As much as Bernard and Doris is a love story, it is also a study of the difficulties of class and sex, the ways that both complicate intimacy.
On the day of Bernard Lafferty's (Ralph Fiennes) job interview, his future employer leaves him alone in her foyer for hours. When she finally reappears, a red gown in mid-fitting trailing after her, Doris Duke (Susan Sarandon) glances at the bench where Bernard has fallen asleep and barely pauses. "Who the hell are you?" she asks. Losing interest as soon as he opens his mouth, she's gone in an instant, her maid and seamstress following up the giant staircase. "Get me a sherry," she calls over her shoulder.
In this moment, Bernard is more or less hired, according to Bernard and Doris, an affectionate, fictionalized version of the real-life relationship between Duke ("the tobacco heiress," a designation she hated) and the gay, Irish-born butler who served her from 1987 until her death in 1993 (she was 81). They met when Doris was mostly alone, long after her marriages (to James Cromwell and playboy Porfirio Rubirosa), and when she was investing in "computer technology" (one scene here has her instructing board members to "buy Intel, buy Microsoft, Apple maybe," a display of business acumen that impresses Bernard and ostensibly makes her lots of money). The relationship was briefly notorious when Duke's will named him a co-executor of her estate (at $500,000 a year), valued at $1.2 billion. Lafferty settled a number of lawsuits, then the longtime alcoholic and addict died just three years after Duke, at age 51.
As its title implies, Bernard and Doris is essentially a two-character show. "Some of the following is based on fact," announces an opening epigraph. "Some is not." The film doesn’t dig into the controversies that punctuated the six years of their relationship, his "wee health problem," her sexual dalliances, or even the circumstances of her death (though the film opens on Bernard giving his beloved Doris a needle on her deathbed, it doesn’t speculate as to whether he and one of her physicians "intentionally hastened" her death with a fatal overdose of morphine). Instead, it keeps a tight focus on their ever-evolving relationship, shifting from professional and hierarchical to intimate, devoted, and sometimes jealous.
At once economical and sentimental, the film is set almost entirely at Duke's west Jersey estate (it was shot at Old Westbury Gardens), with brief diversions (road trips or hospital visits) or allusions (they take a trip to India and Europe, their stops indicated by instructive letters home to the staff. This limited space intimates the increasing claustrophobia of their affiliation, as each depends on the other for emotional support, moral approbation, and fashion advice. Though Duke was reputedly paranoid and irrational, the film suggests instead that she maintained a clear head for finances and a dark sense of humor even after the first of several strokes that left her increasingly immobile and more inclined to hole up in the house with Bernard.
Though she never worries much about his addictions ("I don't care what you do on your own time"), she's fiercely protective of her properties and overwhelming sense of privilege, instructing Bernard to keep watch out that other staff members don't drink her liquor, and changing her tone or mood abruptly. She thinks nothing of initiating a sexual romp with her sometime partner Ben (pianist Nick Rolfe) in front of Bernard and the maid Paloma (Monique Curnen), who hasten from the room, shoulders hunched and eyes averted. Doris is also apparently (willfully) oblivious to the ways her abrupt changes in tone or interest affect Bernard: following what seems an exchange of confidences and affection, she tells him to make sure a garment is pressed, effectively dismissing their previous few minutes and him; once again, he's just another worker.
The film turns this tension -- Doris’ obvious intelligence, sensitivity, self-absorption, and capacity for cruelty, hitting up against Bernard’s possessiveness and Doris-obsession (he smells her bed jacket, tries on her makeup, welcomes the chance to don her most flamboyant purple skirt) -- into a rudimentary class analysis. Mutual fans of Liz Taylor and Peggy Lee (he worked as her road manager for a brief time, and knows all her lyrics), they share a certain grand sensibility, but they're also separated by the basic assumptions each can make about his or her security. This difference, alternately acute or obscured, constructive or lamentable, comprises the film's most salient observation. As much as Doris and Bernard come to need and care for one another, it's hard not to see a certain pathology in their mutual abuses -- of trust and drugs, especially.
Fearful of aging, Doris disappears for days, then returns, her head bandaged and her face swollen ("Look at these suitcases under my eyes! This is time catching up with me!"), high on painkillers and booze, insisting that Bernard stay with her all night, seated on her bed so she can drape her arm over his lap. In the morning, she wonders, "Lafferty, did we fuck last night?", though she's neither relieved nor disappointed when she learns they haven't: the query is informational. When he informs her that he "swings the other way, if you catch my drift," Doris surprised she hasn't figured it, but pleased enough: "Oh I caught it."
When they're on, the friendship is exhilarating: she brings Bernard along on adventures in Hawaii, Beverly Hills, or Calcutta, ensuring that he learns to swim, gets his ear pierced, and "lightens up" in his outfits (the original butler rig makes him look like "a goddamn undertaker"). She also shares with Bernard the storytelling rights when they're entertaining her friends. Too much sharing, of course, is unhealthy for both: when she convinces Bernard to drink with her or try opium ("Getting high with the help," jokes a friend, "How democratic"), his efforts to stay on the wagon are pretty much shot. And when she leaves for weeks, abandoning him to his duties, Bernard retaliates in the only way he can, neglecting her precious orchids -- or worse, leaving their care to the gardener alone.
As much as Bernard and Doris is a love story, then, it is also a study of the difficulties of class and sex, the ways that both complicate and sometimes damage intimacy.