Doris Duke and Bernard Lafferty defined aristocratic eccentricity, with their his-and-her eye shadow, a penchant for Eastern mysticism and a taste for strong drink. But only one was an actual aristocrat: Doris Duke, the only child of tobacco tycoon James Buchanan Duke (whose own daddy had a university, Duke, named for him).
Lafferty was Duke's deferential, starry-eyed butler who eventually became her best gal pal, drinking buddy and kindred spirit. Director Bob Balaban's Bernard and Doris, a breezy, at times tender portrait of the gilded set, tries to capture that relationship and how it might have unfolded. The film debuts Saturday, Feb. 9, on HBO.
The real-life Lafferty (Ralph Fiennes) was, in some ways, the punchline to every joke about wealthy eccentrics who kick the champagne bucket and leave all their cash to the poodles. (Duke did in fact bequeath a $100,000 trust fund to her dogs.) Upon her death in 1993, billionaire Doris Duke (Susan Sarandon) left a sizable chunk of change to Lafferty, who also was named trustee of her estate. The windfall struck some as sinister; according to the popular lore, Lafferty took advantage.
Bernard and Doris suggests other possibilities.
A gay man who came from a dire working-class Irish background, Lafferty transformed into much more under Doris Duke's ministrations, according to Balaban's film. Lafferty arrived at Duke's New Jersey estate in 1987 as a post-rehab alcoholic whose decrepit car barely made it to the front gate. Under Duke's tutelage, he became a drunk with access to better wine but also a confidant and sympathetic ear.
What Balaban's film offers is a view of enormous wealth that both caters to its entertainment value (a pre-Lafferty butler is fired for the egregious crime of serving overly chilled melon) and muddies the upstairs/downstairs stereotypes. The slow-burn kinship screenwriter Hugh Costello imagines growing between Lafferty and Duke shows great wealth's soft underbelly, a mission greatly enhanced by the compelling performances of Fiennes and Sarandon.
As the former butler for Peggy Lee and Elizabeth Taylor, Lafferty initially suggests the moony homosexual archetype, swaining over the luxurious, pampered dollies he cared for. But Bernard and Doris, as the intimate first-name-basis title suggests, imagines real people behind the cliché about dotty heiresses and their obsequious, pathetic servants. Fiennes' astute performance suggests his caretaking of another fragile creature was its own search for love and companionship. With his gentle, tragic air, Fiennes shows how Lafferty might have been able to penetrate Duke's hard surface and suspicious nature. As Lafferty's tenure at Duke's estate wears on, they share confidences as well as fashion tips. Lafferty helps Duke tend to her beloved orchids. They compare sexual kinks, depressing childhoods and the insecurity that, Costello's script suggests, great wealth and poverty can both create.
When she is debilitated by a stroke, Lafferty promises to set-dress her corpse if she dies suddenly.
Duke initially thrives under this kind of tender loving care that for once didn't come with a price tag attached. This was, after all, the poor little rich girl whose daddy Buck's dying last words were reportedly "trust no one."
Often haughty and whip-crackingly sensual in her onscreen roles, Sarandon attacks the tart-tongued heiress with verve. Her platinum hair permanently postcoitally disheveled, Sarandon's Duke is debauched glamour incarnate. But like Fiennes, Sarandon gives Duke a desperate, forlorn, human dimension.
Bernard and Doris bears traces of other works, such as Mommie Dearest's campy portrait of another excessive diva (Joan Crawford), in which the eccentricities of the grotesquely loaded are tackled in richly entertaining detail. And there's the "rich and weird" school that begat Grey Gardens and Reversal of Fortune. For fans of the outre, there is the scene where Bernard carries Doris in her post-stroke physical decline downstairs to dinner. Lafferty is dressed in dangling earrings, a satin wrap shirt and long skirt.
What Duke is wearing seems inconsequential.
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