`Secret Life of Doris Duke' a poor excuse for a movie

Preview: `Too Rich'? What about too long and too weird, not to mention too much.

February 20, 1999|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

All she wanted was love. But all she had was money.

That's the theme of "Too Rich: The Secret Life of Doris Duke," a "fact-based" biography starting tomorrow night on CBS that asks us to feel sorry for the person who was believed the richest woman in the world at the time of her mysterious death in 1993.

Poor Doris Duke. I haven't cried this hard since "Barbara Hutton: Poor Little Rich Girl," another crackpot TV miniseries telling us peasants out in TV Land who can barely make it paycheck to paycheck what a heartache it is to have millions.

"Too Rich" is too long by about two hours and far too heavy-handed in its effort to make Duke sympathetic. But, you know what, it is probably going to get a big audience and be called a big success. I don't care. I say it's a big, TV nothing.

It has a big cast, you have to give it that, with Lauren Bacall as the deathbed (and I do mean deathbed) Duke, Richard (he of the plastic surgery) Chamberlain, Brian (he of every mini-series ever made) Dennehy, Michael Nouri, Lindsay Frost, Joe Don Baker, Kathleen Quinlan and Mare Winningham.

I stress the deathbed with Bacall, because the entire film -- the four, long, tedious hours of film starting tomorrow night -- is told in the hoary as-I-lay-dying format. You know how it works. As the aged character lies on her bed passing in and out of consciousness (conveniently facilitating the shift in narrative time), her hand reaches out to the night stand for a framed photograph standing there.

If it's a happy memory, she hugs the photograph to her breast, and we just dissolve into the frame as the picture comes to life. If it's a sad memory, the hand knocks the picture to the floor, the glass shatters, and we start our journey back in time through the jagged glass.

Duke doesn't have many happy memories. In the CBS version, Daddy (Baker) loved little Doris but also turned her into a paranoid nut case. Mommy, meanwhile, killed Daddy as soon as she could find a way to do it that wouldn't land her in jail. Mommy also hated little Doris.

Daddy did leave Doris a hundred million in tobacco money, though, which you would think might help a little. It didn't. And to underline that point, we are shown an image of the incredibly rich adolescent girl staring sadly out the window of her mansion -- a prisoner trapped and alone. It is an image that will be repeated late in the film when Doris is literally locked (again according to CBS) in her bedroom by her butler, Bernard Lafferty (Chamberlain).

This is, of course, what most of us will tune in for: the story of Bernard and Doris, servant and master. Did he kill her? How did he manage to get control of her fortune? What was going on between them? We all know how weird and decadent the rich are, so how decadent and weird was it?

Not very. If you want weird and decadent, rent the film "White Mischief" or catch an episode of the "Heat of the Sun" miniseries next Thursday on PBS -- both about a colony of wealthy and wicked British exiles living in Kenya in the 1920s and '30s. The operative word for Bernard and Doris is creepy.

You start with the fact that Chamberlain simply looks creepy the last couple of years, with the skin on his face stretched so taut it seems as if it is about to explode. Add a pair of incredibly strange-looking reading glasses to that face, and you have something that could give you nightmares.

Chamberlain skates through much of the film, but he has one moment of about 30 seconds near the very end where it all comes together. In that moment he pulls off the trick of making you think you have seen into the darkest corner of his character's soul.

But don't kid yourself. This is "fact-based," and you will have no more idea as to the truth of Bernard and Doris than you did before you gave four hours of your life to CBS. Little things about the real Duke and her relationships with men are never mentioned, like the man she invited to her mansion in 1966 and then hit him with a car after he proved, um, not a giving enough guest.

TV being the great medium of truth that it is, though, you can find out about that incident and others like it on "Mysteries & Scandals: Doris Duke" on the "E!" cable channel Monday night at 7: 30. Wither goest truth, indeed. Leave it to "E!" to feed our celebrity fever and seemingly insatiable appetite for scandal.

As for Bacall, give her credit for finding an almost infinite number of ways to lie on a bed and delineate various stages of being sick, drugged and poisoned. But, come on, after a couple of hours, enough is enough.

"Too Rich" is too much of a bad thing.

CBS movie

What: "Too Rich: the Secret Life of Doris Duke"

When: 9 p.m.-11 p.m. tomorrow and Tuesday

Where: (WJZ, Channel 13)

Pub Date: 2/20/99

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