Thursday, January 30, 2014

MOVIE WEEKEND: LEE DANIELS' THE BUTLER

Gentle Readers . . . and Maxwell,

This weekend I have a movie for you about which I have mixed emotions. It's Lee Daniels' The Butler (2013, Rated PG-13, Available on DVD).


I guess we should begin with an explanation of the title. It seems that about two bazillion years ago someone made a movie called The Butler, which has long since disappeared. But because The Butler existed once upon a time, according to the Internet Movie Database, the following occurred: Warner Bros. Pictures released the 1916 silent short film The Butler (1916), and filed a claim with the MPAA to rename this film. The MPAA allowed the Weinstein Company to add Daniels' name in front of the title, under the condition that his name was "75% the size of The Butler". On July 23, 2013, the distributor unveiled a revised film poster, with the title "Lee Daniels' The Butler".

"The Butler" is Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker). As a child, his sharecropper father is murdered by a white man. It's unclear to me if the woman played by Vanessa Redgrave is a member of the white man's family or a caretaker in charge of the servants. She takes in young Cecil to make him a "house nigger". He's told he'll learn to serve so that no one will notice he's in the room.

When Cecil becomes a young adult, he takes off for greener pastures and becomes a valet at a swanky hotel. Eventually, he's hired as a butler for The White House. He begins his tenure there during the Eisenhower administration and leaves during the Reagan administration. He's married to Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), and they have two sons. As Gaines serves in The White House, American history swirls around his family, strongly affecting them.

At first, I felt bored with this movie. Forest Whitaker at age 52 and Oprah Winfrey at 60 look kind of old to be the parents of two young teens. Toward the conclusion of the movie when Mr. and Mrs. Gaines are elderly, Oprah's heavy make-up and grey hair look ridiculous. When Cecil Gaines first enters The White House staff room, another butler played by Cuba Gooding, Jr. tells a very crude "joke". The audio is removed at the end of the joke, but what he says is obvious. The joke is not at all necessary.

Oprah Winfrey plays her part over dramatically at times. For the most part, The Butler is just plain miscast. Why so many well-known people in small parts? They don't serve the film well. I felt shocked to see Robin Williams, of all people, playing Dwight Eisenhower. I laughed, and not because Williams is funny. John Cusack, with a strange prosthetic nose, is Richard Nixon. (Richard Nixon: I don't want to say anything negative about that Kennedy boy. I'm sure he's a real nice fellow. But do you really want that spoiled rich son-of-a-bitch fuck to be your next president?) Why is Mariah Carey young Cecil's mother? She doesn't even speak in the movie.

However, the point that bothers me the most is that The Butler is supposed to be based on a real butler in The White House – someone with a different name, who had one son. It's fine with me if the movie is dramatized, but if that's the case, don't say it's about a real person. I wonder how that man's family feels about some of the horrible behavior in this "fictional" family? I would be very upset if someone made a movie based on my life that portrayed me or a relative as an adulterous drunk, with a son who is arrested repeatedly.

But now, let's talk about why I like The Butler. Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda make a surprisingly good Ronald and Nancy Reagan. Winfrey has one beautiful scene in which she defends her husband when he's derided by their militant son: Gloria Gaines: Everything you are and everything you have, is because of that butler. 

The juxtaposition of life in the sheltered confines of The White House against the nearly insane tides of American politics is well done. Parts of the film are moving. Cecil Gaines has a triumph in one fight against "The Man" in The White House, and he succeeds with the assistance of Ronald Reagan. 

I should add that a number of people seem to like The Butler much more than I do (based on IMDb responses), and some are unhappy that Winfrey wasn't nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award. 

Should you let your children watch? Age 13 and younger, I say "No". Older teens can watch and it could be an especially good time for you to enlighten them about some aspects of American history. As always, I urge you to watch the movie first and then decide if your kids should see it. You might not want to explain what Gloria is up to with the neighbor. Maybe you're too young to know anything about The Black Panthers and wouldn't be able to elucidate that aspect of the movie.

Thus, Lee Daniels' The Butler earns The Janie Junebug Seal of Approval. Watching it is better than skipping it, unless you can't stand Oprah, but it's not good enough for my Highest Approval.

Happy Viewing!


Infinities of love,

Janie Junebug

27 comments:

  1. I thought this movie was very heavy handed and 90 percent of it was pure fiction. All of the parts dealing with civil unrest were made up, and the beginning plantation scenes were also fiction. I am grateful to this movie for making me re-watch Amistad, a real masterpiece.

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    1. I appreciate your input. It's been quite a while since I saw Amistad. I have a documentary in MY LIST on Netflix Screaming about slaves taking over a ship. I'll try to watch that soon, and I might watch Amistad if I can find the time. The Butler is just overdone, isn't it? Lee Daniels left it in the oven too long.

