"Lee Daniels' The Butler," opening in theaters Friday, chronicles the story of Eugene Allen, who served under eight presidents and rose from pantry man to maitre d, making him the ultimate silent witness to the inner workings of the White House.
In this glossy Hollywood retelling, Allen's more than three and a half decades at the White House are used as a vehicle to make a broader statement about the civil-rights movement in America.
It's with that goal in mind that the filmmakers provide their snapshots of the Oval Office occupants, giving portraits rooted in moments of history but not entirely accurate. And while a few of the actors resemble their presidential counterparts, others were cast to make the movie more accessible to a wider, worldwide audience.
Based on a Washington Post article released after President Obama's election in 2008, Allen is transformed into a composite character named Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), a black man whose behind-the-scenes work at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is filmed against the backdrop of simmering racial tensions.
Here's how that character came to view the presidents — and some of the blurred lines between fact and fiction.
Dwight D. Eisenhower/Robin Williams: Gaines' first exposure to the commander in chief comes in the form of Eisenhower screaming, "Goooood Morninggg Vietnammmm." Or at least that's what came to mind — and was reflected by the widespread laughter in an early screening — when Williams, armed with a not-so-subtle bald cap, graces the screen as the five-star general.
Gaines watches Eisenhower wrestle with school desegregation and notes that it's the first time he's seen a white man stick his neck out for black people. What the movie gets right: Eisenhower painted landscapes in his free time. However, Allen began his tenure at the White House under President Harry Truman (not featured) rather than his successor.
John F. Kennedy/James Marsden: "White boy's smooth." That's how the White House butlers describe their new boss, the baby-faced Kennedy. Filmmakers showcase Kennedy's bout with Addison's disease, which he fought with an assortment of pills. Surprisingly, the film doesn't touch on Kennedy's womanizing.
In terms of emotional resonance, Kennedy's assassination serves as a focal point of the film. Allen, in real life, was invited to the funeral but chose to stay at the White House to work.
Of all the actors, Marsden most naturally resembles his subject.
Lyndon B. Johnson/Liev Schreiber: Schreiber, donning a mask with a droopy face, has the showiest of all the presidential roles. In one of the film's more memorable scenes, he shouts orders at surrogates from his throne — the toilet. Johnson was, in fact, quite fond of conducting meetings from the bathroom. Although the film's White House butlers admire the Texas Democrat for signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, they point out his habit of using the n-word.
Richard Nixon/John Cusack: Nobody would argue that Cusack looks anything like the president forced to resign after the Watergate scandal. And in "The Butler," they don't really try to mask it.
The filmmakers showcase Nixon's booze-filled, soul-searching sessions. In a moment of pure fiction, Gaines sits with Nixon late one night in the Oval Office, silently stewing because the president is continuing the Vietnam War. In the movie, Gaines' youngest son is killed in that war. In real life, Allen's only son served in Vietnam but did not die. Allen apparently thought Nixon was a beguiling figure but never harbored such animosity towards the Republican president.
Gerald Ford/Jimmy Carter: Ford and Carter are skipped over in the film, aside from a brief montage. It was somewhat of an odd choice considering that Gaines grew up on a Georgia farm — a Virginia farm in real life — which would have made a natural parallel to the Georgia peanut farmer, Carter, who became president.
Ronald Reagan/Alan Rickman: The Reagan portion of the film has generated the most controversy. Before shooting even began, conservatives were angry that liberal Jane Fonda would play first lady Nancy Reagan. And the dramatization of Reagan's views on apartheid and his interactions with Allen are also being questioned. In the film, Gaines has an epiphany when he and his wife (Oprah Winfrey) are invited to a state dinner by the first couple. Gaines, in a voiceover, says the Reagans invited them purely for show. That episode, with Gaines watching Reagan promise to veto sanctions against South Africa, motivates his resignation.
Reagan's actual position was a bit more nuanced, as he called for constructive engagement: working with moderates in South Africa rather than pushing outright opposition of the government there. And according to the original Post article, Gaines looked back fondly on that evening, declaring himself, "the only butler to get invited to a state dinner."
But strangest of all: Rickman, a British actor, as Reagan?