Bernard and Doris
by Jef Burnham
Premiering Saturday, February 9 on HBO
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HBO Films presents this semi-factual and intriguing examination of the relationship between real-life philanthropist, environmental conservationist and patron of the arts, Doris Duke (Susan Sarandon), and her butler, Bernard Lafferty (Ralph Fiennes). Subtle and constantly engaging, the film strays from the usual pitfalls of the biopic, never losing sight of the comic elements of the story, maintaining its subtextual elements throughout, and running a comfortable hour and forty-five minutes.
After firing her butler for serving her ice-cold cantaloupe that he then decided to throw away, Doris, then the richest woman in the world, inadvertently hires Bernard during a drunken stupor. Bernard, having previously worked for Peggy Lee and Elizabeth Taylor, quickly develops an enigmatic infatuation with his employer, which is the foundation of the story. Though we ultimately learn Bernard is homosexual, there is an observable tension in him when the topic of Doris’ lovers arises, making the nature of their bond all the more puzzling.
The screenplay by Hugh Costello necessitated perfect casting of the title roles, as the relationship develops entirely in the subtext, requiring a very particular dynamic which appears effortlessly achieved through the combined talents of Susan Sarandon and Ralph Fiennes. Sarandon is charming as the isolated heiress of a tobacco tycoon (after whom Duke University is named), who, after a string of failed marriages, finds herself without an honest friend until Bernard comes along. Despite the competence of her performance, the film is stolen by the always extraordinary Ralph Fiennes, who brings a wonderfully abashed, silent awkwardness to his role as the increasingly flamboyant servant battling with a relapse of alcoholism.
The bizarre coexistence of the duo is scrutinized with suspicion by outsiders. Though Doris herself pushes Bernard into the liberties he takes in his attire and manner with guests, it is perceived by all others to be an instance of the wealthy being taken advantage of by freeloaders. Doris’ financial advisor even calls the police on Bernard, claiming that Bernard had been neglecting Doris during an illness by not allowing her to take his call.
The only verbal explanation as to the nature of the characters’ relationship is when Doris, confused by Bernard’s loyalty, asks him “What do you want from me?” He replies simply, “To take care of you.” In another telling sequence, by which point Bernard dons slacks, a rose-covered blouse, a diamond earring and a ponytail instead of the customary formal dress of a butler, Bernard serenades Doris with a Peggy Lee song. Their eyes lock and a smile fixes upon Doris’ face as Bernard lovingly croons the tune of his former employer, and everything else seems to fade away. All the while, Bernard is accompanied on piano by one of Doris’ frequent lovers.
Bernard and Doris, directed by Bob Balaban with Kevin Spacey as Executive Producer, is a wonderful showcase for the talents of Sarandon and Fiennes. It premieres on HBO on Saturday, February 9 at 8 PM ET.
Jef Burnham is a writer and film critic living in Chicago.
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