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John Cusack as Richard Nixon
Commentary

Good, bad presidential acting in ‘Butler’

James Marsden as John F. Kennedy
Liev Schreiber as Lyndon Johnson
Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan
Williams as Eisenhower

John Tyler was the first American chief executive compelled to deal with his job title, thanks to the verbosity of William Henry Harrison. The top half of that 1840 “Tippecanoe & Tyler, Too” ticket had delivered a two-hour, 8,500-word inaugural address with no overcoat in a freezing blizzard. The result, for 68-year-old Harrison, was pneumonia and a 30-day presidency.

As no previous president had ever died in office, a contentious debate ensued as to the successor’s new label: Was he – and should he henceforth be addressed as – “Acting President” Tyler (which the Constitution suggested)? Did he still remain “Vice President” Tyler? Or was he now the Real Thing?

He resolved it himself, by fiat – declaring that he was President Tyler. Forget the “acting” business. There were no actor-presidents or presidential movies in those days.

There are now, especially in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.” We prefer to call it “Wil Haygood’s The Butler,” in honor of the wildly talented original writer of the story, rather than the director. The movie is based on the fascinating true account of the black man who served eight presidents over 34 years in the White House.

As actors’ challenges go, nothing is harder than playing a recent, well-known historical figure. Of the basic prerequisites, physical and facial characteristics are sine qua non crucial. Speech and mannerisms follow. The more intimately we know them, the tougher they are to convincingly portray. Daniel Day-Lewis’ much-acclaimed President Abraham Lincoln, in addition to superb makeup, had the distinct advantage of audience familiarity with the man’s words but ignorance of his voice.

The actors who portray five presidents in “The Butler” (Harry Truman, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter didn’t make the cut) had no such freedom – although they took liberties.

Here’s a subjective critical rundown, in order of most-to-least successful:

Alan Rickman plays Ronald Reagan as the acting president in more ways than one, in stylized slo-mo, his Alzheimer’s disease evident as he asks the butler to perform a silly “secret mission” behind Nancy’s back. It’s not cruel but honest: Reagan’s son Ron and administration insiders observed encroaching senility in his latter White House years. (During the Iran-Contra hearings, he couldn’t remember the name of his own national security adviser, Adm. John Poindexter.) The actor, forever linked with Severus Snape in the “Harry Potter” films, both looks and speaks like the Gipper. And never mind Joan Rivers’ infamous remark that “Nancy Reagan’s knees have been together longer than the Mills Brothers.” Jane Fonda, of all unlikely people, plays her in stylishly convincing and sympathetic fashion.

Liev Schreiber ’s Lyndon Johnson barks orders – laced with profanity and the N-word – to his minions while seated on the presidential toilet. He’s both a hilarious and a frighteningly real caricature of LBJ, as heroic on civil rights as seriously self-deluded on Vietnam. The makeup job is terrific. Only flaw is the diminutive height. The real-life Johnson was imposingly huge.

Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower is perhaps the oddest of the odd casting choices. In the film, the butler’s first day at the White House coincides with Ike’s intervention in the Little Rock high-school integration crisis. The leader of the free world is then seen indulging in his favorite hobby – painting floral landscapes. Williams’ performance is strangely subdued, as was Ike in real life, but he misses the Midwest twang of the voice and he looks a lot more like Truman.

James Marsden’s John F. Kennedy suffers so much from Addison’s disease and numerous other ailments that he can barely move and takes a dozen pills daily. That much is true, as is the fact that – after the assassination – Jacqueline Kennedy gave the butler one of JFK’s neckties as a keepsake. Marsden has the unmistakable voice down perfectly, but doesn’t in the least resemble him. Kennedy was 46; Marsden is 39, but looks much younger. Where were the makeup people here? There have been precious few JFK portrayals on the big screen. Cliff Robertson made a so-so attempt in “PT 109” (1963). Bruce Greenwood’s JFK in “Thirteen Days” (2000) was respectable, but most of the Kennedy renderings are forgettable ones in TV movies.

John Cusack as Richard Nixon is the biggest mistake in “The Butler.” In a drunken rant, listening to the Watergate tapes and vowing not to resign, he is even less vocally and physically convincing than Anthony Hopkins in Oliver Stone’s “Nixon” (1995). Again, there’s a major makeup – as opposed to wardrobe – malfunction: Nixon never had disheveled hair in his life! We got a much better Nixon from Frank Langella in “Frost/Nixon” (2008), as well as better dialogue. (Nixon: “Did you have a pleasant evening last night?” Frost: “Yes, thank you.” Nixon: “Did you do any fornicating?”) We got the best Nixon of all from Philip Baker Hall in Robert Altman’s “Secret Honor” (1984), fulminating (“That Goddamned Ike!”) in a stream-of-consciousness monologue – with a bottle of Chivas and a loaded pistol in front of him – at his treatment by Eisenhower, the Kennedys, the Jews, the liberals, the media.

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