The XX Factor

Will Lee Daniels’ The Butler Finally Give First Ladies Their Due?

The Butler director Lee Daniels.

Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for GMHC

I’m reflexively suspicious of grand biopics in which the cinematography is sepia-soaked and famous people put on fabulous wigs and fake noses to conjure up figures of the past. ButI’m suspending my skepticism for The Butler, Lee Daniels’ fictionalized account of the life of Eugene Allen (recast here as Cecil Gaines), who began working as a White House “pantry man” in 1952, and retired in 1986 as maitre d’.

Daniels proved himself a provocative, unpredictable director with his assassin drama Shadowboxer and Southern-fried crime story The Paperboy. He was nominated for an Academy Award for his work on Precious. Given how staid biopics can be, it’s exciting to see someone with a track record like his venture into the genre, especially when he gets to play with a cast that includes Forest Whitaker and John Cusack.

But I’m particularly excited by what Daniels does with his movie’s strong complement of older women. (This is the director who cast Helen Mirren, of all people, as the lead hired killer in Shadowboxer.)  Oprah Winfrey, as Gaines’ wife Gloria, apparently has a sex scene with Terrence Howard, an actor 15 years her junior. Jane Fonda, fresh off her performance as an imperious network owner in The Newsroom, is Nancy Reagan. Melissa Leo is getting an impressive-looking wig to play Mamie Eisenhower. It would be entertaining enough simply to watch these women do historical impersonations. But I’m hopeful that, because The Butler is about the domestic lives of people who made history, it will mimic the example of Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln in the recent movie about the president and give its roster of first ladies more to do than ornament their husbands’ arms. In between The Butler and Rodham, an upcoming biopic of Hillary before she added Clinton to her name, will the women behind the presidency finally get the attention they deserve?