'The Butler' Builds Oscar Credentials With Strong Critical, Commercial Debut (Analysis)

Lee Daniels' The Butler -- or, more accurately, Lee Daniels' The Butler (thanks, Warner Bros.) -- was released on Friday by The Weinstein Co. The $25 million drama, which is based on the life of a real-life White House butler who served eight administrations, has thus far received favorable reviews from 73 percent of critics, according to RottenTomatoes.com, and is currently on pace to upset Kick-Ass 2 and finish atop the weekend's box-office leaderboard with a take of around $25 million. With a moving human story that is interwoven with the key moments of the Civil Rights movement, featuring a massive ensemble of big-name actors (led by Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker and Oscar-nominee Oprah Winfrey), and Harvey Weinstein, the master of awards campaigning, captaining its ship, it looks increasingly likely to me that the film will wind up as a major player in the Oscar race.

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On paper, The Butler looks a lot like The Help (2011), another $25 million tearjerker -- released on almost the same date (Aug. 10) to eerily similar reviews (78 percent) and box office (a $26 million opening weekend) -- about an African-American domestic worker and the many colorful people she encountered during the Civil Rights era. Like the latter film, the former is also a bit schmaltzy, but nonetheless irresistible to anyone with a heart, thanks primarily to the remarkable performance by the revered thesp at its center. The Help, which was distributed by Disney, went on to receive four Oscar nominations, including best picture and more than one for acting. If I had a gun to my head right now, I would predict a very similar outcome for The Butler.

(The Butler has also been likened to 1994 best picture Oscar winner Forrest Gump, which also centers around a character who meets numerous people and witnesses numerous events of historical significance. There are major differences between the two films, though: To name just two, Gump is funny, whereas The Butler is not, and The Butler is based on a true story, whereas Gump is not.)

The film was received raucously after its official Academy screenings in Los Angeles last Sunday and in New York the Tuesday before that. It certainly feels like "an Academy movie." Ironically, the biggest obstacle separating it from some major Oscar noms might be the other awards hopefuls that are also being handled this season by TWC -- a long list that could grow even longer if Weinstein elects to pick up another contender or two at the fall fests, as he often has done in the past. Whitaker will have to compete in the best actor race against Fruitvale Station's Michael B. Jordan and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom's Idris Elba. Winfrey, meanwhile, is up against both Meryl Streep and Juliette Lewis for August: Osage County, Naomie Harris for Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Kristin Scott Thomas for Only God Forgives and both Melonie Diaz and Octavia Spencer for Fruitvale Station.

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In related awards news, it remains to be seen whether the film's script, which was penned by Emmy/WGA award winner Danny Strong (Game Change), will be pushed for best adapted screenplay or best original screenplay. Strong's name in the film's credits is not followed by an "adapted from" or "inspired by" credit, but, in the middle of the credits, there is a card that indicates that the film was inspired by Wil Haygood's 2008 Washington Post article "A Butler Well Served by This Election," about Eugene Allen, the man who inspired Whitaker's character Cecil Gaines. (Allen passed away in 2010.)

Daniels, meanwhile, is, as always, a wild card. Two years ago, with Precious, he became only the second African-American filmmaker ever nominated for the best director Oscar and the first to helm a film that received a best picture Oscar nom. Last year, however, he lost some of the goodwill that he'd won with that film by releasing The Paperboy, a campy film that, fairly or not, is best known as "the one in which Nicole Kidman pees on Zac Efron," and that received no Oscar recognition. Now, with The Butler, he seems to be back in the Academy's wheelhouse. When I met up with him at the Four Seasons in Los Angeles earlier this week, in the middle of a long day of interviews for him, I asked, "Are you sick of talking about the film yet?" A nearby publicist quickly interjected, with a laugh, "Not until February!" She might be right.