“No man is a hero to his own valet,” said Montaigne. “This is not because the hero is not a hero, but because the valet is a valet,” added Hegel. So it is with Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), who serves seven U.S. presidents as a White House manservant in Lee Daniels’ The Butler. As depicted in the film, JFK isn’t just the president; he is also the man so paralyzed by back pain that Cecil has to lift his supine body from the floor to help him stand. Similarly, Lyndon Johnson is the constipated man to who barks while seated on the toilet for Cecil to bring him prune juice. Richard Nixon is the sweaty, shifty, secretive man who obsessively listens to the Watergate tapes at night. And Ronald Reagan is the man who tries to send him on a covert mission behind Nancy’s back, indicating perhaps a loosened grip on reality.
Not that Cecil ever tells anyone these things. If it’s a butler’s job to clean up after his master, it’s also his job to be discreet. In these qualities, Cecil is following the pattern set by pop culture butlers for at least a century. The flip side is, the butler may be the only person who can, without fear, speak truth to power, and in TV and movies, there’s a cathartic feeling when he does so. For all the faithful man-servants we’ve seen maintain their decorum over the years, we may be fondest of those who manage to slip in a sardonic wisecrack at the boss’s expense every now and then. In this, they’re only doing what we all wish we could get away with doing. Here, then, are 10 movie and TV butlers who served with distinction.
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