Close Encounters of the Celebrity Kind...
Bernard and Doris Director Bob Balaban on his latest project and Much More
2-6-08 Windy City Times Interview
by Richard Knight, Jr.
Actor-Director-Writer Bob Balaban is a man of many talents with a fascinating resume, on set directing Susan Sarandon in Bernard
You’ve seen Chicago native, actor Bob Balaban in dozens of film roles stretching back to his debut as the gay nerdy teenager who
picks up Jon Voight in 1969’s Midnight Cowboy. Since that memorable moment (the scene initially got the film it’s “X” rating though
nothing is shown!), Balaban has played everything from the French translator for Francois Truffaut in Close Encounters of the Third Kind
to the president of NBC (and Elaine’s sometime love interesting) during several appearances on “Seinfeld.” He has appeared in
each of the improv comedy movies (Waiting for Guffman, A Mighty Wind, etc.) directed by Christopher Guest and along with Robert
Altman, developed the idea for Gosford Park along with director Robert Altman and then played the gay film director in the movie
(who arrives at the country estate with hunky man servant Ryan Phillippe in tow).
Balaban is also a film director and his latest effort is Bernard and Doris which focuses on the close, though relatively short relationship
between Doris Duke, one of the world’s richest women and her gay butler Bernard Lafferty. The nature of the relationship, which
ended with Duke’s death in 1993, has been the subject of intense speculation as Duke made Lafferty, an alcoholic, the executor of
her estate and the head of her charity foundation. Did Lafferty take advantage of his employer’s frail health? Or was the friendship
of the two intense enough to warrant his stewardship of Duke’s vast fortune? Balaban’s contemplative film offers subtle clues but
immediately points out that some of it is “based on fact, some not.” No matter. The interplay between Susan Sarandon as Duke
and Ralph Finnes as Lafferty is a fascinating balancing act. Balaban talked at length with Windy City Times about Bernard and
Doris (which debuts on HBO Saturday, February 9) and other highlights from his long career. Highlights
WINDY CITY TIMES (WCT): How did you get involved with Bernard and Doris?
BB: My friend Ileen Maisel who is an executive at New Line Cinema sent me the script but just as a friend. She said, “I came across
this; I think you should follow it up; I think it’s interesting.” So I read it; I immediately got interested; I knew about Bernard
Lafferty and mostly Doris Duke from headlines that I had glanced at in the paper. I never really knew anything in any depth about
her. Nor do I still, I would say. But it intrigued me to read a story about the very, very sort of personal workings of what seemed to
be an intense relationship between these two people about whom so many headlines were known but I didn’t know anything about
the interior emotional lives of these people. Then, of course, I discovered that this was basically a fable – that’s why in the
beginning of the movie we say, “Some of what you are about to see is based on fact and some not.” I know that Bernard Lafferty
came to work for Doris Duke in 1987. I know that how much money she had. I know the year she died. I know what her will said
and I knew some things about them both from reading headlines and things.
But in terms of what they said to each when they were playing with the orchids, digging and scraping the roots of orchids, who knows
what was going on? So basically we invented a story that would carry us from 1987 to 1993 and make an emotional journey from two
people who didn’t know each other to two people who had gotten very close with each other because Doris Duke entrusted this man
with her Foundation; with so much of her life. She only gave him $5 million dollars which may sound like a lot but wasn’t in a life the
size of Doris Duke’s. She gave many people $5 million dollars but he was the executive of her will and she did seem to come to
trust him or he manipulated her into trusting him which may also be the story. We chose to make an emotional journey and not
make a biographical journey. I showed (the script) to Susan Sarandon right after I read it – I had just finished directing her in The
Exonerated for television with Danny Glover and Aidan Quinn and Brian Dennehy and some other really good people and we’ve been
friends for years but we’ve never worked together and it was a very nice experience for both of us.
WCT: What about Ralph Fiennes who plays Bernard? How did he get involved?
