The following contains spoilers for Primal Fear. If you somehow haven't seen it yet, you owe it to yourself to go fix that right now.
Edward Norton made his film debut in 1996's Primal Fear and oh, what a debut it was. Norton Received an Academy Award nomination for his role as a man accused of murdering a priest. Norton's performance is incredibly powerful, and a large part of that comes from the film's impressive finale. It turns out that Primal Fear could have had a very different ending, but the film's star, Richard Gere, fought to make sure the movie ended the way it should.
Our own Reelblend Podcast had a chance to sit down with Edward Norton, the star and director of the new film Motherless Brooklyn, and the topic of Norton's first big role came up. The actor says he was greatly impressed by Richard Gere while making the movie, because of his willingness to stand up for the ending of a movie where Gere's own character is essentially defeated.
One of the things that comes to my mind is I remember I was very very impressed by Richard Gere. Specifically, because there was a lot of chatter and pressure around that production about the ending. And about the idea that it should be reshot, or we should do it differently. That he should win.
In Primal Fear, Richard Gere plays an attorney named Martin Veil who is defending Edward Norton's character, Aaron, from a murder charge. The story reveals that Aaron suffers from dissociative identity disorder, and his body houses a second personality, Roy, who was the one technically guilty of the crime. In the end, Aaron is found not guilty, but in one of the all-time great twist endings, Martin learns that Aaron faked his second personality, and Martin is left shaken to his core for falling for it.
Generally speaking, audiences like to see the hero win at the end of a movie. That's certainly not what happens with Primal Fear, so it's perhaps at least understandable why some would be nervous about the ending of the movie as written. Actors, generally speaking, also always want to look good in their movies, which often means they want their characters to come out on top.
Certainly, Edward Norton, being the new guy in Hollywood at the time, didn't have a lot of say on what happened with the film, but his character is the one that gets the film's final big moment. Norton was impressed by Richard Gere's willingness to let him have that moment, because the actor knew it made for the better movie. Also, the ideas for how else to end the film were pretty terrible, which didn't help. Norton goes on...
Literally, the ideas were as bad as he should punch out the kid. You should realize he’s gonna nail him. He should have a recorder on him and be busting him. All these things. And all it was was this like terror. And Richard was the one who really stood firm. Almost to the point of refusing to do anything else. He was like ‘Did anybody see what we just did here?!” He was kind of pointing at me, and he was like ‘this is how you use me to best effect.’ Because I’m slick, it’s a body blow. ‘The last shot of the movie is me standing with my shoulders sagging, punched in the face. And that’s it’. And I was like, that is really cool. This is not ‘I need to come out on top, I need to win. My character.’ We made the movie work.
It's basically impossible to imagine Primal Fear ending any other way now. I suppose we have Richard Gere to thank. If he'd been less sure we might have ended up getting something else, and that honestly could have changed Edward Norton's entire career.
Check out ReelBlend's entire interview with Edward Norton, and a lot more, in the new episode below.