Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Bernard and Doris... just worth looking at (on HBO) to see two amazing pros at work. Susan Sarandon is absolutely wonderful as Doris Duke. I miss her (Susan, not Doris). She should be in every movie, she is so good.
I predict Emmy.
I don't really care if she looks like Duke or acts like her. Hers is a portrayal of a smart, too wealthy lady who keeps people at bay, who is imperious and spoiled, and lonely of course, all because of her gazillions, but also capable of feeling. She is probably the only woman on Earth who had a soft spot for Imelda Marcos. And she was very fond of her butler, in her fashion.
And my darling, darling, Ralph Fiennes, like nobody has ever seen him before, playing not only a gay Irish guy with a hideous ponytail and dreadful clothes, but a soft, vulnerable, meek soul. He who has played princes and kings and nazis and dapper British soldiers and Voldemort is wonderful playing a devoted butler. A servant. It is a lovely characterization. He is not terribly flamboyant, opting for the more interesting ambiguous choice, but there is such deliberate softness in the way he moves, his every movement seems to be designed not to telegraph gayness, but to serve. When she leaves for months on end, he is desperate without her, even though, as he clarifies, he swings to the other side. I don't for the life of me understand the character of Bernard Lafferty, Ms. Duke's loyal butler. But the film is a solid exploration of their rather strange codependent relationship, very well directed by Bob Balaban. Fiennes is truly moving as this softspoken man, the epitome of subservience, who gets routinely wounded by Miss Duke's random insensitivity, when he is not softly deflecting her advances.
According to the film, Lafferty was accused of all but poisoning Duke, since she appointed him the sole executor of her enormous estate with a 5 million a year salary. Yes, money poisons everything. Is it possible that this man really aimed to please and was not in it but for the sake of tending to her? Can the greedy human mind comprehend the notion of loyalty and devotion on such a grand scale? Not really. One cannot escape wondering if indeed he didn't stick around for convenience. Not that he murdered her, or manipulated her, but that she was convenient to his submissiveness. The other question is about his unhappiness. Even with all that money, he drank himself to death at the age of 40, so there must have been something really sad and haunting and unfulfilled in all his servitude.


  1. Hello there Grande Enchilada. I wrote the screenplay for Bernard and Doris and happened upon your blog while self-indulgently surfing reactions to the film's recent screening on HBO. (A writer will always find alternative ways of passing the time.) I just wanted to say that you have nailed exactly the enigma that was Bernard Lafferty. No, he wasn't in it for the loot, but nor was he a saintly self-sacrificer. He was a man who needed to be needed. Without someone else to take care of he was hopelessly adrift (as evinced by his short and unhappy life post Doris). This paradoxical selfishness was what first interested me in him as a character, and what made me want to tell the story in an intense, almost claustrophobic way. It's really gratifying when people get it, even better when they are articulate enough to pass it on. So thanks for your interest and your insights. Hugh Costello

  2. Dear Mr. Costello, or shall I call you Hugh?
    You make me blush.
    The nice thing about writing a blog (besides being able to rant in relative anonymity in one's pajamas) is to share our enthusiasms with the world.
    I apologize for not naming the writer who was responsible for this lovely, hauntingly sad movie. Being a writer, you must be so used to this, alas...
    I usually approach biopics with great trepidation. The story of Bernard and Doris could have easily been turned into trashy camp.
    Instead, thanks to you and the talented people involved, it was classy, smart and terribly sad. Such a welcome relief in these parts.

    Thanks for writing back and I wish you much success with the film!

  3. Thank you to both Hugh Costello for a brilliant and extremly moving screenplay and to the Grande Enchillada for writing a tender and compassionate review. I enjoyed watching the story and revisiting it through this post.