BB: I knew Ralph casually. My friend Ileen Maisel who had sent me the script had produced a movie that Ralph had starred in
several years ago – in fact, two movies. So Ralph sort of knew that I was an okay guy. Mostly, I believe, what attracted him to the
project was the idea of working with Susan Sarandon whom he had admired for a long time and had never worked with. And Susan
and I, obviously, had Ralph as our very first choice for Bernard. We sent it to him, he came over, we all met and talked and there
we were a short time later actually filming this movie in Long Island. Not in New Jersey where Doris Duke’s estate was but in a
beautiful estate in New Jersey in Long Island called Old Westbury Gardens built at the turn of the century by the Phipps family, the
WCT: The relationship between Bernard and Doris is a very familiar one for gay men. This affinity for glamorous older ladies – and
he apparently had this relationship with Elizabeth Taylor and Peggy Lee who he worked for and then there’s a little explanation at the
end that Sharon Stone sent flowers to his funeral – all very intriguing.
BB: I put that in because I love that so many things in this movie are very, very factually accurate – some of them – and the rest of
them, God knows what really happened there, you know? I don’t know that he ever put on a dress and served dinner but he might
have. But from the research that HBO did on the end crawl – we thought because it’s in writing it should be accurate – so we tried to
be very accurate about what the Foundation did, how much money Bernard had when he died, what he really gave Doris in the will.
And they unearthed some newspaper articles from places better than the National Enquirer that told us those facts about Sharon
Stone, Elizabeth Taylor and Peggy Lee.
WCT: Did you have a chance to speak with Sharon Stone or Elizabeth Taylor about this?
BB: I didn’t but I knew that Elizabeth Taylor was fond of Bernard because – I’m not sure who knows where this originally came from
– but part of Doris Duke’s Foundation was involved in medical research and I know that Bernard got the Foundation to give a large
amount of AmFar which is Elizabeth Taylor’s charity, am I right?
WCT: Yes, yes it is. She kick started large scale AIDS fundraising in Hollywood.
BB: So Doris Duke and Bernard Lafferty were involved with that as well which lends credence to the fact that probably they did have a
nice relationship and probably she would have come to his funeral.
WCT: Your movie portrays the relationship very differently, I’m sure you know, than the TV movie of several years ago with Richard
Chamberlain and Lauren Bacall where he’s much more calculated and works on her loneliness, keeps her drugged. He’s much more
benign and you feel much more empathy in your film – is this a truer portrayal?
BB: I was interested in it because I thought since we’re basically making up a movie. You know Susan, Ralph and I thought of this
as kind of a love story so we really approached the material as a theatrical movie, not as anything biographically true necessary. It
was more interesting for our purposes that Bernard at least be…we at least are left with an ambivalent feeling about his character.
Because you’d seen the other one and the headlines which decried him as a monster so I thought it would be more interesting for
Ralph to play it and to entertain the possibility that the affection between them was honestly won in some way. But I wanted you to
leave feeling maybe he did something bad, maybe he didn’t. I felt that the more direct approach – hiring the monster who
manipulates you, kills you, gets your money, and then its over – didn’t seem as interesting to watch as a movie. I have no idea
what they really did with each other and I imagine it was one or the other.
WCT: That’s another thing that’s intriguing about the film – you don’t really see a lot of the specific scenes of their becoming closer
but obviously that has happened. When he puts on the dress you assume at some point she’s said, “Just be who you are, it’s okay.”
BB: You have to remember that emanates from Susan as well. There’s a lot of her in this movie. One of the things she brought to
Doris Duke was she didn’t do the idea of a rich lady who was domineering and complicated. She tried to bring her humanity to this
woman. Now I believe Doris Duke had a lot of her own humanity, I just don’t know how it transmitted; how it showed itself. But I
wouldn’t be surprised if that was true but there’s a lot of Susan in this and Susan is very accepting of people. She likes honesty.
Some of her own qualities emerged because this movie was written by Hugh Costello but a lot of the fine points in it were added and
organized by the actors as we along. But in the service of playing two dramatic characters in a movie, not in the service of trying to
necessarily be truthful to what Bernard and Doris really were.
WCT: Have you found that as an actor yourself you have an edge in directing?
