Nominated for Nothing: 'Lee Daniels' The Butler'

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Image Credit: Anne Marie Fox

Just about every year, brilliant movies are utterly ignored by the Oscars. The Searchers, Groundhog Day, Breathless, King Kong, Casino Royale, Touch of Evil, Caddyshack, Mean Streets, The Big Lebowski, Shame — the Academy has a long history of overlooking comedies, action movies, horror flicks, hard-boiled genre pics, artsy foreign films, and documentaries that aren’t about World War II. This year, we’ll be taking a closer look at films that were too small, too weird, or perhaps simply too awesome for the Academy Awards. These are the Non-Nominees.

The Film: Lee Daniels’ The Butler, a film about White House butler Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), who witnesses the entire history of the last several decades of race relations from inside the hallways of power. Also, John Cusack plays Richard Nixon.

Why It Wasn’t Nominated: Lee Daniels earned a raft of nominations for 2009’s Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire. That film — though generally praised — was dogged by allegations of self-indulgence. Daniels may have taken that as a challenge. He followed up Precious with The Paperboy, still the only movie in history featuring Nicole Kidman urinating on Zac Efron. And although The Butler tackles a whole host of Academy-friendly Big Themes, it’s the precise opposite of the delicate Big Theme biopics that tend to get nominations. This ain’t Lincoln: The film is dense with cameos that run the gamut from ridiculous (Robin Williams as Eisenhower) to more ridiculous (Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan) to transcendently ridiculous (Jane Fonda as Nancy Regan).

EW’s Mark Harris pointed out that the film owes a tremendous debt to junk culture of the ’70s — disaster movies, TV miniseries — and you could argue that the movies’ rollicking bigness made it feel like an exercise in hucksterist audience baiting, especially compared to a sensitive true-life Issues drama like Dallas Buyers Club. The hucksterism worked: The Butler grossed more at the domestic box office than every Best Picture nominee besides American Hustle and Gravity. But there are rumblings that The Butler may have peaked too early. In a year filled with award-worthy movies, no Best Picture nominee opened earlier than October — two months after The Butler.

We shouldn’t forget that the film was divisive, with some critics complaining about Daniels’ mad tonal cocktail of historical biopic, father-son drama, and family sitcom spanning multiple decades. Then again, that mix turned out fine for Forrest Gump; and it’s not like accusations of unbridled excess turned voters off The Wolf of Wall Street. Another conspiracy theory runs that The Butler‘s Oscar chances were complicated by 12 Years a Slave, a Big Issue African American historical epic that pointedly did not feature John Cusack as Richard Nixon. There is also the persistent possibility that people were put off by the Harvey Weinstein of it all. (One imagines Academy voters phoning each other, ballots in hand, asking: “I forget, do we love or hate Harvey this year?”)

But upper-level theories aside, we shouldn’t forget one thing: The Butler is kind of a crazy movie. It’s entirely possible that lots of voters didn’t like the movie…and the ones who did probably didn’t put it at the top of their list, always a problem given the Academy’s weighted voting.

Why History Will Remember It Better than Philomena: Because in an attempt to tell a familiar historical tale from a radically different perspective than we usually see on film, The Butler swings for the fences, never settling for quiet sentiment when rousing melodrama will do. Most historical Big Issue films trend in two directions: the Great Man biopic, which centers on an important person at the moment(s) of their importance; and the Everyman biopic, which centers on an average Joe or Jane at a moment of tremendous change.

The Butler freely shifts between those two tones. There are scenes where presidents ask Cecil his opinion on a Big Historical Moment, followed by endearingly casual scenes between Cecil and his fellow butlers. Cecil’s son Louis finds his way into essentially every major moment of the ’60s civil rights movement — he speaks to Martin Luther King mere moments before his assassination. But Cecil’s wife Gloria is a moderating influence, a flirty but supporting desperate housewife who weathers the changing world with quiet resolve (and a not-inconsiderable amount of booze).

It helps that the film is cast heavily with ringers. Oprah Winfrey received plenty of just acclaim for her turn as Gloria, but David Oyelowo is just as good as the charismatic Louis, coming-of-age in a time of tremendous change. (If nothing else, we’ll all remember The Butler in a couple years, when Oyelowo is a big star coming off of Interstellar and Jurassic World.) Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz are also good.

Which is a sentence you don’t often get to write, but that’s part of what makes Daniels an interesting filmmaker: He loves bold/crazy casting choices, like Fonda as Reagan or Mariah Carey as anybody. It doesn’t always work, but The Butler proves that Daniels has ambition to match his spin-cycle kineticism. The director claims his next movie will be a Janis Joplin biopic starring Amy Adams. Coming from any other director, a true-life biopic starring a frequently nominated star would sound like Oscar bait. But coming from Lee Daniels, it sounds much more interesting.


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