The opening scene of Bob Balaban’s film about the odd bond between billionaire tobacco heiress Doris Duke (Susan Sarandon) and her butler Bernard Lafferty (Ralph Fiennes) raises hopes for a dark, intriguing society exposé à la Reversal of Fortune: The ponytailed manservant is shown preparing a syringe, while behind him the aged, disheveled Duke, sitting up in bed, cries tears of joy.
When the legal mess that followed Duke’s 1993 death became a news story, it wasn’t hard to believe the accusations thrown at Lafferty, the executor of Duke’s estate, by the board of her foundation. Sadly, the main reason the charges held weight was because of Lafferty’s tacky earring, his bad dye job and the aforementioned ponytail. Despite the sensation-tinged opening, however, Bernard and Doris is primarily a character study, which argues that Lafferty (who drank himself to death in 1996) got a bum rap because he was a flamboyant gay man who enabled Duke’s prodigious drinking.
Dominick Dunne and Calvin Trillin briefly appear as board members of Duke’s foundation, which tells you all you need to know abut the clubby tone—if ever there was a film intended for New York Observer subscribers, this is it. Still, the lead performances make the film awfully enjoyable: Sarandon has a ball playing Duke as a brash, usually inebriated woman in her seventies who’s never heard the word no and devotes most of her energy to bedding young hunks. Fiennes, slimmer than usual, portrays Lafferty with a nervous energy that makes him seem both hilarious and dangerously volatile once he starts showing up to meetings in drag and berating the rest of the board. A title card at the end says former employers Elizabeth Taylor and Peggy Lee attended his funeral, so he couldn’t have been that crazy.