February 12, 2008 / 12:45 AM / in 10 years

TV film imagines wealthy Doris Duke's odd affair

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.

OFF-LIMITS BEDROOM

Much of the movie seems to take place in Duke’s bedroom at her New Jersey estate, and if there ever was an off-limits zone in a woman’s life, it was the wealthy heiress’ bedroom.

After she died, Lafferty was accused of exploiting Duke -- a lady so indifferent to others that she once fired one of her butlers for serving ice-cold cantaloupe.

But who knows if, in fact, she did. As Balaban points out, who knows what goes on between master and manservant, and in Hollywood, the messy details of real life have never stopped a movie or TV show from getting made.

Back in 1995, there was an uproar over whether actress Demi Moore had the right to give a classic of American fiction, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter,” a happy ending. Critics gave her a big thumbs down.

This past December, a popular new film about a real-life Depression-era black debating team, “The Great Debaters,” won rave reviews even though director Denzel Washington and screenwriter Robert Eisele admitted to changing key facts.

In the movie, debaters at Texas’ all black Wiley College beat Harvard University to win a championship. In real-life, their opponent was the University of Southern California.

Screenwriter Eisele told audiences after a Los Angeles screening that the change made the movie more dramatic, and he argued that the larger truth of the story remained intact.

But there is little doubt that the prestige Harvard assumed in the film is something USC would have never attained.

There is also no doubt that butler Lafferty and heiress Duke had a relationship. What it was? Well, that’s a different matter. But Hollywood has never let the facts of real life get in the way of a good drama.

Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Cynthia Osterman

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