Like Upstairs Downstairs and The Remains of the Day, Bernard and Doris is a butler movie. Doris Duke, toward the end of her life, hires as her butler a gay, alcoholic Irishman named Bernard Lafferty and they become each other’s most trusted friend.
In today’s filmdom, this one is a sleeper, a very pleasant surprise.
Bob Balaban directs. Susan Sarandon is Doris Duke. Ralph Fiennes is Bernard Lafferty. The budget was $500,000. A few rich people donated some high-society props. The movie was shot with heroic economy in only six budget-dictated weeks at one of Duke’s mansions which, as she willed, has become a museum. It turned out to be a great setting.
It doesn’t matter whether or not this movie is very close to the real Doris Duke and Bernard Lafferty. You’d have to wonder anyway how important a chapter it might have been in Duke’s literal and tumultuous real life. There was a little noirish (not sexual) tabloid buzz about the two of them, and you might suspect Balaban caves a bit to the celeb gossip industry by allowing Dominick Dunne and Calvin Trillin cameo appearances in the final scene; but, having read the highly intelligent, witty and snide Balaban’s funny account of the making of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (in which he plays the nerd who figures out that the aliens’ musical ditty is a coded message to us bearing the lat/long for their landing on Devil’s Tower), he’s likely having a little satiric last laugh to himself.
In sum: Bernard and Doris rises above the literal story chronicled largely in the tabloids.
Susan Sarandon is about as good in her role as Duke as one could imagine. She’s a wonderful actress, and I can’t recall a performance by her that can rival this one. I would rent Bernard and Doris simply for her magnificence. You’re spellbound from her first appearance to her last. Because of her, your suspension of disbelief is invincible to any flaw in the film.
The screenplay is very, very good. The dialog is natural and, for every role, stays in character from beginning to end. The actors must have loved acting in this one.
The music is superb. Three jazz pianists unknown to me play some solos at various points, and though you might not imagine it would, it works beautifully as scoring. (Cheap scoring that really works; or, to be nicer, elegant scoring that really works.) Among the three pianists, you hear echoes of Garner, Previn, Gene Harris and Red Garland. Recordings of Peggy Lee singing standards are heard here and there as well; the actual Lafferty was her butler once and, the reports say, she (along with Elizabeth Taylor, another of Lafferty’s employers) attended his funeral which occurred three years after Duke’s.
As butler (or Butler), Lafferty’s role is fundamentally that of Hudson in Upstairs Downstairs. But this is America, so even though there is always some traditional psychological distance between Duke and Lafferty–he always in some very real sense has his place–he not only preserves a certain order and security, but he becomes a spiritual intimate of hers in her restless, wondering, always-a-bit-stunned searching of the world for its treasures and experiences. His real challenge lies in knowing When and How Much but also in knowing When Not To Presume and When To Retreat. He’s, after all, an American Butler of not too long ago. So his is a complex balancing act in our volatile culture. Making all in the manse run on schedule isn’t his main function, though it’s indispensable. More importantly, he and Doris become fast friends, and both experiment in a finally reserved way with reinventing themselves. She is his adventurous superior with a jeweler’s eye and an impulsive bent. He is her philosophical butler with his own charming failings and weaknesses. She says to him at one point what could serve as the essential observation and wisdom for their version of the world and their culture, one not Over There but Over Here: “We only have now.” Though Duke comes across here as philanthropic and shrewd in sizing up people and in conducting business and choosing investments, her wealth is turned toward filling that Now: The Classic American Adventure of the Present. As the Rich Heiress, she makes a perfect version of the American Hero(ine). She experiments at will, hits The Open Road whenever she wants, if with ever some practicality and hence seldom with anything like utter foolishness, and encourages Bernard to do the same.