Friday, August 16
REVIEW: The Butler
Directed by Lee Daniels
2013 Historical Biography
2 hours 12 minutes
From The Weinstein Company
Cuba Gooding Jr.
Clarence Williams III
The opinions on this movie, I have come to learn, are all over the map. I was getting to the point of wondering whether I was going to like it as much as I thought I would. I knew going into it that I was likely to snuggle up to the history part and I know I am unashamedly fond of large casts. But then I began hearing more negative comments. I entered the theater wondering what this was going to turn out to be.
Well, I quite liked it. Based on a true story, it is about the life of a butler to eight presidents, from Eisenhower to Bush I, five of whom are portrayed in the film while others are seen in newsreels. The film, like an Edna Ferber story, takes the character from a very young boy to old age, and I have always loved such stories.
Cecil is a decent man, a good husband, a loving but strict and sometimes critical father to two sons, a good citizen, a loyal friend and a great butler. He started training for such a position while a young boy. He did not apply for a position at the White House but was recruited because word was out that he was very good at his job.
He marries Gloria, who's a bit of a downer, not particularly happy because Cecil works such long hours and she drinks too much. Unhappiness and tragedy visit their sons but the one the story focuses on is Louis who becomes heavily involved in the birth of the civil rights movement. Louis and his father are at odds over Louis' decisions to first become a Freedom Rider and then a Black Panther. One aspect I quite enjoyed with much praise heaped on the editing is the juxtaposition of Louis and his friends being mistreated at a southern diner while we watch Cecil set the table for a White House dinner. This positioning of the two opposing lifestyles was done throughout the film most successfully.
This is not the definitive civil rights film (and couldn't we have that one year soon?) nor is there as much about the presidents as the previews would have one believe. Where this film succeeds is on a very personal level. This is about the life of a man and we learn much about him. We also learn about his family, particularly his wife and older son, but also his friends and coworkers. These are all real flesh and bone people. We see all the highs and lows and hopes and desires, aspirations, defeats, ambitions, loves and hates and glimpses into what works and doesn't work in people's lives. I left that theater knowing I spent some good quality time with Cecil, Gloria and Louis particularly. And I love that.
For the record, Robin Williams is Eisenhower, John Cusack is Nixon, James Marsden is Kennedy, Liev Schreiber is Johnson and Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda are the Reagans. None of them has much to do, most of them look nothing like the people they're playing and the success with which they played them varied.
This story, again, is really about the regular folk and here the acting is very good. Forrest Whitaker just eases into some of his roles. He put on those white gloves to serve those fancy meals and fancy people and I bought it all. Then he comes dragging his tired butt home, dealing with an unhappy wife and a son who concerns him and I was right there with him, feeling most of what he was.
If I weren't concerned about breaking every bone in my body, I might have jumped up and clicked my heels over the Oscar-calibre performance from Oprah Winfrey. She needs to find the time to do more acting if she's going to be this good. She nailed being all over the place with the many shadings, nuances and growth of a character, much of it done with simply her face (and a few hot wigs).
English-born David Oyewolo as Louis is a dynamic young actor completely worthy of being in that group of young black actors I am keeping an eye on. I have enjoyed his work in The Help, Red Tails, Lincoln and especially The Paperboy and now this. His physical looks alter throughout this film as his character goes through the many changes that we call growth.
I have two complaints, I guess. One is that this should have been a miniseries rather than a theatrical film... one night per president. There was so much more that could have been said and in its way it could have been the highly-lauded, black-themed miniseries that Roots was so many years ago.
Secondly is the title and the issues surrounding it. Apparently Warner Brothers would not allow the Weinstein Company to use its original title that was most appropriately called The Butler. The word is that WB doesn't want it infringing on their 1916 (yes, 1916...!!!) short with the same title. Huh? Really? This seems so ridiculous that I hesitate to even bring it up but that's what they're asking us to buy.
The title of a film is important and it can truly make or break the box office. Irrespective of that cockamamie WB story and the need to change the title would anyone come up with Lee Daniels' The Butler. That just annoys the hell out of me. Not The White House Butler? Maybe Cecil and Gloria. I could even have bought I Knifed and Forked 8 Presidents, but Lee Daniels' The Butler? Over the years some perfectly good titles were ruined because we added a director, producer or writer's name... Hemingway's Adventures of a Young Man, Jacqueline Susann's Once Is Not Enough, Billy Rose's Jumbo, Tyler Perry's A Madea Christmas? Migawd it hurts my mouth to say all that and it sounds so stupid.
Shame on whoever it was who made this decision. No one, but no one, is going to call this movie anything but The Butler.
Wife to husband: Honey, shall we go see Lee Daniels' The Butler tonight?
Husband to wife: Who's Lee Daniels? Why would I care about his butler? Let's go see Scream 17.
So in protest, I am showing the title as The Butler. Live with it, boys.
Picture Quiz I