Who among us has not at least occasionally fantasized about having untold riches to satisfy our every whim, not to mention a staff of lackeys at our beckon call to help facilitate that satisfaction? And who among us, not seeing those fantasies magically come true, hasn't rationalized about the superrich by saying something along the lines of, "Oh, well, they're probably miserable." Bernard and Doris, a quirky little HBO production about "richest little girl in the world" Doris Duke and her longtime butler Bernard Lafferty, may not make a cogent case for outright misery on the part of the wealthy, but it at least paints an at times troubled picture of what those who want for nothing need most--a loving relationship in their lives. And yes, the absolute triteness of that thesis is part of what's wrong with Bernard and Doris despite two knockout performances by Susan Sarandon as Duke and Ralph Fiennes as Lafferty.
The film made some unexpected headlines when its premiere party featured an equally unexpected hug between attendees Rush Limbaugh and Joy Behar, whose political views are not exactly in synch. This mini-brouhaha over a public display of affection got coverage on both Limbaugh's radio show and The View, and wouldn't be especially relevant if it weren't for the fascinating fact that it was all about two at bare minimum semi-rich people making at least the pretense of affection in public. That was part of Duke's problem, at least insofar as she is portrayed in this version--she is, at least at first, a cold, heartless bitch, barking out orders to her staff and surrounded by those both in her personal and professional life (which amounts to managing her untold millions) who cower at her very presence. Enter Bernard Lafferty, an alcoholic Irish-American who had previously worked for Elizabeth Taylor and Peggy Lee. Lafferty's unassuming style slowly but surely ingratiates himself to Duke, until he is about as close to her as anyone has ever been.
The film, which details the last six years or so of Duke's life, from 1987-1993, is at once full of nice detail and at the same time maddeningly condensed. Though there are wonderful asides of Duke's lavish lifestyle, with stacked invitations to parties being held by such notables as Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, or the first President Bush, or little throwaway lines, such as a voiceover where Duke, in giving Lafferty instructions about her upcoming visit to England, says, "Tell Elton I'm coming," there is really no clear depiction of how exactly Lafferty wormed his way into Duke's affections. Yes, in Fiennes' neat (if at times patently weird due to Lafferty's obsession with Duke's various accoutrements like her brush and clothing) portrayal, Lafferty is seen as a sweet, if at least partially duplicitous, character who is out to, in his own words, "care for" Duke, something she had probably never experienced before. But there's simply no clear articulation of what transmogrifies Duke from the ogre of her early scenes to the actually kind of cool, if brusque, woman of most of the film. And though there's plenty of wounded soul drama lurking in the background, with Lafferty's incipient alcoholism leading him to steal from Duke's rather overwhelming wine cellar ("At least he has good taste," she avers after discovering the theft), and Duke's inability to forge anything close to a lasting meaningful relationship, it's all dealt with in passing with no serious examination of what really makes the characters tick. Director Bob Balaban opts instead for a light, if occasionally weighty, touch which focuses more on the supposedly nutty friendship of a multi-millionaire and her hired hand.
There is an elegant feel to the film, which was filmed at the estate of the Fipps family, a mansion which is usually a museum, but which, according to Balaban's commentary, was closed for a month to prepare it for Christmas, which was when the bulk of the interiors were filmed. And there's also some neat use of source music, largely Peggy Lee tunes due to Lafferty's relationship with her, that helps give at least a little subtext to the proceedings. Balaban and his DP also have sure hands on the camera, with well conceived shots, often unusually long takes, that allow Sarandon and Fiennes to strut their stuff.
If accepted as a nice little duet for master thespians, Bernard and Doris has a lot to recommend it. If approached as anything resembling an insightful biography (which frankly I don't think even the filmmakers intended it to be, hence the early disclaimer "some of this is based on fact, some of it is not"), there's just not enough here.