Right off the bat, it’s clear that Forrest Whitaker is gunning for an Oscar nomination with his leading turn in Lee Daniels’ The Butler. It’s got all the elements of Oscar bait: history, noble character, bravery, turmoil and triumph. It’s also a remarkable true story about a man named Eugene Allen who, by working as the White House’s head butler from 1952 to 1986, had a front seat to some of the most significant events of the 20th century. He died in 2010 at the age of 90.
With eight presidential administrations to showcase, Daniels had a lot of tricky work to do. It’s tough enough to cast one president (unless you’ve got Daniel Day-Lewis at your disposal). In the end, Daniels wound up with a pretty big name roster of POTUS-players: Robin Williams as Eisenhower, James Marsden as JFK, Liev Schreiber as LBJ, John Cusack as Nixon and Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan. Curiously, no Gerald Ford or Jimmy Carter, but it’s still a significant lineup.
Let’s include the First Ladies shown, too: Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan and Melissa Leo as Mamie Eisenhower. And note: the movie also features Orlando Eric Street as President Obama, and Minka Kelly as Jackie Kennedy, but no sight of them yet.
1. Alan Rickman as Reagan
This is almost unfair; Rickman can basically play any age or nationality. Guy is a wizard, after all. From this quick look, he certainly has the Reagan image down; whether he can capture The Gipper’s folksy manner is another question.
2. James Marsden as Kennedy
Not sure if he so much looks like JFK as he just exudes that handsome guy charm and confidence. He’s got plenty of experience playing leaders, too, having donned the Cyclops glasses in the first three X-Men films.
Brain bending side note: X-Men: First Class, the semi-reboot of the mutant comic series, took place during the Cuban Missile Crisis. There was no Cyclops in that movie. Coincidence? Or is Cyclops actually JFK?
3. Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan
Daniels’ casting the Oscar winner formerly known as “Hanoi Jane” to play the former First Lady set conservative circles off in outrage. How dare such a liberal iconoclast play the most significant Republican First Lady of the last 30 years?
Fonda has already told the angry objectors to “get a life,” but it’ll take a solid portrayal to really earn their silence (if, of course, that’s even possible).
At first glance, she at least looks the part, more or less.
4. Robin Williams as Eisenhower
Big ups to Robin for shaving his head to get that clean-cut Ike freshness. A different head shape and fewer chins keeps him from doppelgänger status, but the effort is there.
5. Melissa Leo as Mamie Eisenhower
Melissa Leo can literally play any role. She transforms herself unlike any other actress working today. I’m not entirely convinced that she and Daniel Day-Lewis aren’t the same person.
6. John Cusack as Richard Nixon
Not bad. He’s not quite as bloated as the disgraced former POTUS, but Cusack has played the sort of gruff and angry man that portraying Nixon would require, so this may be more of an essence-over-looks thing.
7. Liev Schreiber as LBJ
Schreiber is channeling Grumpy Cat as LBJ here. He’s just not wrinkly enough.