If you were around in May of 1999, then you likely remember how obsessed the world was with the impending release of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. As the first Star Wars film since 1983’s Return of the Jedi, Episode I had an unprecedented hype machine surrounding its release, and was anticipated greatly by hardcore franchise fans and general moviegoers alike.
Over 15 years after its release, The Phantom Menace is now widely regarded as the absolute weakest film in the entire Star Wars saga. Common complaints about it range anywhere between wooden performances, a convoluted and somewhat boring story, all the way through to the debut of Jar Jar Binks: a character that Star Wars fans have been burning in effigy almost constantly since Episode I was released.
Still, the beginning of the prequel trilogy did bring some solid additions to the cast, most notably in the forms of Liam Neeson as the wise Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn, Ewan MacGregor as the young Obi-Wan Kenobi, Ian McDiarmid returning from Return of the Jedi as Palpatine/Darth Sidious, and Natalie Portman as Queen Amidala, the destined mother of Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia. Neeson, MacGregor, and Portman have all had diverse careers in the intervening years since the release of Episode I, but in a recent interview, Portman explains how her appearance in the prequels, specifically in Episode I, almost stopped her career in its tracks before she had a chance to get it started in earnest.
Talking with New York Magazine about the legacy of director Mike Nichols, Portman explains how the highest grossing film of 1999 still seemed to make her untouchable by a group of other directors, before Nichols came to her rescue.
Star Wars [Episode I] had come out around the time of Seagull [the stage play], and everyone thought I was a horrible actress. I was in the biggest-grossing movie of the decade, and no director wanted to work with me. Mike wrote a letter to Anthony Minghella and said, “Put her in Cold Mountain, I vouch for her.” And then Anthony passed me on to Tom Tykwer, who passed me on to the Wachowskis. I worked with Milos Forman a few years later. He said, “Mike saved me. He wrote a letter so that I could get asylum in the U.S.” He did that for 50 people, and it doesn’t make any one of us feel less special.
Looking back on Episode I, its current reputation definitely clashes with how popular the film seemed to be at the time of its release. In unadjusted dollars, The Phantom Menace is the highest grossing Star Wars film to date, and even when adjusted for inflation, its box office take is second only to the original 1977 film. Still, it is the lowest reviewed of the six released films according to Rotten Tomatoes, sitting at a barely “rotten” 57%. The latter two prequels, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, sit at 67% and 80% respectively, while the films of the original trilogy all clock in between 79-96%.
In the end, Portman’s talent seen by the likes of Nichols helped her to become the actress she is today, but she also brought some much needed acting weight to her role in Episodes II and III with a much meatier part as Anakin Skywalker drifted closer to the Dark Side of the Force.
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