper without reading about a young gay man named Matthew Shepard who's murdered, an abortion doctor in upstate New York who's killed by a sniper, a black man in Texas who's dragged behind a pickup truck," says co-executive producer Steve Tisch.

But the film's message was sidelined during postproduction, and the final film is not the director's final cut. Public battles between director Tony Kaye and distributor New Line Cinema included a series of publicity stunts.

The movie is filled with in-your-face violence

Director courted controversy

Kaye demanded that his on-screen credit be removed, then slammed the studio in trade ads, asking that his onscreen credit read "Humpty Dumpty." He even brought a rabbi, a priest and an Tibetan monk to a studio meeting.

"Tony got a little frustrated," Norton acknowledges, "but I think he's just been frustrated with the practical limitations of making a movie with a film studio on a release schedule. All films get abandoned. They never get 'finished.' And I think he'll come to grips with that eventually."

"American History X" opens in Los Angeles and New York first. Norton hopes attention will focus on how it plays, rather than how it was made.

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