Bernard and Doris

Bernard and Doris is a 2007 HBO television movie which looks at the relationship between American heiress Doris Duke and her butler Bernard Lafferty, and it stars Susan Sarandon and Ralph Fiennes in the titular roles. I picked it up in Laser last weekend when it seemed that every single new release was gone and I had forgotten to bring my list with me (I find a list is essential in Laser – mine usually consists of recommendations from more well-informed friends of mine).

Sarandon stars as Doris Duke, often described as ‘the richest girl in the world’, a woman who had a lavish lifestyle and all its trappings; multiple houses across America all filled with precious objets d’art, antique furniture and paintings, expensive clothing and furs, a jewellery collection worth millions. Doris had been rich since her father died when she was just twelve years old, leaving her as the sole beneficiary of his will. She had been married and divorced twice and was deeply disappointed in love.

Bernard Lafferty was an Irish born servant, who claimed to have worked for Elizabeth Taylor and Peggy Lee. When he arrives at Duke’s house he has just come out of rehab for treatment for alcoholism. Over time Bernard and Doris become friends (there is no question of a sexual relationship as Bernard is gay) and the film explores the dynamics in their relationship, Bernard’s relapse into alcoholism and Duke’s ill health towards the end of her life.

The movie is an odd one and I couldn’t help feeling that even though Sarandon and Fiennes are excellent actors, they seem to have been miscast in their respective roles. Fiennes plays Lafferty with a creepiness which fails to elicit any sympathetic response from the viewer. Sarandon seems far too earthy to play a woman like Duke and doesn’t have the requisite archness and superior demeanour that such a role requires. I think I am in the minority here though, as Sarandon was nominated for a Golden Globe, a SAG and an Emmy for her performance in Bernard and Doris.

The best thing about the movie was that it introduced me to Doris Duke, a woman I had heard of previously but knew nothing about. Duke inherited her father’s considerable wealth before she reached her teens and used the money to become an art collector, horticulturalist and philanthropist. During WWII she worked in a canteen for sailors in Egypt taking a nominal salary of $1 a year. She also was one of the first women to work as a foreign correspondent for the International News Service, reporting from across Europe. Duke was a remarkably interesting woman and, my interest in her being piqued, I think I’ll have to seek out a biography.

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