“BERNIE” is Richard Linklater’s dark deadpan comedy and true-crime story set in the East Texas town of Carthage in 1996. Bernie Tiede’s story is factual, based on a celebrated Texas Monthly article titled “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas” by Skip Hollandsworth. The late Mr. Nugent, apparently a prince of a fellow, owned the local bank. Marjorie took over after his passing and started throwing loan applications into the waste basket and otherwise offending the locals.
It stars Jack Black as Bernie Tiede — a small-town funeral director beloved by nearly everyone in Carthage, Tex., sweet-natured and gregarious, a lover of show tunes and Jesus. Bernie ends up murdering an ornery wealthy widow, Mrs. Marjorie Nugent played by Shirley MacLaine and stuffs her in a freezer, after shooting her four times in the back. Her frozen body stays there for nine months while Bernie spends a big chunk of her fortune, millions of dollars, on assorted good deeds and indulgences, buying the people of Carthage pretty much whatever they want — cars, Jet Skis, airplanes — and pledging a new wing for the Methodist church with hardly anyone bothering to ask where he got so much money.
The script for Bernie was in part dictated from the stand: In a 1997 murder trial in Carthage, Texas, Bernhardt “Bernie” Tiede confessed to the shooting of his benefactress, millionaire widow Marjorie Nugent. Tiede, a former mortician 43 years Nugent’s junior, had become her constant companion shortly after their meeting at the 1990 funeral of her oilman husband. Mrs. Marjorie Nugent was 81 when she was murdered, and Bernie Tiede, her constant companion and rumored paramour, was 38. He’ll be eligible for parole in 2027, when he’ll be 69.
Was it her money that attracted Bernie? No one can say. Even after the body is discovered and Bernie confesses to the crime, a lot of people in Carthage are so sure he couldn’t have done it. The district attorney (played by Matthew McConaughey) has to move the trial two counties south just to find a jury that’s willing to convict him. It’s a story about people believing what they want to believe, even when there’s evidence to the contrary. It’s a story about people not being what they seem.
Tiede testified that Nugent kept him on an increasingly short leash as, through the years, the relationship turned to servitude. Following what Tiede described as a breaking-point, impulse killing — four shots into Nugent’s back with a .22 rifle — he hid her body and, already well-established as her public face around Carthage, commenced with uncharacteristic acts of philanthropy, giving away Nugent’s money and becoming a sort of Robin Hood figure in the process.
A Nugent nephew, Joe Rhodes, has come out in The New York Times Magazine confirming the basic veracity of the film’s defaming portrayal of his aunt. She was estranged from her family and was by almost all accounts a sour and unpleasant woman, so in the film’s version of events, Tiede was the only person besides Nugent’s stockbroker who cared to know her whereabouts.
According to Joe Rhodes account “Aunt Marge wasn’t on speaking terms with anyone in her immediate family when she died. Not my mother, with whom she’d had an ugly falling out over the terms of my grandfather’s will. Not her only child, Rod Nugent Jr., a successful Amarillo pathologist she hadn’t seen in years, or her grandchildren, who sued her over some trust money she wouldn’t let them have. When informed that Marge died, the first thing my Aunt Sue, her other sister, said was, “What a relief.” “Aunt Marge met Bernie Tiede at my Uncle Nugent’s funeral in 1990. Bernie did the embalming. He helped pick out the coffin and the headstone. He arranged the flowers, sang a hymn at the memorial service and escorted my aunt to and from her husband’s grave. He offered her his coat when a chilly breeze blew through the cemetery. She ended up wearing it home.”
Bernie is a fascinating character, an assistant funeral director with a way of making everybody feel special. He sings at services, comforts widows, visits the lonely, buys people flowers and chocolate. He adored doing community musical theater, and whose showbiz aspirations are perfectly channeled by Black’s soaring tenor. He is about the nicest guy on earth, certainly the nicest and most popular guy in Carthage, Texas.He’s also a closeted gay man and not sexually active, but he has a gay essence about him, which Black conveys, but gently. Perhaps his homosexuality is a source of pain, with his evangelical background. Played by Jack Black – this is the most penetrating and detailed work he has ever done.
Shirley MacLaine plays the richest, meanest woman in town, a lonely widow who takes a liking to Bernie, and she starts bringing him on vacations with her. MacLaine doesn’t do the things you might expect with the role. Her way of playing mean here is low-key, inward, disgusted and impatient.
The third strong performance in “Bernie” is that of Matthew McConaughey, as the town prosecutor. It’s a nice character turn for McConaughey, who plays the prosecutor as the smartest fish in a small pond, who thinks he’d be just as smart in a big pond, but we see otherwise.
Linklater, who co-wrote the script with Skip Hollandsworth, tells the story in a documentary style, interspersing straight scenes with interview scenes and “real” people with professional actors, set in the present, in which townspeople look back on the events presented in the film. These interviews, which are lively, feel off the cuff, but they were scripted. They allow Linklater to show a cross-section of the town and to give the flavor of the local humor. That humor is distinctly Southwestern. Linklater creates a vivid, gossipy Greek chorus that serves as a kind of collective unreliable narrator — an altogether appropriate stance given the moral gray zone that Bernie inhabits.
BERNIE: Directed by Richard Linklater; written by Mr. Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth; director of photography, Dick Pope; edited by Sandra Adair; produced by Mr. Linklater and Ginger Sledge; released by Millennium Entertainment.Running time: 1 hour 44 minutes.
WITH: Jack Black (Bernie Tiede), Shirley MacLaine (Marjorie Nugent), Matthew McConaughey (Danny Buck), Brady Coleman (Scrappy Holmes), Richard Robichaux (Lloyd Hornbuckle) and Rick Dial (Don Leggett).
A scene from “Bernie,” with Shirley MacLaine as Marge, and Jack Black as Bernie, with the real Marge & Bernie on left.