Saturday, July 19, 2008

Bernard and Doris - Movie of the Week

Doris Duke Display Gardens, New Jersey

Bernard and Doris is a fictionalized version of the last six years of the life of billionaire Doris Duke and her butler Bernard Lafferty, to whom she left control of her fortune. Directed by Bob Balaban and starring Susan Sarandon as Doris and Ralph Fiennes as Bernard, the movie is shot primarily from Bernard's point of view.

The movie is supposedly set in her New Jersey mansion, although Balaban says the building is a stand-in: Duke also had mansions in Newport, Hawaii and Beverly Hills, as well as apartments and estates and a jet to take her around the world. Several scenes are set in a greenhouse; Duke was a collector of orchids and established the Doris Duke Gardens at her New Jersey estate, now closed to the public.

Plot Points

Bernard was a gay Irishman, who previously acted as butler for Elizabeth Taylor and Peggy Lee--with Duke making an interesting trio of powerful famous single women. When we first see him, he is driving down a leafy road on his way to replace the previous butler, fired for the crime of serving too-chilly melon. Bernard is obsequious with Doris but commanding with the rest of the staff of maids, cooks and chauffeurs, which is how he survives through the first few months.

Doris meanwhile consumes quantities of alcohol and quantities of young, talented, buff men with a gray insouciance. At the same time she is shown to have been an intelligent investor and donor, tight-fisted with a nickel and yet generous with her charitable donations. She is emotionally connected to no one, and spends much of the movie as a disembodied voice on the phone barking instructions to support her upcoming itinerary.

Together they make an odd pair, Bernard living for the time when he can serve Doris and be her alter-ego, and drinking his way through the months of loneliness between her visits; Doris, when she's around, is alternately connected to him and distant. Ultimately they are in a chilly conspiracy of two.

Bottom Line

Bernard and Doris makes for a sad, if not totally engrossing story. The movie is dreamy and slow, and although that's probably not to everyone's taste, I think it's an intended slowness, illustrating how Balaban imagines life must have been for Bernard, a few weeks of heady involvement serving Miss Duke followed by months and months of solo drinking, waiting for her return.

Extras on the DVD are limited to choice of language, scene skip-through and Balaban discussing the real Duke and Lafferty.

IMDb: Bernard and Doris
HBO Films: Bernard and Doris
PriceGrabber: Bernard and Doris

The photo is of the Duke Gardens, one of several gorgeous photos taken by Nathan Siemers.