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This story first appeared in the April 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Lee Daniels‘ The Butler doesn’t hit theaters until October, but the drama about the long-serving head butler at the White House already is being targeted by conservatives because of Jane Fonda‘s role as Nancy Reagan.
So far, backlash to The Weinstein Co. release is fairly muted — bloggers have disparaged the casting, and a Facebook page is promoting a boycott — but chatter about the liberal activist has picked up recently.
“The moviemakers are free to choose, but it seems like it was their way of giving people like me the middle finger,” says Larry Reyes, a Navy veteran and founder of the “Boycott Hanoi Jane Playing Nancy Reagan” page.
Fonda’s response? “Get a life,” she tells THR. “If he creates hoopla, it will cause more people to see the movie.”
Butler tells the true story of Eugene Allen, lead servant to the president from 1952 to 1986, so the Reagans are only part of the story. But all of the Republican presidents are played by left-leaning actors: John Cusack is Richard Nixon, Robin Williams is Dwight Eisenhower and Alan Rickman is Ronald Reagan. Further baiting the right, Butler was written by Danny Strong of HBO’s Game Change, which some thought portrayed Sarah Palin unfairly.
Fonda was aware of potential pushback and had a portion of the script changed because it made Nancy look too mean. “I might not have always agreed with Nancy Reagan, but I admire her, and I’d never try to insert my views when playing her,” says Fonda. “I tried to be who she was: a forceful, loyal, powerful first lady.”
Fonda is one of the best-known liberal activists Hollywood has ever produced, and is a pariah among right-wingers who can’t get past photos of her cavorting with the enemy during the Vietnam War, no matter how many times she apologizes. Whether efforts to promote a boycott amount to anything is yet to be seen, but similar dustups are notable:
1. The History channel backed out of airing The Kennedys in 2011 after the left complained it amounted to a hit piece on President John F. Kennedy.
2. In 2006, ABC made several changes to The Path to 9/11 after President Bill Clinton and others of his administration complained of inaccuracies. The miniseries aired without ads after sponsors balked, and Disney has yet to release the Emmy-winning series on DVD.
3. In 2003, howls from the right encouraged CBS to acknowledge that its miniseries The Reagans did “not present a balanced portrayal of the Reagans,” so it moved it to its sister cable channel, Showtime.
“I can’t imagine conservatives going to see a movie with Fonda,” columnist Ann Coulter tells THR. “Who are the filmmakers hoping to attract? Do liberals hate Nancy Reagan that much?”
Such reactions to her casting are to be expected, Fonda acknowledges.
“I figured it would tweak the right. Who cares?” she says.
Besides, Fonda, who never met Nancy Reagan, nevertheless has her approval, because when a friend told her she was meeting with the former first lady, Fonda asked her to mention the film.
“I was very happy to hear that she was pleased that I was playing her. Which shows how smart she is,” says Fonda. “She’s smarter than all those extreme right-wingers who are angry that I’m playing a woman whose politics are different than mine. Come on, it’s a movie!”
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