Thursday, January 08, 2015

#785. The Portman Wars

Natalie Portman recently spoke about how doing Star Wars nearly ruined her career.  Now let's set the record straight:

That's a complete exaggeration.  All it really amounts to is a classic instance of someone disassociating themselves from an experience they now regret.  For famous people, this is Appease the Fans Syndrome.  In other words, everyone says she was horrible in the Star Wars prequels, and so now Portman wants us to believe it nearly ruined her career.  #SympathyTears.  Everyone feels better.  The end.

Except it's not even remotely believable, no matter how accurate it might be to what she actually experienced.  Today, Portman is an Oscar-winning actress who can choose whatever she wants to do, even when she works.  Quite an enviable position to be in, even better than starring in three of the biggest blockbusters of all-time, as far as living arrangements go.  But let's rewind a little and see how we got there, shall we?

In 1999, Portman is featured in the hotly-anticipated Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace.  Previous to this, her biggest claims to fame were a child actor performance in 1994's Leon: The Professional and supporting roles in 1996's Everyone Says I Love You and Mars Attacks!  There's a three-year gap between Attacks! and Phantom Menace.  Following her casting in Star Wars, Portman stars in Anywhere But Here and Where the Heart Is, both of which are box office misfires ($18 mil for the former, $34 the latter) despite being fairly generic feel-good movies featuring a suddenly high profile actress.

Now, according to Portman, after the horrid reception (although, of course, giant box office returns) of Phantom Menace, she became persona non grata, and could only subsist on personal recommendation.  Which would be fine if this were somehow a span of many more years than we're actually talking about.  And yet just a year after the release of her second Star Wars film, 2002's Attack of the Clones, Portman co-stars in her second biggest non-blockbuster hit to date, 2003's Cold Mountain (hey, would you like to read a completely unrelated rant concerning Jude Law and how he starred in a thousand movies at the time, had this one hit, and actually became persona non grata for years?), and then a couple of smaller releases in 2004's Garden State and Closer.  Then 2005's final Star Wars, Revenge of the Sith.  And then V for Vendetta.  And eventually, 2010's Black Swan.

The thing casting directors love above all else is casting to type.  They love that.  It's the rare actor who manages to avoid that, but even then, versatility is a type, too.  Portman's type, for all intents and purposes, was created in Phantom Menace.  And it wasn't Slightly Terrible Actress (because of the directing, apologetic nerds scream!) but rather, Girl Most Likely to Have Unfortunate Relationship.

That's exactly what she is in Star Wars.  And that's what she is in V for Vendetta.  That's Black Swan, the full art version.  Portman has a fairly limited range.  Her acting, if you care to watch, say, Revenge of the Sith and Black Swan back-to-back, doesn't vary that greatly.  The feel of the material changes, certainly.  But not the acting.

I'm not saying Natalie Portman is a bad actress, or a good actress, or a mediocre actress who keeps getting high profile gigs regardless of her talent.  Landing Star Wars made her career.  Don't even make the Professional argument.  Most child actors have no adult career.  That's a fact.  And when they do, they certainly don't go on to win Oscars.

But Portman's type rang true for casting directors.  That's how she landed Cold Mountain, which if you've never seen it is all about people whose lives were made miserable by the Civil War, but in this instance in an Odyssey kind of way.  Portman plays third fiddle in the actress side of the film, to Nicole Kidman and Renee Zellweger (I'd ask whatever happened to her, but if you've heard about her new face, then everything else is semantics, isn't it?).  If she needed special favors to get a minor role, then so be it.

Garden State is Zach Braff's best-known film to date.  The would-be new Woody Allen had a window where he could do whatever he wanted, and co-starring with Natalie Portman sounded like a pretty good thing.  Portman made a cameo in 2001's Zoolander, which is a good way to let everyone know you don't take yourself too seriously (although Zoolander is seriously hilarious; after I finish writing this up, I'm going to practice my Blue Steel!), which is another way of saying, Portman had a shrewd sense concerning her career prospects from the start.

Making a string of minor art films starting with 2006's Paris, je t'aime, was another shrewd decision.  After the fiasco of the mainstream effort following her initial casting in Star Wars, Portman knew she had to reconsider her options.  Prior to Star Wars she effectively had no real public profile.  She opted to build her indy and critical cred.  Even a notorious flop like 2007's Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium  couldn't slow her down at that point.  2008's more successful The Other Boleyn Girl probably helped with that.  Suddenly she was visible for something other than Star Wars, and it was a relatively good thing (and also just about Eric Bana's last visible mainstream release, and once again, unlike Portman he's never managed to turn it around).

So Black Swan comes around, everyone loves it, Portman unleashes a flood of new movies.  And then does the Thor movies.

All of which is to say, Star Wars didn't ruin Portman's career.  And word of mouth from sympathetic filmmakers didn't save it.  This is not a story that confirms how bad the prequels were.  It's all about an actress who maneuvered her career in ways few others would have considered, and had remarkable success at it.  Everyone regrets decisions they've made.  I'm sure Portman regrets Wonder Emporium far more than Star Wars.


Pat Dilloway said...

She was suck incarnate in the Star Wars films.


A very astute observation.
This news comes years after the fact and now at the heels of the new Star Wars movie.

Tony Laplume said...

Very convenient indeed, David. I meant to mention that as well.

Maurice Mitchell said...

You make good points except It's not her imagination. Directors told her they didn't want to hire her. "Star Wars had come out … 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." she said.

Tony Laplume said...

Yeah, I get that. Maybe I should've provided the link and/or quote, but I still find it a gross exaggeration of her situation, for all the reasons I stated. Her casting in Cold Mountain, however it came about, wouldn't've made that big a difference in her career. I mean, it didn't make that big a difference in anyone else's career, except the Academy Award Zellweger got. Which didn't make that big a difference in Zellweger's career. Anyway, there's a certain level of semantics going on here. Maybe for Portman's own frame of mind, she needed to be taken seriously again, and the movie certainly helped establish that, because from that point on she started taking better roles. But the pattern stands.


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