What The Butler saw

Liev Schreiber, James Marsden and Minka Kelly on Lee Daniel's portrait of the US presidents.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Robin Williams as President Eisenhower with Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines in The Butler
Robin Williams as President Eisenhower with Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines in The Butler
Lee Daniels' The Butler interposes previously unexplored glances at life in the White House to cast a private light on the winding evolution in the Civil Rights Movement and the pondering positions of the Presidents.

At New York's Waldorf Astoria press conference, Liev Schreiber, James Marsden and Minka Kelly offered some insight on their roles and those played by Robin Williams, John Cusack, Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda.

Liev Schreiber as President Johnson in The Butler
Liev Schreiber as President Johnson in The Butler
Daniels' Presidents and First Ladies are never mere caricatures, instead, the actors' intense performances compress years of power into meaningful scenes, often while watching TV, chatting with the butler.

Cecil Gaines played by Forest Whitaker served presidents from Eisenhower to Reagan (1957-1986) and is based on Wil Haygood's Washington Post article “A Butler Well Served By This Election” about White House butler Eugene Allen and his wife Helene. She is Gloria in the film and played fearlessly by Oprah Winfrey who, at the press conference, called her director "a truth seeker".

The Presidents all get their accessories: Robin Williams paints sunflowers as Dwight Eisenhower who eats chicken soup, grew up on a farm, and inquires about Cecil's sons' education at an "all coloured school".

James Marsden and Minka Kelly as The Kennedys in The Butler
James Marsden and Minka Kelly as The Kennedys in The Butler
James Marsden's John F Kennedy is fresh-faced ("we did a bit of a prosthetic nose and some puffers in the cheeks" the actor clarified) and convincingly changes his mind, while Minka Kelly as First Lady Jacqueline gets a heartbreaking cry in profile, a scene that was not in the script. "The last time I saw that much blood was the day my Daddy was killed," Cecil draws the bloodline.

Liev Schreiber's Lyndon Baines Johnson goes to the bathroom with the door open and seemingly nowhere without his two beagles, who eat from his plate on the presidential bed. Schreiber explained the appeal of the film as being "how it clarifies and defines history through its own unique perspective. That's how we come to understand history personally in our own relationship to political changes."

John Cusack as President Nixon in The Butler
John Cusack as President Nixon in The Butler
John Cusack plays Richard Nixon in direct line with his smarmy swampland killer in The Paperboy. Only the excellent fake nose distracts from the sweat on the guilty man's face as he distributes presidential campaign buttons in the nightly kitchen or listens to his tapes, slouched and drunk.

Presidents Ford, Carter and Obama do not have an actor playing them and are seen in news clips from their time. Ronald and Nancy Reagan, played by Alan Rickman and - in wonderfully counterintuitive casting - by Jane Fonda invite the butler and his wife to a State Dinner as their guests. Cecil sees the familiar "two faces" on his colleagues. "I wish we were there for real, instead of for show," he says in voice-over. South Africa and apartheid, the human rights disaster and Reagan's attempt to save face inform the scene.

Jane Fonda and Alan Rickman as Nancy and Ronald Reagan in The Butler
Jane Fonda and Alan Rickman as Nancy and Ronald Reagan in The Butler
"Faces are a theme in this movie that can't be ignored or slighted," Cuba Gooding Jr., who plays Carter Wilson, a member of the film's White House staff, said at the press conference. "We as African Americans still deal with this very real situation of the many faces that are required today."

The Butler is released in the US on August 16. Read about the day Terrence Howard gave us a twirl, here.

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