Backstairs at the White House (1979)
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Critic Reviews for Backstairs at the White House
Audience Reviews for Backstairs at the White House
Wow, Mamie Eisenhower was evil. Or at least, really annoying. Now, Barbara Bush? By all accounts, [i]she's[/i] evil. This is the history of a mother and daughter working at the White House as maids. The mother enters in the Taft administration and stays until mid-Roosevelt; the daughter, who enters in the Coolidge adminstration, leaves on Kennedy's inauguration day. We get to see each Presidency from the perspective of the (largely black) White House staff. This means seeing what each President was like in a more private sense. And we can be assured a reasonably accurate portrayal, since the story is taken from Lillian Rogers Parks's autobiography. Her first encounter with Taft has kind of a meet-cute feel to it--he encounters his maid's daughter testing the White House bathtub (the bigger one, the one he [i]didn't[/i] get stuck in). The Tafts, the Wilsons, the Hardings, the Coolidges, the Roosevelts, and the Trumans make the staff feel, if not exactly part of the family in all cases, needed and wanted. The Hoovers don't want staff at all, and the Eisenhowers treat them as furniture--except furniture doesn't have nicknames or expect you to remember them. And how a woman who had a husband called "Ike" and a son called "Icky" can object to other people having nicknames is beyond me, but apparently, she did. The cast in this is a little unnerving. Colonel Potter does a passable Truman, but you spend the whole time thinking, "Hey! That's Colonel Potter!" Robert Vaughn's Woodrow Wilson is pretty good, but it's still a little weird, especially to those of us who have seen [i]BASEketball[/i]. And, of course, Claire Bloom, who plays Edith Wilson, has appeared elsewhere in this journal as Theo from [i]The Haunting[/i]. Throw in Leslie Nielsen as White House Chief Usher Ike Hoover (who served for 42 years, and I'd like to have seen Mamie try to make [i]him[/i] go by a different name!), Leslie Uggams, Louis Gossett, Jr., and so forth, not to mention Cloris Leachman as the scary housekeeper, and this is some six hours' worth of "Hey, it's that guy!" tossed with history and seasoned with snippy commentary on our nation's presidency through most of the first half of the 20th Century. The problem is the script and the music, however. The music is, well, tedious miniseries music, and the script frankly sucks. We never develop the resentment Lillian harbours toward the Wilson girls whenever her mother praises them. The dialogue introducing important historical events is a little forced. The various staff members come across as either ignorant or too-well informed, depending on the needs the script has for them at that moment, and which they are isn't regular, so a character who didn't know the name of the Secretary of State during the Taft administration suddenly knows where Teapot Dome is without being told. (Well, no. But that sort of thing.) I will have to go find the book now, because it is an interesting story. It just wasn't interpreted for the screen as well as I suspect it could have been.
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