The hazards of Duke

Susan Sarandon plays famed heiress in HBO movie

by Ellen Gray

Philadelphia Daily News (MCT)

7 February 2008

BERNARD AND DORIS - 8 p.m. EST Saturday - HBO 

When Susan Sarandon brought her dog, Penny, along to a round of interviews at HBO last month, it seemed only fitting.

After all, the very petite blonde, who’s going on 3, did have a couple of close-ups in “Bernard and Doris,” in which her mistress plays heiress Doris Duke and Ralph Fiennes is butler Bernard Lafferty, to whom Duke left millions.

And Duke, like Sarandon, did love dogs.

“She was very big on animals, and treated her animals better than (she did) the people who worked for her, apparently,” said Sarandon, settling in to talk as Penny trotted out of the room, having already heard enough.

“One of the lines (that got cut) was that she was yelling at one of her maids because the maid was reprimanding the dog for pooping in the house - because they were always just going everywhere - and she said, meaning the dog, `She lives here. You don’t.’”

Any resemblance between Sarandon and Duke probably ends at their fondness for dogs, since the actress, as director Bob Balaban acknowledged in a separate interview, “doesn’t look anything like Doris Duke.”

She’s also playing nearly two decades older than the age Sarandon’s probably never going to look, anyway. In real life, Lafferty was more than 30 years younger than his employer. In “Bernard and Doris,” which premieres Saturday, they might almost be contemporaries.

None of which actually matters to the story Balaban and Sarandon set out to tell.

“We weren’t doing an impersonation, and we weren’t doing a biography, and no way did I want Susan to be 6 feet tall and look like Doris Duke,” Balaban said. “And Ralph was never going to be Bernard Lafferty because Ralph looks like a movie star and Bernard (didn’t). But we did things to them - Susan has blond hair, Ralph has a little tummy pad - but it’s not enormous.”

Before taking the role, “I only knew headline stuff” about Duke, Sarandon said: that she’d posted bail for Imelda Marcos, wife of Philippines dictator Fernando; that Duke University was named after her family, “that she made her money into more money, whereas Barbara Hutton had lost all her money, ultimately. I knew ... that she had kind of an outrageous lifestyle.”

That’s why, she said, “I wasn’t as interested on focusing on those big events as I was in telling the story of two people with `trust issues,’” she said, punctuating the phrase with laughter.

“Bernard and Doris” is about “two people who were not very successful in relationships having the courage to reach out to each other, to become friends, and in a very deep way, loved each other,” she said.

“But definitely (they) were a funny-foot-meets-a-funny-shoe kind of unlikely couple. That was more interesting to me than the big gestures that most people know about,” she said. “So we weren’t interested in doing a biopic. This was kind of an anti-biopic.”

And in an anti-biopic, there’s freedom to imagine a relationship that might or might not have existed.

“This we were charting as a love story,” Sarandon said.

“How do they earn each other’s trust, ultimately, and the hits and misses and the rejections and the acceptances?” she added. “And I was eager to have a story where there was mutual caring, not just that he was obsessed with her. That seemed a little creepy to me.”

Not, of course, as creepy as the accusations, never proven, that Lafferty might have hastened Duke’s death.

Does Sarandon believe the relationship between the real Duke and Lafferty was really one of mutual caring?

“Let me put it this way,” she said, cutting to the chase, “I felt that if he wanted to kill her, he could have done it much earlier. He didn’t have to stick around that long.”

Besides, she added, “even when you read books, you don’t know how much of it is hearsay. ...You never know, even when you’re dealing with someone who is in the inner circle,” if they’re telling the truth, or even if they know the truth.

“I know from my own family - I have eight brothers and sisters - and when we sit down and talk about an event, you’d think we were all in different places at different times, depending on position in the family,” she said, laughing.

Thanks to its sharp focus on the half-dozen years Lafferty, an alcoholic who’d formerly worked for both singer Peggy Lee and actress Elizabeth Taylor, spent as Duke’s butler, “Bernard and Doris” feels like a small film.

But hardly an inexpensive one.

You wouldn’t think you could do a movie about one of the world’s richest women on a shoestring, but that’s what Balaban did, with an extreme-indie shooting budget of just $500,000.

“Well, that’s what we made it for, but it wasn’t finished,” he explained. “It had sound work, and post-production, and many different things that we didn’t get around to quite doing. But it was enough to get the movie to the point where HBO bought it.”

One of HBO’s contributions was enough money to take the digitally shot footage and make it look more like film, Balaban said.

Sarandon, who signed on early, not only helped land Fiennes, but some of the crew.

“There was a very short list of people I was interested in working with. It’s hard ... there’s some people who could’ve played the sexual ambiguity, but you might not have believed they could run a house,” she said.

She thought Fiennes could run a house?

“The way he talked to those people? Absolutely,” Sarandon said, referring to a scene in the film. “And he learned everything about what a butler needed to know. He knew all about the different kinds of crystal and china, and how to set a table. I mean, he really did his homework.”

The whole thing “came together once we approached Ralph,” she said. “Ralph said yes, the (Hugh Costello) script wasn’t even in shape. I asked my friend (Joseph G. Aulisi), who was the costume designer, he said, yes; my friend (Franckie Diago) the set designer said yes; and all of a sudden we were doing this thing, and I was like, `Oh my God, what have I gotten people into?’” she recalled.

“My poor Joe Aulisi has about, you know, three dollars to find a way to do these costumes, and at one point, he didn’t think he could, and you know Franckie had to get all the set stuff for free and then she wasn’t allowed to put it in the rooms (at Long Island, N.Y.‘s, Old Westbury Gardens, which stood in for Duke’s New Jersey estate). We couldn’t sit on the stuff that was there,” she said. “It made it fun, except for the moments when it was really catastrophic, and not so much fun.”

In true my-dad-has-a-barn style, “Bulgari gave us the jewels,” Sarandon said. “And the guards, because of the other people who had offered us jewels, we couldn’t provide the guards. Donna Karan opened her vault and gave us all the period clothes. Someone else lent us furs.”

But no one really interfered.

“I think that when you do a film that’s a huge budget, you get proportionately more and more people involved in making decisions that don’t necessarily have expertise in the area they’ve decided to help you make decisions in,” Sarandon said.

Balaban agreed.

“I think making this movie on a very small budget without a studio staring at us all enabled us to be freer, happier, pretty much do what we wanted,” he said.

“More money, more people fussing. I like no fussing.”

//Mixed media