TV film imagines wealthy Doris Duke's odd affair

Mon Feb 11, 2008 7:41pm EST
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By Arthur Spiegelman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - He was a gay Irish butler with a drinking problem, and she was possibly the world's richest girl. She fell for him and made him executor of her fortune.

How butler Bernard Lafferty and mega-wealthy tobacco heiress Doris Duke fell in love has baffled high society for years, and a new TV film "Bernard and Doris," which airs on cable TV network HBO this month, looks at their odd affair.

But the movie's makers are downplaying their ability to shed new light on the strange relationship. In fact, they boast that what audiences see may be far from the truth, and the movie starts with an unusual warning -- some of what you are about to see is based on fact, some of it is not.

"The characters really existed ... but the story of their relationship is what we imagined," the film's director, Bob Balaban, told Reuters.

Hollywood veteran Balaban said there were very few facts available to tell the story of the heiress -- whose $100 million inheritance in 1925 grew into what was believed to be billions of dollars of wealth -- and her butler.

Balaban characterized the movie as a fable of what happens when two misfits meet and fall in love.

Ralph Fiennes plays butler Lafferty and Susan Sarandon is Duke. The story begins in 1987 when Lafferty, fresh out of rehab and recommended by Elizabeth Taylor, parks his Pinto outside Duke's gates. It ends in 1993 when Duke dies at age 80 and leaves control of her estate to him. Lafferty died three years later.

In between, the pair act out an elaborate courting game that sees one become co-dependent on the other. But how Duke and Lafferty actually played that game is something that, Balaban said, remains between themselves.   Continued...