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  2. Hi, Janie Junebug! This picture has been on my bucket list for a long time and I'm ashamed to admit I haven't gotten around to seeing it yet. Your review leads me to believe I will also come away with mixed feelings. I don't particularly like Oprah or Robin Williams but I like to keep an open mind and their presence in the film is not an automatic deal breaker. I like Forest Whitaker and still shudder when I recall his portrayal of Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. However, I have seen Whitaker in so many projects in recent years that frankly I'm a little tired of him. At first blush it's kinda cool that Mod Squad's Lincoln Hayes (Clarence Williams III) had a role in the movie. Too bad they didn't find a part for Peggy Lipton. What I'm driving at is that I appreciate films that avoid obvious big names and engage in creative casting, using up-and-coming unknowns or stars of yesteryear in comeback performances.

    Good night, JJ. Have a fabulous Friday and a safe and happy weekend!

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    1. I think your life can continue quite happily without viewing this movie. Robin Williams isn't onscreen very long. I used to love Forest Whitaker, but now I see a little too much of him. I didn't recognize Clarence Williams III. He doesn't look like Linc anymore. I saw Peggy Lipton on TV with her daughter (actress Rashida Jones) a couple of years ago. Peggy is still quite beautiful. I agree that creative casting, especially using unknowns in these roles, would have been better for The Butler. It's distracting to have Mariah Carey in a movie and wonder, Is she the Star? Why is she here? Oh, she doesn't really do anything. What's going on? Where am I?

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  3. I rarely watched Oprah's talk show, but I loved her in The Color Purple...the scene around the dining room table with Whoopi is one of my favorite scenes ever.

    But I digress. I'm not sure if I would see this movie. Thanks for the review.

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    1. Oprah was absolutely wonderful in The Color Purple. Her acting was so natural, and the scene at the dining room table is a perfect example of that. Spielberg told Oprah to imagine how her character would have felt the day she saw Celie (sp?) in the store and then to just say it. So the scene was improvised and it was lovely. I think Oprah's first movie role was her best, and it's been downhill since then. The more famous she is, the wealthier she becomes, the less natural she is.

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    2. Agreed. But I don't think I've seen her in anything else. Ha. I will investigate.

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    3. I've seen her in a few other things. I was disappointed that she made a movie of Beloved and starred in it. It sucked shit. I love that book.

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  4. Hmmm--- I'll be pondering on whether on not we'll see this. Your good critique really helps me there.

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  5. If you're at all curious, I say go ahead and watch it.

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  6. Oprah is a decent actress. It might be interesting to see her in this role.

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    1. I think she was good in The Color Purple and nothing else.

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  7. Hey! I FINALLY saw one of the movies you're reviewing!

    And I thoroughly enjoyed it. My biggest quibble was over the actors chosen to play the presidents, specially Williams as Eisenhower. One part that cracked me up was the scene where LBJ is sitting on the can with the door open, talking to people. In the book I wrote about on my blog today, Dennis Brack talked about LBJ doing exactly that. TMI (But it's funny!)

    Happy weekend!

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    1. Johnson was very creepy about holding meetings while he was on the toilet. Supposedly he did it to humiliate people. The odor probably would have sent me running.

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  8. Great review. I would like to see it.
    One of the few bits of solace I take away from the angst of today is that we were pretty frikkin' nuts in the 60s, too. Meaning I'm confident we can weather comes our way.
    Another thing struck me. They were concerned about a silent film from 1916 with the same name? Any of those folks still alive? And eating something other than soft food?

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    1. The title change is ridiculous. The original movie is considered "lost".

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  9. Robin Williams, and John Cusack in a rubber nose.....say no more. Please.

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  10. Tony really like this movie, I did like it, but honestly was too busy making Oldest's new duvet to be concerned with the first half of it. The end was entertaining.

    Which I suppose, doesn't say much. :)

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  11. I keep thinking about this one. I like Forest Whitaker a lot so it has my interest.

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    1. I usually like him, but didn't really care for him in this one.

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  12. Not seen that film yet. Not sure if it's my cup of tea really but you make it sound pretty interesting...

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    1. I get the impression from IMDb that a lot of people like it more than I do.

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  13. This was a movie that I wanted to like, but I just didn't. It tried way too hard, skipped surfacely along, lacked character development, and--quite honestly--I found Oprah distracting. Her character, especially, jumped around all over the place. The unbelievability was partially due to writing and partially due to her limited acting ability. Forest can be very good, but they never brought you in and made you feel like you knew him, either. He did a 180 at the end, but at least they attempted to explain it. It wasn't dreadful, but it wasn't good, either. I was disappointed.

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    1. It has good moments, but isn't good overall. I think Oprah needs to stick to what she does well, which seems to be making money. Why take a movie part she doesn't need when it could have gone to a deserving actress? Oprah was very good in The Color Purple, but I have to wonder if Spielberg was the only person who could direct her properly.

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  14. Hi Janie .. I want to see this movie sometime - I missed it while it was down here .. will probably need to include it in a visit to London ... when I can take the later train home, which is also cheap as it is out of rush hour ..

    Thanks for the review .. cheers Hilary

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