BB: I don’t know. I could say that I’ve worked with some brilliant directors who never acted and I’ve also worked with brilliant
directors who were brilliant actors. Like Sydney Pollack and Sidney Lumet. It’s not uncommon and Mike Nichols is a wonderful actor
although he doesn’t do it anymore at all. The only thing that you have as an actor is – in my case – I have watched 75 other people
direct movies and I’ve been sitting there being directed by them up close or in some cases standing around for seven or eight
months. Other directors who aren’t actors never see other movies being made. I mean they could come by and watch if they
wanted to but they haven’t lived inside another person’s movie. So the one thing you do have is you’ve watched somebody else in a
lot of different situations so that you might learn some tricks. But other than that, I don’t know. I think people who are intended to
be great directors just are and if you’re not you could study a hundred million things and learn nothing, right?
BB: So I don’t know that I have a leg up but I meet people. You know there are definitely a lot of actors that I could cast now
because I’ve worked with them or they know my work. A lot of this movie business is about trust and if you were Ralph and Susan
you would only go and make this movie if you trusted the director to protect you because you’re very vulnerable when you’re actor.
You could give a terrible performance, you could be encouraged to do bad work, it could be cut badly – these actors don’t have
control over the final cut – and all they need is some hideous, embarrassing movie that could be dent in a career that in Susan’s
case she’s been a revered actor for 30 years. So they are putting a lot of trust in you and sometimes the fact that you are a fellow
actor might help them feel you are a little more in their club.
WCT: Has that kind of trust helped you in working with Christopher Guest on his improv pictures like Waiting for Guffman and A Mighty
Wind. I mean, talk about working without a net.
BB: Yes, absolutely. One of the things about working on the Christopher Guest movies – which I adore doing and I hope we do
more of them and we never know – but it really is a great lesson to watch people who are almost told nothing but given an
interesting situation and character. You already know by being in the room with Christopher what he likes and what he doesn’t like.
It’s amazing how much information can be transmitted from people to people – I feel like we’re ants on an anthill and they way their
antennae from a million miles away and all the ants know where to go and how to get there. It’s kind of like that with Christopher –
the great ant director.
WCT (laughs): That makes me laugh.
BB: Good! You do come to learn that there are many magical things that happen when a director sets up a situation and then just
sits back and doesn’t do too much when it’s appropriate. That’s really the twelve step prayer, you could say. If you’re a director you’
re just hoping to have the wisdom to know when to step in and save somebody and when to let them be and just let them happen
the next time. That’s what I’m always thinking of: “If I say something to him right now will that get in the way of the next take or
will is it going to help something?” The Christopher Guest movies really attune you to the fact sometimes by doing nothing
something happens and sometimes Christopher has to come in and right the boat and tilt it to the side.
WCT: Did you find a similar experience working with Altman on Gosford Park? One of my favorite movies.
BB: Such a highlight of my life was working with Bob. Yes. We’d been friends for years again. That’s how that project came to be.
I sat around my office one day going, “Oh my God what am I going to ever do with my life?” and I thought I’d better think of a
project for Robert Altman because he’s one of my favorite directors and I know his phone number. So I thought for a bit and then I
called him and I said, “How about making a movie that’s kind of like X,Y and Z?” and he went, “That’s interesting, why don’t we sit
down and talk?” We did, we worked on it a bit and then I hired a writer guy I knew from London – Julian Fellowes. We developed an
Anthony Trollope novel together called “The Eustace Diamonds” maybe eight or ten years earlier and nothing happened. Julian was
not a writer, he was an actor who was in a couple of things but not ragingly successful but I knew he was kind of brilliant. And that’s
how we found Julian to write Gosford Park. Was that an answer to a question? Why did I do that?
WCT: Well we’re just talking about actors and directors and some of your movies and this certainly fits the bill.
BB: Well, then we went out and made the movie but it only really happened because I could call Robert and it was the right time at
the right place and the idea struck him well.
WCT: You play a great character in that film – a gay one – I love how he ignores the swirl of the murder mystery going on around
him and how he’s always on the phone and has the little boy toy with him, and at the end just invites Emily Watson to get in the car
with them (BB is laughing).
BB: That’s interesting because that movie was obviously not improvised – God forbid what hideous errors of inaccurate period things
we would have done – and yet when I was on the telephone talking to people that was all improvised. So I was able to take my
Christopher Guest experience and bring it over to my British movie experience but fortunately it’s an American character in the movie
business. I could sort of not be too inaccurate on the telephone.
WCT: I have to tell you as a classic movie fan that one of my lines in the movie is one that you say as a throwaway – “We got
turned down my Una Merkel.” Did you improvise that line?
