Summer is on the way out. In no time at all, Fall will be here - pumpkins will be sprouting, the days will get shorter, and those of us in here in New England will be inundated with the rest of you coming to gawk at our (briefly) lovely autumn leaves. Natural cycles and man-made rituals, both playing out in predictable rhythm.
Meanwhile, at your local movie theater, a different rite of seasonal passage is coming to pass: The arrival of the Early Best Actor Hopefuls. Small, unassuming films that exist primarily not as the end result of compelling screenplays or directorial flourish but rather to showcase one or two theoretically-bravura acting turns. It's often an eclectic (though not too eclectic) mix: Softball biopics of famous people, middlebrow "issue" dramas, comedies that favor the bemused chuckles of a "Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me!" panelist rather than raucous belly-laughs, you get the idea.
This weekend, two of 2013's most prominent specimens of the form will make their obligatory "qualifying appearance" in theaters (these films are seldom expected to make money until early in the next year, based on the raised-profile of an Awards Season nomination.) Both are biopics, executed without much in the way of stylistic novelty so as to hold focus on their lead actors' earnest pleas for Oscar gold, and both utilize the same starry-eyed "grand sweep of history" tone popularized by "Forrest Gump" two decades ago. Which is more than a little bizarre when you consider that one film's ostensible focus is the tumultuous history of the American Civil Rights Movement from the turn of the century up through the election of the first black president in 2008... while the other applies the same basic template to the story of a guy whose life situation vacillates between regular-rich and Scrooge-McDuck-Rich as he "struggles" at what the film presents as the thrilling, noble endeavor of making home computers more aesthetically-acceptable to suburbanite consumers. ("We shall overcome... the color beige!")
The first (or, at least, the more likely prominent) of the two is Lee Daniels' The Butler, formerly just "The Butler" but re-titled because of a stupid, petty spat among millionaire movie producers. It purports to be based on the true life story of a real man (this one, specifically) but fictionalizes the narrative somewhat and changes the main characters' names. Forrest Whitaker (already a Best Actor winner for his turn as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland) plays Cecil Gaines, for the majority of a narrative a generations-employed butler in The White House, but who began life working on a cotton farm in the deep South. To protect him from brutal overseers, the farm's matriarch (Vanessa Redgrave, in the first of the film's many distracting celebrity walk-ons) promotes the child to house-servant; and he proves so adept at it that as an adult he finds gainful employment as a hotel butler before landing the job of a lifetime on the personal staff of The White House.
The film plays out in more or less equal measure between scenes of Cecil serving a succession of U.S. Presidents and building/maintaining a life for his family at home. Oprah Winfrey plays his wife, so you could call this a two-for-one special on Best Actor Hopefuls. The big idea at play is that this gives Cecil a unique vantage point on the history of the Civil Rights Movement. His family and friends experience the changing world firsthand at home while he observes from the sidelines as the actual decision making happens in the Oval Office. It's an interesting conceit, even if it means parade of famous faces playing SNL-sketch level takeoffs on U.S. Presidents (John Cusack's spectacularly bad Nixon never feels like anything but would-be parody) but despite an earnest and affecting performance Whitaker winds up lost inside his own movie - swallowed up by a plot that twists and loops back in on itself to make sure every important beat of history makes it into Cecil's life in one way or another.