The Oscar nominations were announced this week, which can boost a movie's profile or recognize a rising star in Hollywood. Since we are talking about thrillers and Oscars this week, it is a good time to check out a film that you might have missed the first time around, but launched the career of one of today's most respected actors.
In 1996, Edward Norton was a nobody. He was working as an actor off-Broadway and never appeared in a movie. He got his big break when he was cast in the role of Aaron Stampler in Primal Fear. In the film, Stampler is a naïve, stuttering runaway who has been taken in by Chicago's revered and beloved Archbishop Rushman - well known for helping children who live on the streets. Stampler has become a choirboy and the Archbishop has taken a liking to the kid. However, when the Archbishop is found brutally murdered, Stampler is arrested while fleeing the scene, covered with blood and lacking an alibi.
Riding to Stampler's rescue is Martin Vail (Richard Gere) - an infamous, morally challenged defense attorney with a nose for the news. A former state prosecutor, Vail left the office under a cloud and decided to make mucho dinero as a defender. Vail sees an opportunity for great press, so he takes the case for free. Even though his motto is "don't ask, don't care" if the client is guilty, Stampler gets to him and Vail is determined to prove the kid's innocence.
Did Stampler do it? Can Vail (unlike O.J.) find the real killer?
Gere and Norton are fantastic. While Norton was nominated for an Oscar, a rare feat for a first performance, Gere also should have garnered one. He seems to revel in the role of a sleazy, fast talking, slick lawyer willing to do whatever it takes to get his client off. Gere's character takes a fatherly interest in Stampler, which allows him to show some real compassion as he lets his heart start leading his actions instead of his mind. Vail is saved, but for the right reasons? The two work well together and really click in the final, climatic scenes.
Gere also shares an interesting sub-plot with Laura Linney - his rival attorney and former love. The two trade barbs and veiled sexual tension with glee. Linney is one of those actresses who just needs the right part to propel her to stardom. She has talent and good looks, a deadly combination that will serve her career well.
The movie benefits from one of the best supporting casts ever assembled. Oscar nominee Frances McDormand, Emmy nominee Andre Braugher and Emmy nominee John Mahoney play key roles, and even B-movie star Steven Bauer is able to shine as one of Vail's former clients.
Norton is no stranger to the DC area. He grew up in Columbia, MD and attended a school for the theatrical arts in Baltimore. His father is an attorney, his mother was a teacher and his grandfather is the famous architect James Rouse - the designer of Baltimore's harborplace. Norton quickly took to his craft and starred in many performances while in high school and college.
Norton is amazing, especially considering that this was his first role. The producers originally wanted Leonardo DiCaprio, who was a young up-and-coming actor at the time. However, Leo passed and the producers interviewed over 2100 applicants to fill the role. They knew the actor had to be fantastic to earn the audience's support and stand up against Richard Gere. However, the process of finding an actor was taking so long that Gere threatened to leave the project. Finally, Norton auditioned for the part and claimed he grew up in Kentucky, just like the character. He affected a Kentucky accent and, it worked so well, the producers believed him.
If you have never seen Primal Fear, get ready for a wild, thrilling, unpredictable ride.
Directed by Gregory Hoblit
Written by Steve Shagan and Ann Biderman
Based on a novel by William Diehl
Richard Gere Martin Vail
Edward Norton .Aaron Stampler
Laura Linney . Janet Venable
Maura Tierney ... Naomi
John Mahoney ... John Shaunessey
Alfre Woodard .. Judge Shoat
Frances McDormand . Dr. Molly Arrington
Steven Bauer . Pinero
Andre Braugher . Tommy Goodman
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