Showbiz 411’s Roger Friedman — who some might call a noted Harvey Weinstein shill — bloviated about “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” under the cover of “Oscar observation” a few weeks ago but apparently no one else could. The embargo is up today so let’s get into it. The question on this one is, will it be an awards player or will it just fade out before the season even gets here? A few thoughts…
As the fictional/somewhat composited eponymous servant Cecil Gaines*, Forest Whitaker maintains a tightrope walk with his performance and steers clear of what could have been some embarrassing on-the-nose choices (though the same can’t always be said for the film itself on that last bit). But Oprah Winfrey, who Friedman was trumpeting, really does surprise with a performance that goes up and down on an emotional spectrum and could be the film’s best shot at awards recognition in the acting races. Friedman compared her to Mo’Nique in “Precious,” which is, uh, not at all accurate. It’s not a fiery portrait of a character. The performance is actually quite restrained and governed throughout, when it could have been more histrionic if it wanted to be.
The roll call of presidential cameos — Robin Williams (Ike), James Marsden (JFK), Liev Schreiber (LBJ), John Cusack (Tricky Dick) — is mostly just silly, as you might have imagined. Indeed, their walk-ons were met with laughs at my screening. But the point is there’s not enough screen time to warrant much consideration for any of that, though Alan Rickman’s Ronald Regan was scarily accurate. It made me want to see a biopic with the “Harry Potter” star in the role.
Worth noting is the makeup, both on the presidents and particularly in sequences that reflect aging. That could certainly stand out for the makeup and hairstyling branch. But the whole enterprise is one of those films that makes white people tear up at America’s ugly history of racist atrocity in an easily digestible “Forrest Gump”-like structure. (Indeed, similar to Gump, Cecil’s son somehow finds himself in the middle of every important moment in the history of the Civil Rights movement — a little difficult to swallow.) Because of that, it’s safe to assume it will have its fans throughout a liberal white-guilt-ridden organization like the Academy. It lands its share of easy emotional blows, and as we all know, that speaks to this group.
The film was strategically positioned on a date where fluff like “Eat Pray Love” and more notably “The Help” have found box office success in recent years. If it takes advantage and racks up considerable bank leading into the awards season, then I don’t see any reason to believe its sledgehammer flourishes can’t find room to navigate the circuit.
But there are a lot of movies still to come and, so far, “Precious” has proven to be the anomaly in Lee Daniels’ portfolio when it comes to this sort of thing. My hunch is the season will defer to less strained work. And of course, The Weinstein Company itself has a full slate of contenders to work with. Will it be “Mandela?” Will it be “August?” Will it be “Philomena?”
We’ll see what sticks.
“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” arrives in theaters on Aug. 16.
*For more on the true story that inspired the film, I recommend this 2008 Washington Post story about Gaines’ real-life counterpart, Eugene Allen.