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Ranking the Presidents and First Ladies in The Butler

John Cusack, James Marsden and Robin Williams in Lee Daniels’ The Butler Photo: The Weinstein Company

In Lee Daniels’ The Butler (read David Edelstein’s review here), Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey have received largely glowing reviews for their roles as a White House butler who serves multiple administrations and his wife. They are the constants past which parade a string of historical Commanders in Chief, who are played by a series of stars only slightly less familiar to moviegoers than the presidents they portray. Considering how one of armchair historians’ favorite hobbies is to rank the U.S. presidents, we thought it appropriate to rank the actors’ capturing of these fake presidents (and the First Ladies who actually get lines) in The Butler. Procedural note: Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Barack Obama also appear via archival news footage, and therefore are the most convincing presidents in Lee Daniels’ The Butler. But they are disqualified from this list on the grounds that, technically, none of them were acting. (As for First Ladies Mamie Eisenhower, Lady Bird Johnson, Pat Nixon, Betty Ford, and Rosalynn Carter, all of whom are absent from the movie: We look forward to seeing you in the remake in which you’ll be portrayed, respectively, by Kristen Schaal, Frances Conroy, Melissa Leo, Lindsay Lohan, and Reese Witherspoon.)

James Marsden as JFK

1. James Marsden as John F. Kennedy

James Marsden is handsome and so was John F. Kennedy. Honestly, that’s about as similar as they get in the looks department. Yet there’s something about Marsden — his subtle but still unmissable Massachusetts accent, his confident way with his staff, the sincerity with which he says that young African-Americans fighting for civil rights have changed his heart — that makes you buy him as JFK, either the man he was or, perhaps, the man we like to think he was. Compared to Robin Williams or Alan Rickman, Marsden’s got fewer career-defining roles on his résumé, and that may help, too. Some critics have carped that his slightly lower profile dampened his effectiveness; I say let us not dwell on this and just say: Well done, Criss Chros*.

Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan

2. Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan

Here’s a good way to determine whether you’re seeing The Butler in a red state or a blue state: When Fonda first enters the frame as Nancy Reagan, listen very closely. Can you hear the moist sound of multiple eyes simultaneously rolling up in their heads? If yes, you’re in a red state. But if you put politics aside and take a couple of seconds to adjust to the sight of Barbarella as the “Just Say No” First Lady, you may find yourself admitting: “With her slight frame, coiffed hair, and signature red fashion choices, Fonda does look like Reagan.” And then: “Her gentle yet businesslike demeanor also seems pretty Nancy Reagan-esque.” And then: “Fine. You got me. Fonda can do Reagan.” And then she’ll have finished talking to Forest Whitaker and be clipping down the White House halls too quickly for you to change your mind.

Liev Schreiber as Lyndon Johnson Photo: ANNE MARIE FOX/Butler Films

3. Liev Schreiber as Lyndon B. Johnson

Even with far too much distracting prosthetics packed onto his face, Schreiber never looks quite jowly or wrinkly enough to persuade us he’s LBJ. (At 45, Schreiber is ten years younger than Johnson was when he got sworn into office, and looks even younger.) But the Ray Donovan star has proven that he can be an intimidating presence, and he puts that to good use, especially while barking orders at his aides from his perch on a White House toilet with his presidential pants around his ankles. (And yes, by the way, Johnson sometimes really did bring staff members into the bathroom with him. Even Doris Kearns Goodwin says so.)

John Cusack as Richard Nixon

4. John Cusack as Richard Nixon

Question: Did they just gather up whatever face putty was left over from Schreiber and slap it onto the end of Cusack’s nose so he could play Nixon? Maybe I’ve just seen Say Anything… too many times, but I couldn’t think, for even a second, that Cusack’s Nixon was the same guy who gave the Checkers speech or covered up Watergate. To his credit, the actor avoids doing the blubbering “I am not a crook” routine that could have turned this portrayal into an exceedingly cartoonish cliché. Instead, he’s just overly Cusacky and inclined to make us all wish Dan Hedaya had gotten this part instead. (Remember how great he was as Nixon in Dick? That movie’s pretty much the best.)

Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower Photo: The Weinstein Company

5. Robin Williams as Dwight D. Eisenhower

As the president who served just before TV began to dominate American culture, Eisenhower’s image is, arguably, the least fixed in our minds of all The Butler’s presidents. Yet even with that going for him, as soon as bald Robin Williams shows up in the Oval Office, the first thought that pops to mind is, “Wait, we elected Patch Adams?” To be fair to Williams — and, for that matter, all the actors here — he was asked to do something pretty challenging: convince us that he’s an iconic world leader while appearing onscreen for only a few minutes. With a couple more scenes, maybe he would have settled into the part. As it stands, the sight of him is more “Gooood morning, Vietnam!” than “I like Ike.”

Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan

6. Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan

It’s a bit daunting to say what must be said, considering that Rickman previously played both Severus Snape and Hans Gruber and could probably start a global thermonuclear war with just one of his signature sneers. But here goes: Rickman is an awful Reagan. While some of the other actors come across as distracting or kind of off, Rickman just gets Reagan wrong. Sure, he tosses off a couple of the requisite “wells.” And with that oil slick of a pompadour, the resemblance is strong enough. But there’s no twinkle in his eye and none of the grandfatherly cluelessness that made Reagan both likable and maddening as the Man in Charge. Rickman is simultaneously too serious and unengaged. He sleepwalks through The Butler, and not in the same way that Reagan sometimes seemed like he was sleepwalking through two terms.

Minka Kelly as Jacqueline Kennedy Photo: Anne Marie Fox/Butler Films

7. Minka Kelly as Jacqueline Kennedy

Oh, Minka Kelly, we love you. We loved you on Friday Night Lights. We even loved you on Parenthood even though you slept with Crosby and derailed his wedding plans for a season-plus. But dear Lord, you were horribly miscast in this part. Your chin-dimpled beauty is still too youthful to match the worldly sophistication that JFK’s chic and well-spoken wife exuded. When dressed in a replica of her pink Chanel suit doused in her assassinated husband’s blood, you look like a girl involved in some strange, morbid version of historical cosplay. We see you crying out, grieving the loss of a man once on a path to true greatness, and all we can think is: Poor Lyla Garrity. And: My God, what did they do to Tim Riggins?

* This post initially misspelled the unspellable Criss Chros. We apologize to Liz Lemon for the error.

Ranking the Presidents in The Butler