"It's called 'super- crazy low budget.'"

(By Mat Szwajkos)
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Sunday, February 3, 2008

Bob Balaban has forged a long screen career playing nebbishes and creeps, but like many actors, he really would rather direct. In his film "Bernard and Doris," which begins airing on HBO Saturday, he got to direct two great actors, Susan Sarandon and Ralph Fiennes -- and he paid them all of $100 a day. They portray a very odd couple: the tobacco heiress Doris Duke, floozing and boozing through her twilight years, and Bernard Lafferty, the gay Irish butler who became her caretaker and executor of her estate, then drank himself to death.

-- Richard Leiby

CBS did a two-part miniseries on Doris Duke with Lauren Bacall in the starring role in 1999. Didn't that deter you?

I never saw it. It didn't deter me. Should I say why?

Please.

This script was very focused on the relationship with her butler to the extent of nothing else. It was something of a love story. It was, in a way, the unsensational version of the six years at the end of her life.

Did you do any research?

We did no research. It is a fable. We invented a fable of the older rich lady and the itinerant drunk butler. We don't know what really happened, so we made up a story of what might have happened.

Many saw Lafferty as a grifter and a craven opportunist -- he was even accused of murdering Duke with an overdose of morphine -- but the film's view seems far more sympathetic.

We did want to leave you with an ambivalent feeling. I hope you feel he is a man capable of conniving, and maybe he even killed her, I don't know. Maybe he did feel strongly about her. I trust you could feel either. We chose to portray him as a character of mixed possibilities.

Sarandon plays Duke as a hypersexualized character, but her first husband, playboy James Cromwell, called Duke "my Frigidairess." Explain.

I do know she had long affairs with different people. I cannot tell you how much she enjoyed her orgasms or not, but in our version, she loved them.


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