The Best Performance by an Actor in Motion Picture History

In my opinion, Edward Norton’s performance in American History X is the best performance by an actor in motion picture history. This is because I have never seen another performance where an actor has inhabited a role as convincingly as Norton does in this film. Furthermore, the role requires him to undergo a significant physical transformation and to portray a character whose behavior comes from racial intolerance.

Some background about the film is necessary to understand why I rate Norton’s performance as highly as I do. American History X is a social drama, officially directed by Tony Kaye, but in large part edited by Norton himself. Indeed, the tumultuous relationship between the star and director was such that Kaye unsuccessfully attempted to disown the film by replacing his name with “Humpty Dumpty” on the credits.

The film tells the story of Derek Vinyard (Norton), a highly intelligent young man who was led astray by the influence of Cameron Alexander (Stacy Keach), into becoming the gang leader of a right-wing skinhead group. The story constantly switches between the past and the present, which are juxtaposed by the powerful black and white photography of the former, and the full-blown technicolor of the present. A critical point in the story occurs when Derek is sent to prison for committing a heinous crime and comes to see the error of his ways. However, while Derek is seeking redemption, his younger brother, Danny (Edward Furlong) is headed down the same dangerous path as his older brother.

What makes Norton’s performance so spectacular is his complete commitment to his acting. Derek is a young man who is angry at the world but who is also able to express dangerous sentiments in a persuasive, articulate manner. This is perhaps the key point that distinguishes American History X from Romper Stomper, an Australian film which also explores skinhead culture in the suburbs of Melbourne. In the latter film, Russell Crowe is physically convincing as a skinhead gang leader, but his character is insufficiently developed to understand his motivations. In contrast, Norton’s physical capabilities are matched by a sharp intellect, which makes it seem like Derek’s words and actions are relatable and even justifiable in a sense. This in turn makes the audience question their own views on the issues at hand. At the same time, his character’s redemption arc is painfully convincing.

For a short period of time in the late 90s, Edward Norton had a claim to being among the finest actors in the world. From the mysterious nature of his character in his debut film, Primal Fear (1996), to his heavyweight turn in the cult classic Fight Club (1999), he showed a versatility and a willingness to take on challenging roles. Regrettably, his career has fallen away since then, due in part to offscreen factors, such as Norton allegedly being a difficult person to work with (depending on whether you believe such rumors or not). Nevertheless, his performance in American History X has undoubtedly solidified his place in film history.


intolerance (noun) – someone’s refusal to accept beliefs, behavior or opinions that are different from their own
tumultuous (adjective) – involving a lot of noise, excitement, activity or violence
juxtapose (verb) – to place things together or describe things together so that people can see how they are different
heinous (adjective) – an extremely evil act or crime