BB: (laughing) Yes but in order to do it I did have to do a little research because I knew I wanted to talk bout movies in the period
so I wanted to mention people that were alive and working then. Oddly enough, my friend Peter Stone who wrote the movie Charade
and many other wonderful things.
WCT: Isn’t that a great script?
BB: Yes. He was a friend of mine who died a couple of years ago very prematurely; he was not an old man – Peter Stone’s father
was a Hollywood movie producer who produced the movie Charlie Chan in London which my character (in Gosford Park) was the producer
of and that’s the movie that I was doing research for which had brought me to London. I was like, “Wow, it’s such a small world.”
WCT: Now I know you wrote a book years ago about making Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
BB: I did and it’s now published under a different title – “Spielberg, Truffaut and Me” – although I think we’re going out of print, I’m
not sure. But yes that was the one time I would ever write a making of the movie book because I had such an unusual time – and
unusually good and interesting time – on that movie and it’s not something you would want to do too much or people would be
afraid to hire you.
WCT: Well at some point will you write about your family’s background in the movies because it’s so fascinating? (Balaban’s family
owned a powerful chain of movie theatres and various relatives were movie executives as well)
BB: Well thank you for thinking it’s interesting. No. I can’t imagine that I would really write about it because my point of view is so
limited on it. My dad was the baby of seven brothers. I very generally knew my uncles. I came to California when I was ten years
old and went to MGM and met Cyd Charisse and she signed my cast because I had broken my arm and that’s when my uncle or my
grandfather was actually the head of production at MGM but that’s it (laughs). Other than that, I can’t tell you very much about any
of this. Except I enjoyed the fact that it was my background and I never dreamed when I was growing up that I would ever be a part
of the movie business. I was just a shrimpy kid from Chicago. I never imagined I would be working with some of these people.
WCT: And for my audience – you play a memorable, classic gay character – starting out as the gay teenager in that men’s room
trying to pick up Jon Voight.
BB: I was going to say, you haven’t mentioned Midnight Cowboy. When you’re doing these things it doesn’t seem groundbreaking or
anything. It didn’t dawn on me that this was anything unusual yet it’s what got the “X” rating for the movie.
WCT: I didn’t realize that.
BB: It had an “X” rating because of implied homosexual behavior. The other stuff didn’t trigger it but this seemed to do that and
yet when it won the Academy Award for Best Picture it was then re-released with an “R” rating and they took the “X” off it but nobody
cut anything from it. I was also in a movie called Three to Tango as a gay character.
WCT: I don’t think I know that film.
BB: Neither do I. I can’t tell you anything about it. I literally don’t remember it except Matthew Perry was in it. My friend Oliver
Platt was in it. But wait, you know, my boyfriend in the movie was wonderful and he’s on “Scrubs.” His name is John McGinley. But
back to Bernard and Doris and the question you asked about the attraction of gay man to older women…
WCT: Yes, please.
BB: We didn’t want to make it all too easy or anything but we did have Bernard there with his mother dying at a rather early age and
really no mother figure – and that’s actually true – so I think probably we did get the feeling that may have had something to do
with Bernard’s interest in older, exotic women. Because they weren’t just older women; they were really rare flowers these women.
WCT: Yes and the metaphor of the orchids in the hothouse – nicely done.
BB: Thank you and Doris Duke was a pioneer in orchid growing. She evidently had an orchid named after her or she cross-bred
some kind of orchid. She did some kind of research into that area.
WCT: Well I love your acting but also the subtleties you bring to film as a director. I’m always recommending Parents by the by –
that’s the coolest movie.
BB: Oooh. I thank you for saying that. It’s like the forgotten movie. You can’t find it anywhere and I don’t know where it went but
I had a lot of fun. Mary Beth (Hurt) is one of my good friends, still and I thought Sandy Dennis was wonderful and Randy Quaid was
WCT: I’m waiting for the Criterion Collection to pick up that one.
BB: You may have to be very old…and my print of the movie got lost by my agent but I have it on tape somewhere. But thank you,
lovely talking to you. I’m from Chicago, you probably knew that?
WCT: I did and look forward to meeting you here at some point.
BB: As do I. It was so much fun talking to you.