Lee Daniel’s The Butler (2013): The Trouble with Famous Faces

The Butler is none other than Cecil Gaines, an African American who has worked in the White House serving eight presidents from the late 50’s to the 80’s. Never heard of him? Good, because, as screenwriter Danny Strong (who wrote the Sarah Palin satire Game Change) has emphasized, Cecil Gaines is a fictional character, albeit there was a real life person who had done similar things for thirty-four years through eight Administrations in the White House. He was Eugene Allen. The movie is fiction inspired by that true story. But here, it’s all about Cecil Gaines, a character that Forest Whitaker portrays convincingly.

That leads to this Disclaimer: This is not an Accuracy Police report. But, uh… just a memo from the Facial ID department.

The Butler Movie Poster

After watching The Butler, I’d like to recommend that movie stars go on sabbatical leaves. After a certain number of years of high-profile, on-screen appearances, famous actors or talk show hosts should pursue other interests, anything that’s behind the camera… write, direct, produce, compose, climb K2… before coming back out for another movie role. For here, I can see the distractions that can come from too famous a face.

Why? It takes me a long while to adjust to Oprah being the alcohol-dependent Mrs. Gaines, despite her strong performance, or, tell myself that’s Dwight D. Eisenhower I’m looking at, not Robin Williams. With every Administration that flashes by, my focus as a viewer is more on figuring out which famous star is playing which famous politician. That’s James Marsden as JFK, and Liev Schreiber as uh… comical LBJ… sitting on a toilet while barking instructions to his staff?

By the time John Cusack comes on screen, I’m asking myself, now, who is he supposed to be? I can only see John Cusack, and it looks like he’s trying to convince me that, “No! I’m Richard Nixon!” He too, looks like a caricature. Later when Ronald Reagan appears, I can only see the make-up. Sorry Alan Rickman,  didn’t recognize you. Looks like you’re wearing a Halloween mask. I must say though, hats off to Jane Fonda, she’s one good Nancy look-alike, although I know she has her share of protests. Now, that’s another issue… the incompatibility of ‘Hanoi Jane’ taking up the role of Nancy Reagan. I can understand why some Vietnam War vets are up in arms.

The Butler & his wife

The trouble with famous faces… they have a hard time convincing viewers that they are not who they appear but the character they are playing. In The Butler, that just might not be a problem because it seems the filmmakers are confident that star power can get us through. Further, the sequences of Administrations go by so quickly, they are more like passing spectacles than memorable episodes.

Other than star powers that function only on appearance, there are some riveting scenes from the main storyline, that of a father-son relationship against the backdrop of racial turmoils in America. While Cecil Gaines works as a butler in the White House all those years, his son Louis (David Oyelowo) has been deeply involved in the Civil Rights Movement, arrested and jailed several times, often putting his life at risk. Major differences in political viewpoints generate sparks and tensions to eventual deep gulf between father and son.

A memorable scene is when father and son argue at the dinner table over Sidney Poitier winning the Academy Award. Cecil thinks that is a sign showing white people are accepting and honoring blacks. But son Louis points out Poitier is appeasing white viewers in presenting himself as a white, black man. Interesting thought, not unheard of. The subsequent result of the argument makes a memorable scene.

Juxtaposing actors’ performance with visceral archival footage of racial violence like the lunch counter sit-ins, the Freedom Bus burning by the Ku Klux Klan, the assassination of Martin Luther King… makes some informative and engaging storytelling. That may be the reason why, after the pivotal historical accounts of the Civil Rights Movement, the movie begins to lose my attention. What looks to be significant begins to appear parochial towards the end, where I even feel some partisan undercurrents.

Overall, the movie may have been too ambitious in covering everything, a father-son relationship, the black family, the country’s racial conflicts, the Vietnam War, to South Africa’s Apartheid. Its Forest Gump-esque storytelling lacks a unified and consistent styling. The incompatibility applies to the choice of music too. I’m fine with the period music of the eras, but using the Schumann Piano Concerto in A Minor at the opening scene feels like a mismatch. Other familiar classical pieces like Mozart’s piano sonatas for White House scenes sound like casual and superficial picks.

A movie riding on its star-studded cast… a mixed bag of famous faces. If you like a parade, this is fun to look at.

~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

***

Published by

Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

10 thoughts on “Lee Daniel’s The Butler (2013): The Trouble with Famous Faces”

  1. I tend to think that if the acting performance is strong enough, then their famous face won’t matter but I have yet to test that theory with this movie. I think Oprah is a better actress than anything else so I’d probably be okay with her, but Cusack as Nixon? Not sure about that one.

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    1. Ti,

      Yes, you’re right of course. But it took me some time to adjust. Oprah is a good actor, this movie has her in totally different stages of her life and career compared to her previous one which I saw decades ago, The Color Purple. She’s given some juicy scenes, so she can express herself well through them. But other actors, esp. those playing the Presidents weren’t so lucky. 😉

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  2. I have long had this issue with films based on the life of famous folks, and it has been especially prevalent with JFK recently (Rob Lowe? Really?) One needs to be an extraordinary actor or have one darned good make-up artist (Meryl S. in The Iron Lady, being an example of both) to suck one in from the beginning. I haven’t seen this movie yet — giving it the “wait till it’s on TV or video” and maybe video already is. But I’m not that excited about it. Not really…

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    1. Jeanie,

      You’re right. And here, I don’t think James Marsden here makes a believable JFK either. And for the other ones, hard to get into character if your face is familiar. I agree Meryl Streep is excellent as MT. Here in The Butler, the actors playing the Presidents have mostly just cameos, not enough screen time to develop. Like I said, a parade. But of course, it’s also about a father/son relationship, which I appreciate more.

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  3. Enjoyed your review. Famous faces do make it hard to see them as the character and not the actor him/herself. It creates a certain distance sometimes I think which keeps me from fully enjoying the movie.

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  4. I was most interested to read your review, as a friend I had tea with yesterday was going to spend the evening at the cinema watching this. I expect she will have enjoyed it. I’m like you, and would have spent the duration playing spot-the-actor. I think Oprah, wonderful actor that she is, would be hugely distracting in a lead role. I would be expecting her to start interviewing the presidents about their personal crises at any moment! And it does sound as if the film tries to pack a LOT in.

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    1. litlove,

      LOL! That’s more ‘in character’ for Oprah, to start interviewing the presidents… You never know, by packing a lot in there, the movie just may make it to the schools in a history or social studies class.

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  5. This is a wonderful review, Arti, that does an excellent job of articulating what I’ve also felt as a problem from time to time. That sabbatical sounds like a good idea for some of the more famous. And of course, someone like Oprah, who’s in the news so often, and often associated with highly divisive events – well, it makes it hard.

    A friend saw this – last week, I believe – and her feeling was that there simply was too much. As she put it, focusing on the father/son relationship in the context of two presidencies might have done it. Her thought, which I found interesting, was that two presidencies separated by time would have allowed for a different kind of exploration of the changing relationship between father and son.

    In any event, it seems to me that the number of famous faces and the selection of certain events (LBJ, for example) lend an almost cartoonish element to the film. This isn’t one that appeals.

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    1. Linda,

      It does look very comical in some scenes, maybe that’s the intention of the director’s. Jeanie in her comment above has mentioned a good example of famous person portraying successfully a famous politician and that’s Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher. You won’t recognize her as Meryl Streep. She’s excellent in character, no less thanks to the two brilliant make-up artists. These were the two Oscars which The Iron Lady had won in 2012, Best Actress and Best Make-up.

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