Bernard and Doris

When a very rich and famous person dies and leaves a chunk of money to someone considerably less rich and famous, it is perhaps natural to be cynical about the circumstances. It’s also natural for a movie to be less cynical. I suspect that fans of 1980’s Melvin and Howard don’t really care whether Melvin Dummar was actually named in Howard Hughes’ will; it’s still a beautiful film. Likewise, the new HBO original film Bernard and Doris — seemingly so named to evoke the earlier movie — is such a tenderly crafted study of the platonic love between the heiress Doris Duke and her butler Bernard Lafferty that I find myself uninterested in Googling the real Lafferty and reading up on all the allegations. Did he influence his ailing, drug-addled employer? Did he conspire to murder her? There’s no poetry in any of that.

Increasingly, cable is where you go if you’re interested in acting, and Bernard and Doris offers teamwork you could’ve expected to see on the big screen in better times for grown-up cinema: Susan Sarandon — who somehow keeps looking better — as Doris and Ralph Fiennes as Bernard. As the movie tells it, Doris took a liking to the withdrawn, humble Bernard, encouraging him out of his shell and out of the closet, to the point where he grew his hair into a ponytail and took to wearing makeup, scarves and caftans around the house. Bernard, who grew up poor and Irish, had worked for Elizabeth Taylor and Peggy Lee; he was perhaps the particular type of gay man that ensures entourages for formidable women like Cher, Madonna, Barbra, or Judy — drawn to and fascinated by the mix of feminine vulnerability and female power.

Early on, Doris staggers home from the hospital after a nip and tuck, demanding booze and painkillers. Bernard tries to usher her to bed, but she, already pretty blitzed, pushes him away into a wall. Then she apologizes, and thus is born a bond forged on mutual enabling. Director Bob Balaban (whose touch is as delicate and detail-oriented as his acting often is) and screenwriter Hugh Costello keep a steady balance, acknowledging that some aspects of this relationship were healthy and some weren’t. The alcoholic Bernard, for instance, isn’t likely to stay on the wagon in a household full of vintage wine.

“What do you want from me?” Doris asks; Bernard says “To take care of you,” and he means it. Sarandon puts on her usual show of toughness and wit, and she’s terrifically entertaining at it, but it’s pretty much Fiennes’ show. His Bernard is a nicely modulated blend of repression and playfulness; Bernard has found someone who’ll indulge him, for better or worse. At certain points he hangs out with her at social gatherings, behaving like a husband rather than a servant, and she doesn’t see any need to correct him. To her, he’s the ideal husband she never had: undemanding sexually, tolerant of her dalliances with gardeners and pianists, and dismissible at will. Only once, when he forbids her to have around-the-clock nurses (he’d rather see to her medical needs himself), does he impose any sort of will on her.

It’s an unequal relationship, but an unusual one to see in movies, especially treated so warmly and nonjudgmentally. Bernard and Doris also keeps sentimentality at a minimum, and takes its potential clichés (the rich hellraiser, the gay butler) and finds something fresh in them. In a late scene, celebrating Doris’ birthday quietly over candlelight and drinks (non-alcoholic? we don’t know), Bernard is wearing a gown, dangling earrings, and lipstick, and Doris doesn’t bat an eye. We don’t, either, because at that point we understand Bernard. He’s nothing so mundane as a crossdresser; he’s spent so long ministering to the needs of fabulously wealthy women, and kept an inner life in which he identifies with them despite an outer life of poverty, that on some level he has become one. So has he submerged his own personality to that extent, or has that been his personality all along, waiting for the right person to bring it out? Under this movie’s benign and fastidious surface such questions coil up like earthworms, much more interesting than the tabloid version of events. I don’t care what the “real” Bernard was like; I cared about the movie’s Bernard.

Explore posts in the same categories: biopic, drama

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: