In The Butler, Forest Whitaker plays Cecil Gaines, who proudly serves tea at the White House to seven U.S. presidents, Democratic and Republican, while the segregated country he grew up in shudders with inevitable — and often violent — progress. Directed by Lee Daniels (Precious) and co-starring Oprah Winfrey as Gaines’ beloved wife, The Butler is based on the true story of Eugene Allen, who came to the White House in 1952 and became a favorite of many of the first families who called 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue home.
The film is loaded with famous faces, and the historical icons they’re playing makes the new trailer impossible not to make some snap judgements about the casting: Robin Williams as Ike! John Cusack as Tricky Dick!
Williams plays against type as Eisenhower, the celebrated warrior-statesman who supervised the D-Day invasion and presided over a decade of happy days in the 1950s, the relative calm before the storm of the civil rights movement. Fans of Williams’ work might recall that he had some fun lampooning Eisenhower as an Elmer-Fudd-like buffoon when he played a radio shock-jock in Good Morning Vietnam. Some contemporary critics of Ike claimed he was asleep at the wheel in the White House, more inclined to paint and play golf than tackle the major social and political issues of the day, but more recent historians have credited him with being a master of political jiu-jitsu, using perceptions of his own shortcomings to his advantage.
Melissa Leo joins Williams to make an Oscar-winning screen couple, playing Ike’s wife, Mamie. The First Lady was known for being extremely gracious, but could also be socially correct. She wouldn’t have approved of Leo’s Oscar speech.
Who doesn’t want to be asked to portray John F. Kennedy? Basically, it’s the ultimate reassurance that the world perceives you as an ungodly level of handsome. James Marsden joins an exclusive club, joining the likes of Greg Kinnear, Martin Sheen, Bruce Greenwood, and William Petersen as actors who have played our most photogenic president. Simply smile, say “vigor” properly, and look devilishly handsome. It’s not that hard.
Minka Kelly pops up as Jackie, ushering a youthful changing of the guard into the White House after Kennedy succeeded Eisenhower in 1961. Not unlike the best portrayals of her husband, 75 percent of nailing the role is being beautiful and demure. The other 25 percent is the right stylish hat and a string of pearls.
Tough to tell how close Liev Schreiber’s performance will hew to the actual Lyndon Johnson, but he certainly mastered his asymmetric furrowed brow and pursed lips. LBJ was a plain-spoken, glad-handing Texan who could be uncomfortably uncouth — he wasn’t above continuing conversations with subordinates while he used the bathroom. A devoted liberal who passed historic civil-right legislation, he was ultimately done in by Vietnam, which left him a broken man.
Nelsan Ellis (True Blood) plays Martin Luther King, but the trailer includes a scene of the famed civil-rights leader leaning on the railing outside his hotel room. Actually, that’s unmistakably the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where King was assassinated in 1968. It makes sense that that tragic event, though it takes place away from Gaines’ purview at the White House, will play an important role in the film.
Lloyd Dobler, wtf?! John Cusack looks like he’ll actually make a pretty good Nixon: not only does he wear an ill-fitted suit and have a slight gleam of sweat, but he spits out lines like, “I gave him the green light to gut them sons of bitches!” with the appropriate amount of relish.
A former actor himself who knew how to look the role, Reagan was always impeccably groomed and dressed. Such meticulousness actually helps an actor capture the president’s essence, and I’m pleasantly surprised how much Alan Rickman resembles the Gipper in this quick shot. Might this be the role to earn Rickman his long-overdue first Oscar nomination?
Conservatives have rolled their eyes that the Right’s longtime bete noire Jane Fonda is playing Nancy Reagan, wife of their favorite president. But the Oscar-winner certainly resembles the First Lady here, and Republicans can take heart with the fact that Allen adored working for the Reagans. Hollywood is famous for being liberal, but maybe this is a film that takes the advice of Gaines’ new boss, who says in the trailer, “We have no tolerance for politics at the White House.”