'Bernard and Doris,' Richly Rendered In HBO Drama

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 9, 2008

Really rich people are best approached like Gila monsters: with extreme caution, as their bites can be venomous. "Bernard and Doris," HBO's drama about fabled heiress Doris Duke, concentrates on her relationship with her butler Bernard Lafferty, a man who tentatively becomes perhaps the best friend she has in the world.

The film -- a hard-to-categorize exercise in comic pathos -- covers only about six years in Duke's life and doesn't even attempt to be comprehensive. A 1999 CBS miniseries, "Too Rich: The Secret Life of Doris Duke" (based in part on a memorable book by former Style writer Stephanie Mansfield), was a scattershot attempt at full-fledged biography. The approach taken on "Bernard and Doris" by writer Hugh Costello is more manageable, an extended riff on Duke's relationship with Lafferty and how these two lonely people may truly have been made for each other.

An on-screen preface rather coyly states, "Some of the following is based on fact. Some of it is not." The filmmakers justify that on the grounds that no living soul knows, or is willing to relate, all the details of the relationship. If they were going to make things up, however, it's too bad the filmmakers didn't come up with a more decisive take on Lafferty's motives in sidling up to Duke -- although it's she and not he, in the film at least, who initiates most of their initial interaction.

She also, at one point, tries to initiate the kind of casual sex she is shown enjoying with a series of anonymous boy toys, but Lafferty tells her regretfully, "I swim in the other direction, if you catch my drift." A recovering alcoholic who previously worked for Elizabeth Taylor and Peggy Lee (both of whom attended his funeral, a little Googling reveals), Lafferty fell off the wagon with a crash while in the ever-boozing Duke's employ, and instead of firing him -- she fired his predecessor because her breakfast cantaloupe was too cold -- she sent him off to rehab, eventually welcoming him back.

As Duke, Susan Sarandon gives one of those performances that's so close to perfect it seems more like channeling than acting. She becomes Duke from her initial appearance and delivers every single syllable of dialogue as if these were real words that just popped into her head. Rich drunks are not the most sympathetic of souls, but Sarandon lets us see through the eccentric behavior to the lost soul, poignant even when comical.

Ralph Fiennes plays Lafferty, at first delicately toadying as he learns Duke's innumerable eccentricities, later letting her manage various details of his life, or as much of a life as it is. Fiennes has always been something of a mumbler, and the smile he pasted on as Charles Van Doren in the movie "Quiz Show" was faintly sickening. But he treads softly with great assurance as Lafferty, refusing to be undone but willing to be co-opted by this astonishing woman with whom he falls madly but platonically in love.

She calls him Lafferty, and it appears to be several months after she hires him that she learns his first name. Duke's life up to that time is condensed into headlines under the opening credits: "At 21, the richest girl in the world," "visits Mahatma Gandhi," "worth $700 million" (more than that when she died) and, later in the film, "Buys Boeing 737 for $25 million."

We never see the plane nor accompany Duke on her global hopscotching, perhaps because even HBO is admitting that the film was shot on the proverbial shoestring and, though you'd never know it, in a hurry (only six weeks of shooting, at a mansion in Westbury Gardens, N.Y.). Obviously more important to the film than sets and costumes is the chemistry between Sarandon and Fiennes, and that is entirely unstinting. They bring the star-crossed couple to life with, fittingly, an economy of words but a rich sense of understanding.

They were two parallel lines traveling bumpily along until they fatefully managed to cross, and then together they became something else.

Inventive director Bob Balaban has been quoted as saying the budget for "Bernard and Doris" was less than the amount of money Duke left to her dogs. Tellingly, and over the apparent objection of her lawyers and advisers, Duke made Lafferty the executor of her estate; sharp-eyed viewers will see journalistic butterflies Dominick Dunne and Calvin Trillin sitting on the board of directors.

By the time Duke dies, Lafferty is dressing more like her than like the man he was when he showed up for the job; all along there have been signs he wants to get so close to Duke as to become her. He sits at her dressing table and uses her hairbrush while she is off on one of many impetuous jaunts.

As a character notes of an entirely different sort of predicament in Alfred Hitchcock's "North by Northwest": "It's so terribly sad; why is it I feel like laughing?" Even a scene in which Duke calmly instructs Lafferty on what to do when she dies seems, if such a thing is possible, mordantly madcap. If this is not a great little movie, it is at least a great little moment -- and more haunting than many a movie 10 times its size.

Bernard and Doris (one hour, 45 minutes) premieres tonight at 8 on HBO.

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