Judge Kristin Munson doesn't think this is what Depeche Mode has in mind when they offer to play "master and servant."
Some of the following is based on fact. Some of it is not.
…and by "some" we mean "virtually all."
Facts of the Case
Doris Duke became a multi-millionaire in 1925 at the ripe old age of 12. For the next 60 years, she indulged in travel, collecting art, and maintaining charities, with a few failed marriages in between. When she died in 1993, she left her billion dollar estate in the care of her butler, Bernard Lafferty, along with a $5 million payout. Lafferty was accused of everything from murder to coercion and spent most of his remaining life in court.
Bernard and Doris is an account of the six-year relationship between Duke and Lafferty leading up to the scandalous and hotly contested will.
Nothing is 100% accurate in a biopic. Time lines are rearranged; real people are fiddled with or merged; stories more explicitly delineated. It's all part of sorting the messiness of reality into a proper three-act format.
And the there's Bernard and Doris, which doesn't let the messiness of reality interfere in any way with a perfectly good fiction.
Most of the time, I felt like Bernard and Doris started out as a different movie, but when the scriptwriter realized Driving Miss Daisy had already been produced, he made a quick trip to Wikipedia and good use of his word processor's "replace" function.
Very little of this story rings true; it's all warmed-over Hollywoodized ideas about how friendships between two unlikely people play out. This time around, it just happens to be an eccentric heiress and her gay, alcoholic Irish butler.
Even with the largely fictional script, the story still plods along at a sloth's pace, with no indication as to how and why this marvelous bond between drunk and harridan came to be.
Doris is written as mercurial and emotionally unstable, careening from snotty socialite to sage philanthropist in an instant, sometimes with a brief stopover in spiritualism. One moment, she's giving her butler BFF an extravagant gift; the next, she's chasing him around the greenhouse and ranting about her orchids. The luminous Susan Sarandon (Bull Durham) just can't pass for someone in her mid-70s—not even a woman who was as fond of facelifts as Duke—so Doris comes off as a spoiled woman having a midlife crisis instead of a crotchety old lady.
Bernard doesn't out himself until midway through the movie, which means getting hammered with "clues" in the meantime. He embroiders! He tries on his boss's jewelry! He loves Liz Taylor! Why, he must bat for the other team! Ralph Fiennes (Quiz Show) minces through the role with a surprising amount of tact and grace that is utterly drowned out by his flamboyant wardrobe.
While neither character convinced me of their deep platonic bond, the two do come across as a symbiotic pair, Bernard leeching off Duke's fabulous lifestyle even as he caters to her exacting and eccentric whims. It really is Driving Miss Daisy, but with more glamour and less emotional continuity. There's very little to show the pair's tender, bipolar relationship because cameras seldom follow Doris and Bernard outside the mansion and on their many travels. By the time of Duke's final illness, the relapsed and rehabbed Bernard is starting to resemble the manipulative crook that he was painted by the media and, in a repugnant moment that bookends the film, it's implied that Doris' death might have been assisted suicide (More on that later).
A biographical featurette and a commentary track are well-intentioned extras, but equally lacking in the facts department. Bob Balaban obviously doesn't know much about the real-life Bernard and Doris and spends most of the track acknowledging all the objects and performances contributed by his friends. To go into a film with no knowledge outside the script is one thing; to go in to record a commentary track is completely different. As the screenwriter, it would have been beneficial to have Hugh Costello in the booth to expand on the biographical aspects of the script. The 10-minute "Growing Up Rich: The Real Doris Duke" is similarly studded with "might haves" and "maybes" about Duke's life that Balaban can't explicitly recall.
Oh, and that possible scene of euthanasia? The one so crucial that it's in the movie twice? Both times, it's ignored in the commentary. Aspiring movie makers take note: when one character in your biopic was accused of murdering the other for their money, you might want to address vague and inflammatory inclusions like that.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Bernard and Doris looks far more expensive than its $500,000 budget, and that's all thanks to the costume and set design. Couture '80s dresses and careful set dressing recreate Duke's taste and excess, with a Long Island mansion turned museum subbing for Duke's New Jersey estate
The anamorphic transfer for the movie is lush and lovely; the scarlet and fuchsia of Sarandon's outfits pop against the dark wooden interiors but have the perfect amount of saturation. A 5.1 audio track is provided but only truly utilized by the songs playing over the credits; the dialogue seldom rises above a murmur.
Bernard and Doris is slow, shallow, and dull. Worse, the few emotional touchstones of the piece are revealed in the commentary to be completely made up. If it wasn't about someone famous, starring well-known actors, it wouldn't have garnered a second look and unless you're a hardcore fan of Fiennes or Sarandon, you shouldn't bother giving it a first.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Director Bob Balaban
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