The Butler, Hollywood and Casting
I often consider the alchemy behind a great film: the necessary elements that must intermingle in both unusual and irrefutable combination in order to achieve cinematic brilliance on-screen. Two weeks ago I watched “Lee Daniel’s The Butler,” a film that is steadily gaining box office success with a box office gross of over $50,000,000 domestically (made for $25-30,000,000). The film dramatizes the life of African-American, former butler Eugene Allen. renamed Cecil Gaines in the film. Gaines, like Allen, serves thirty-odd years in the White House and retires during the Reagan administration, in 1986. The decision to focus a film script on a butler, albeit one who retired as head butler of the White House, follows a trend of increasing recognition of the contributions of African American domestic workers and servants. Numerous black people upheld positions of service; often confined to the role. Even one with such an illustrious career as Cecil Gaines, working his way from sharecropper to respected butler of several U.S. presidents, was largely unrecognized, in fact, his vocation demanded it. A recent New York Times article speaks to these makers of American history. The article “The ‘Soul Sisters’ in the Kitchen” by Rebecca Sharpless points out that many of the culinary delights attributed to white southern women were often created by African American women who were forced to defer credit to their employers.
Though I cannot refute the profundity of the life of Cecil Gaines, a life modeled on a real man, I question the on-screen alchemy of the film. On the one hand, the film triumphed against tremendous odds in time for the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington and provides emotional payoff at a time of national mourning with the murder of Trayvon Martin. On the other hand, “Lee Daniel’s The Butler” stumbles in a manner like many potentially great films in the current Hollywood system. In her book Sleepless is Hollywood author and producer Lynda Obst has no illusions that Hollywood was ever normal. In fact, Obst simply distinguishes the “old abnormal” from the “new abnormal” in Hollywood. Fundamentally bottom-line oriented, the “new abnormal” does not support the production of American narrative features that will not predictably prosper in foreign markets. Indeed, Hollywood has been owned by money grubbing multinational corporations for some years now and as films comprise a fraction of their portfolio, features that do not garner multi-million dollar returns are of absolutely no interest. This, of course, has nothing to do with whether these films are artful, interesting or innovative.
In this light, “Lee Daniel’s The Butler” had little production value in Hollywood and boasts a laundry list of producers, including late producer Laura Ziskin, director Lee Daniels and African American mogul Sheila Johnson. Furthermore, in order to attract the money to finance the script; the film had to have star power. In my view ‘star power’ essentially guts the spontaneity of filmmaking, as filmmakers try to hedge their bets on a film that has no floor to stand on without a studio to market it. We have seen the phenomena of celebrity oversaturation in a number of films in past years including (“Bobby”, “Lincoln” or films by celebrity branding guru Steven Soderbergh). This is my least favorite dimension of filmmaking today: too many familiar faces on the screen. It’s tiresome and a magic killer as viewers waste energy sizing up actors like NFL draft picks. Not to mention, most of these “fringe” films are male focused, illustrating Hollywood’s ongoing struggle to find value in a woman-centered narrative.
This point hits home in the documentary “Casting By” that premiered on HBO in early August. I was deeply moved by this documentary because of the sexist history and creative genius it revealed in the world of casting for film. Casting Director Marion Dougherty, who MUST become a household name, featured largely because of her astounding insight and success from the 1950s to early 2000s when she was unceremoniously forced to retire. Aside from creative instinct, Dougherty revolutionized the staid classical studio model of casting for type rather than ability. She also trained a cadre of Casting Directors in her own NYC agency, leading an impressive number of women in this mostly female vocation to successes of their own.
The window in which Dougherty existed as a Casting Director, largely uncredited on screen throughout her career in a title which remains unrecognized by the Academy, was the opening through which Obst and so many other writers, producers, directors, and actors gave us the films we love. To her credit, Dougherty cast classic films like “Midnight Cowboy”, “Dogfight” and “Lethal Weapon” while literally hand picking thespians like Diane Lane, Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro and Glenn Close. She advocated for actors whom she thought had range enough to play a role despite popularity, age, look, gender or race—in fact, Danny Glover’s character in “Lethal Weapon” was conceived for a white actor and after seeing “The Color Purple” she envisioned him in the role despite latent racism from the director. I don’t want to overstate the number of people of color Dougherty cast, but she was a decidedly open-minded woman. Therefore, although I credit “Lee Daniel’s The Butler” as a triumph in our current studio system, it fails to inspire the on-screen magic that I go to find at the movies, a magic that draws strength from the orchestral manipulation of casting and the unexpected innovation of actors you may never have seen before or at least actors you haven’t seen too much of. I can only hope that the arduous behind-the-scenes success story of this film—that cannot be underestimated—will open up a space for more on-screen alchemy down the road.