November 2-4, 2018
Written by Tom G. Wolf
Few films have divided the world in the same fashion as the Star Wars prequels. The battle between fans and detractors has raged non-stop since 1999; even the arrival of the new trilogy and anthology films has done little to quell the flames online. It’s a radioactive fallout unlike any other fandom, and its half-life is seemingly infinite.
But whatever the respective merits and flaws of the prequels, Star Wars fans across the spectrum are united on at least one key point – that McDiarmid did a fantastic turn as Senator Palpatine, aka (spoiler) Darth Sidious, aka (another spoiler) THE EMPEROR.
On the set of Return of the Jedi, McDiarmid had an unenviable task – portraying the largely unseen Emperor for what was essentially the first time. Though the character of Palpatine had previously appeared in The Empire Strikes Back, it was virtually a cameo; in that film, the Emperor was portrayed via a mix of an actress in make-up, composite photography of a chimpanzee’s eyes and a voiceover.
Given that Darth Vader was already well established as the big bad in viewers’ eyes, it was always going to be difficult to establish a character equally or even more menacing – yet McDiarmid pulled it off with incredible panache. Rather than acting as a physical powerhouse like Vader, Palpatine was content to control things from the (frequently literal) shadows. Though his onscreen time was relatively short, it was immediately evident that he was a classic villain – one who convincingly exuded both the menace and power to control someone like Vader, in spite of the heavy prosthetics the role required.
Yet it wasn’t until 1999’s The Phantom Menace that his Machiavellian machinations were fully revealed – how he had taken advantage of the decaying yet semi-idyllic Old Republic and slowly instituted the fascist Empire, all the while portraying himself as a benevolent force for peace. It’s rare for an actor to portray the same character more than 25 years apart, and even rarer to be playing a younger incarnation the second time around. Yet that’s exactly what McDiarmid did, clearly establishing himself as the best man for the job in the process.
Yet somewhat like Palpatine himself, McDiarmid remains a mysterious figure to many, even within Star Wars fandom. Though he’s been working consistently in film, TV and theatre from the early 1970s up until the present day, he’s rarely been one to take the limelight for himself. His work tends to be more low-key and subtle – qualities which have served him well in his portrayal of the Emperor, both in the Original Trilogy and the Prequel Trilogy.
And they may well yet serve him again. In spite of the Emperor’s death at the end of Return of the Jedi, it seems that McDiarmid may not yet have finished with the role. In 2018, he’s voiced the character in three episodes of Star Wars: Rebels – and with a live-action Star Wars TV series apparently in the works, who knows what the future could hold?
Lead image: Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) and Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman) in The Phantom Menace