While Oprah Winfrey was busy touting her talents and plugging herself for an Oscar, the lead of The Butler, or fully known as Lee Daniels' The Butler, was practically ignored. I hate to break it to you, but the movie is not about Oprah—she's barely in it! It's loosely based on a true story, following one man's thirty-year servitude in the White House. Forest Whitaker is the lead, not the actress who plays his wife.
Half of the film shows Forest Whitaker's personal life, from his early days on a cotton plantation to his son's participation in the Civil Rights movement, and a few scenes with his wife and friends. No offense to Oprah, David Oyelowo, Elijah Kelley, Mariah Carey, or Terrence Howard, but no one went to the theaters to see those parts of the film. They went to learn backstage dirt on Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Johnson, and Reagan! Just as it is in every miniseries or saga, the modern characters are infinitely less interesting than the historical ones, and The Butler is no different. If you're interested in a backstage view of the White House told from the servants' point of view, rent Backstairs at the White House. It's so much better.
Now, to the presidents. Robin Williams plays Eisenhower, James Marsden plays Kennedy, Liev Shreiber plays Johnson, John Cusack plays Nixon, and Alan Rickman plays Reagan. I'll let you absorb those terrible casting choices for a minute. Minka Kelly plays First Lady Jackie Kennedy, and Jane Fonda plays First Lady Nancy Reagan, but they're really as ineffective at convincing the audience they're the historical figures as the actors who play their husbands are. The Butler is one giant debacle. It's a huge disappointment following an enormous amount of hype, and the scenes at the White House feel like they were written by a high school junior. The presidents are stereotyped by well-worn trivia, and when you're not rolling your eyes at the lack of imagination, you're laughing at the actors who never should have been cast.
Oprah promoted her performance so much, I was expecting a reincarnation of Hamlet. She wrote article after article in her magazine about how it felt to return to acting after fifteen years. She smoked herbal cigarettes for weeks, so that her smoking would be convincing in the film. Lee Daniels worked her to the bone to get the best performance out of her, and the experience taught her so much about herself. Her part isn't any larger than one of the passing presidents, and her cigarettes were hardly a prominent feature of her scenes. If she was expecting an Oscar nomination, or God forbid a win, she should have spent less time promoting and more time acting.