Natalie Portman in Star Wars: Episode 1 —The Phantom Menace
Filmmaker and New York institution Mike Nichols may have passed away in November, but his memory lives on in the stories told by his many friends and collaborators.
The prolific writer/director is the subject of a moving tribute in the new issue of New York magazine, with several of his colleagues sharing their favorite Nichols stories and memories. His friendships spanned generations, including his mentorship and advocacy of a young Natalie Portman, who was struggling after the release of the first two Star Wars prequels.
Related: Mike Nichols’ Most Memorable Movies
“Star Wars had come out around the time of Seagull,” she said, referring to the stage show she did with Nichols in 2001. “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.”
Portman in The Phantom Menace
Reviews that called her “utterly hapless,” “coming off as a whiny, brattish American teenager,” and “as spunk-free as possible” certainly did not help matters. Luckily, Nichols was there to help her in ways that Obi-Wan Kenobi could not.
“Mike wrote a letter to Anthony Minghella and said, ‘Put her in Cold Mountain, I vouch for her,’” Portman recalled. “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.” (Portman was in Tykwer’s Truth in 2004, the Washowskis V for Vendetta in 2005, and Forman’s Goya’s Ghosts in 2006.)
Indeed, Cold Mountain was the first well-regarded films that Portman made after the second Star Wars prequel, Attack of the Clones, was released. After that, she got good reviews for playing Zach Braff’s dream girl in Garden State, and then really began her post-Star Wars career with V for Vendetta. She’d work with Nichols again on 2004’s Closer.
And then we all know what happened next: A few years later, she went from a prequel punchline to Oscar winner for 2010’s Black Swan.