Too rich, huh? Well, maybe. But to watch this unsparingly long and winding two-night biopic about the tumultuous life of heiress Doris Duke is to realize that Miss Duke was evidently “too” a lot of things. Too paranoid. Too dumb. Too impulsive. Too gullible. Too self-destructive. And, unfortunately for CBS, too damn dull. In fact, the most intriguing thing about the wealthy Duke was the manner in which she died, and that’s a thin premise on which to hang four hours of primetime during February sweeps — Lauren Bacall or no Lauren Bacall.
“Too Rich — The Secret Life of Doris Duke” is also something of a misleading title. One has to wonder just exactly for whom Duke’s life was so secret. Her short-lived romances and mysterious death were all tabloid fodder for the simple reason that she was, for most of her life, the richest woman in the world. When you have 100 million bucks, people tend to pay attention to you, particularly when you share it with a string of frauds, gigolos and cheats.
The best stuff here winds up revolving around miniseries kingpin Richard Chamberlain, who plays the evil and greedy Bernard Lafferty, Duke’s megalomaniacal butler (now there’s a phrase you don’t see every day). Chamberlain is spellbindingly wicked in this fact-based story, which is apparently adapted from both “The Richest Girl in the World” by Stephanie Mansfield and a series of pieces in Vanity Fair by Bob Colacello.
Everyone winds up coming to the same conclusion regarding Duke’s death on Oct. 18. 1993: The butler did it. No news flash there. Lafferty was allowed to seize control of Duke’s care during her final days, pumping her full of pills and potions that rendered her listless and arranging for her to appoint him executor of her estate during one of her narcotics-induced stupors. And talk about a swell guy: He called up the funeral home before Duke was even dead and hung out downstairs with the hearse drivers.
“Too Rich” is told in a kind of hyperkinetic flashback/flash-forward style, hopping between Lafferty’s angel-of-death routine and Duke’s search for a happiness that would never come. We learn early on that child Doris (played with spunk by Hayden Panettiere) was extremely close with her self-made millionaire daddy Buck (Joe Don Baker) and estranged from her mother Nanaline (Kathleen Quinlan) almost since leaving the womb.
Doris would inherit daddy’s entire fortune upon his death, when she was just 13. She would grapple her entire life with her daddy’s terse warnings about trusting no one, that everyone (even mom) was just after money. As part one bounces between deathbed pill-popping and a young woman’s soul-searching in the tone-shifting script from Dennis Turner and Ronni Kern, the two Doris Dukes emerge: the angst-riddled waif (played by Lindsay Frost) and the crusty, brassy old-timer (Bacall).
Men float in and out of the picture, some good (Duke Kahanamoku, played by Brian Stokes Mitchell; Louis Bromfield, portrayed by Brian Dennehy) and some bad (James Cromwell, played by Howard McGillin; Porfirio Rubirosa, played by Michael Nouri with a truly lame Latin accent). There is a baby born dead to Duke after a halfhearted suicide attempt, a stint as a war reporter in World War II and impulsiveness galore.
Bacall gives an earnest enough effort under helmer-producer John Erman’s overwrought stylings. The chief problem Erman encounters is figuring out how to juggle a woman’s search for peace of mind with her destruction at the hands of a vile butler. It’s like two different movies and two different women, and in the case of “Too Rich,” that means two hours too many.
Technically, film is inconsistent, with lensing in Montreal clashing with the look and feel of that done in Hawaii. Editing also makes for a choppy ride.