Monday, April 28, 2014

Only now does it occur to me... LEE DANIELS' THE BUTLER BASED ON THE ARTICLE "A BUTLER WELL SERVED BY THIS ELECTION" BY WIL HAYGOOD

Only now does it occur to me...  that while John Cusack may not have actually delivered the worst Richard Nixon performance in history, he was probably the most miscast.  Let's take a look at some other cinematic Nixons:

Anthony Hopkins in NIXON.  Probably the best-known cinematic Nixon, and certainly a very well-acted one, but on the whole he's a little miscast and the movie's a touch bloated, I'd say.


Philip Baker Hall in SECRET HONOR.  Probably the most intense Nixon of the bunch, and in a one-man show, to boot.  There's a real intimate, terrifying artistry to his work.


Dan Hedaya in DICK.  My personal favorite.  I would go so far as to say that DICK is a severely underrated movie and one of the smartest comedies of the 90s.  People had been saying for years that Hedaya would make a great Nixon, and of course he did.  I mean, his eyebrows alone are better than Cusack.

 
And who could forget Frank Langella in FROST/NIXON? Oops!  That's the wrong picture.  That's Langella as "Skeletor" in MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE.  Here's the right one:
 
Another great performance that plays up the more condescending elements of Nixon's persona, the parts of him who always believed he was the smartest man in the room– invulnerable, even when the cold, hard truths were speaking otherwise.

Which leads us back to Cusack.  Who's not even trying.  They put a l'il Nixon nose on him– let's give them that– but that's all they did.  What we're looking at here is still John Cusack, doing a classic awkward Cusack mini-grin... while wearing a l'il Nixon nose.
You know what?  I'm prepared to revise my initial statement:  yes, this is the worst Nixon performance in film history, even worse than Buck McDancer in HOT SHOTS! PART DEUX.

The best thing we can take away from this is the new understanding that Cusack must have thought THE PAPERBOY BASED ON THE NOVEL "THE PAPERBOY" BY PETE DEXTER was actually a brilliant movie, hence his decision to work with Lee Daniels a second time.  (Or maybe it was just the money.)

There's plenty of other strange casting, too–
Why they cast Robin Williams as Eisenhower in a world where J.K. Simmons exists is sort of a head-scratcher:


Alan Rickman always brings some wonderful dickery to his roles, but he's still not quite right for Ronald Reagan:

And Mariah Carey gets her airbrushed face smudged with a little dirt for her role as a poor, 1920s sharecropper (though Lee Daniels employs a similar technique as Susan Seidelman did with Madonna in DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN– he keeps the part brief, and mostly non-speaking):


Whew.  Okay.  Three more observations:

#1.  Love the matching figure skater/SOUL TRAIN costumes on Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey in this authentic 1970s tableau:
and I think the movie would have been better served if these outfits had rated more screen time.

#2. It's sort of amusing that Oprah has become so accustomed to award shows, state dinners, and the VIP treatment that she can no longer muster the excitement of attending one for the first time, even when her role demands it:

Unremitting ennui: the price of success

#3.  And finally, the venerable Clarence Williams III– in a bit part that amounts to basically "the Obi-Wan Kenobi of butlers"– might be the only person who walks away from this thing completely unscathed.

Though I still like him best when he's terrifying and teamed with John Glover.

In closing, LEE DANIELS' THE BUTLER BASED ON THE ARTICLE "A BUTLER WELL SERVED BY THIS ELECTION" BY WIL HAYGOOD is no THE PAPERBOY BASED ON THE NOVEL "THE PAPERBOY" BY PETE DEXTER; it's not a hotbed of unintentional comedy or a purveyor of Southern Fried Sleaze-o-Rama, it doesn't induce any spit-takes, grand guffaws, or jellyfish-related urination.  No, it's just a mediocre Oscar grubber that's not too great, but not too bad, either.  It's about as deep as NBC's THE SIXTIES or FORREST GUMP or ACROSS THE UNIVERSE and for some, hell, that's deep enough.

–Sean Gill

9 comments:

gweeps said...

Yeah, Cusack was a real sore thumb here. I was wondering who the hell he was supposed to be. When I realized, I kept wondering.

Speaking of Anthony Hopkins, The Butler is no The Remains of the Day.

I need to buy The Paperboy sometime. Now there's a film John Cusack can be proud to have been involved with. They went against casting for him and it worked.

I'll have to keep in mind Secret Honor and Dick.

Mike B. said...

Definitely too many names in this one! I mean, was he trying to assemble the most distracting ensemble ever? But speaking of Clarence Williams III, his role in the 90's HBO prison riot movie "Against The Wall" was tremendous. To this day I cannot heat up a bowl of soup on the stove without maniacally cackling "HOT SOUP MOTHERF*CKER!," much to my wife's chagrin. The influence of CWIII is just too strong!

Sean Gill said...

Gweeps,

Hah- indeed THE BUTLER is no REMAINS OF THE DAY!

SECRET HONOR is intentionally claustrophobic and sort of unpleasant- it's an attempt to get inside the mind of Nixon in his final days, and it's pretty successful. DICK was marketed as a teen comedy, but is jam-packed with enough minutiae and semi-obscure historical references to please a Watergate scholar. Also, Hedaya is unstoppable!

Mike,

Yeah, "distracting" is a great word for this ensemble. And I too enjoy AGAINST THE WALL– I did a small writeup of it a while back. CWIII is always great, but as a villain he really turns it up to 11!

J.D. Lafrance said...

For me, THE BUTLER is what John Waters would've done if he had been allowed to direct Stone's screenplay for NIXON and instead of the all-star powerhouse cast, went with people who were completely WRONG for the role on purpose just for kicks.

For me, the crazier Daniels films are the better ones - where he's able to cut loose and I love how THE BUTLER was touted as this Oscar-baiting prestige film but turns out to be just as gonzo as THE PAPERBOY.

J.D. Lafrance said...

Oh yeah, and has much as I like Hall, Hopkins' Nixon is still my fave, but yer right, DICK is a fantastic film. So much fun. Love their take on Woodward and Bernstein. hah.

Sean Gill said...

J.D.,

Heheh, you've got me imagining the full John Waters NIXON- I could see Waters himself would take over for David Hyde Pierce as John Dean, maybe Mink Stole as Pat Nixon...

I didn't get as much out of THE BUTLER as I did THE PAPERBOY, but you're right that it's far more gonzo than you would think (that is, if its only goal was to win Oscars). And yeah, DICK is a severely undervalued movie.

John Guedes said...

Me thinks Daniels did THE BUTLER to finance his next PAPERBOY? I hope I'm right.

Sean Gill said...

John,

Maybe his next film will be: PAPERBOY BASED ON THE VIDEO GAME 'PAPERBOY' BY ATARI?

John Guedes said...

Haha nice!