Polymorphous Perversity, for a Laugh: Richard Linklater’s Bernie, a true-life comedy feature about friendship, death, and gossip

By Daniel Garrett

Directed by Richard Linklater
Starring Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine
and Matthew McConaughey
Millennium Entertainment, 2011

The amusing, acerbic large-bodied comedian Jack Black is an actor of charm and smarm, and both are requisites for his work as a Louisiana man hired to work in an East Texas funeral home and who, as an admirer says, has the ability to make the world seem kind. Bernie Tiede is conscientious, friendly, organized, and a good singer, with an instinct for reverent theatricality and the gift of suitable improvisation. Tiede neglected young women for the attentions of the old women in the Texas town of Carthage, and he was generous to a fault.

Bernie, a beautifully composed, richly colored film, is the story of a friendly funeral home worker who becomes the confidante and companion of a rich, demanding widow, and kills her, a man so liked and a woman so disliked that people in town want him freed. Jack Black plays the man, Bernie Tiede, and Shirley MacLaine the woman, Marjorie Nugent, a lonely, mean widow of an oil man and banker whose death leaves her with power and prominence. The widow Marjorie Nugent’s nose was so high in the air, she might have drowned in a rainstorm, someone says; and Marjorie has been described, in the words of townspeople, as a hateful heifer. The motion picture is a macabre comedy about friendship, death, and justice, and not the first macabre comedy in which Shirley MacLaine has appeared: MacLaine began her career in Alfred Hitchcock’s gorgeous and great The Trouble with Harry, an intelligently delightful dark comedy in which a young woman’s estranged husband is found dead on a New England country hill, an inconvenient body to be managed rather than mourned.

In Richard Linklater’s Bernie, the people who lived in Carthage, Texas, and knew Bernie Tiede and his friend and patron Marjorie Nugent, are presented, their testimony that of witnesses, full of fact, gossip, insight, and wit. Genuine observation is mixed with criticism and delusion. The communal narrative carries the film forward: Bernie’s skills in the funeral home were appreciated but he had other skills and interests, and performed as a decorator, a tax consultant, and a radio commentator, a very active citizen. Imaginative and sympathetic, Bernie was an ideal townsman, despite the speculations about his sexuality. Is he gay? Celibate? The district attorney, Danny Buck Davidson (a gray-haired Matthew McConaughey), cites Bernie Tiede’s inclination to wear shorts and sandals as proof of deviant sexuality, the thinking of a small town mind. Danny Buck, whose time is spent with busting criminal gangs stealing copper and hub caps and finding deadbeat dads, thinks being suspicious is good for a man in the justice system, a corroboration of what anyone might think is the basic sensibility of policemen. Bernie Tiede took Marjorie Nugent to music and art shows and to rehearsals for the plays he was involved with as a director and performer; and the two companions traveled together, to Russia, Acapulco and elsewhere. Marjorie became happier and dressed better, looking more youthful. Marjorie Nugent then made Bernie Tiede her beneficiary and legal representative, but she also became possessive and punishing. She turned him into a suffering servant. It is overwhelming for Bernie; and it seems that in a moment of hallucinatory madness he shoots her in the back several times. Bernie puts Marjorie’s body in her garage freezer, beneath the vegetables, steak, and pot pies.

Bernie gives the townspeople plausible explanations for her absence when they ask about her, especially as Bernie uses her money in town for gifts, loans, and investments. Bernie begins to imagine seeing Marjorie’s ghost in the audience of one of his shows, in a restaurant. Marjorie Nugent’s polite but suspicious and offended stockbroker is the only one who is bent on finding out what happened to Marjorie, leading to a search of her home about nine months after her disappearance; and the district attorney, the baseball bat wielding, cowboy hat wearing Danny Buck Davidson, despite Bernie’s popularity, is determined to have a fair trial. It is impossible not to wonder if the logic of the film—with so many people damning Marjorie and praising Bernie—is not a justification of murder.

Jack Black plays Bernie Tiede as a something of a prissy pot, but the actual Bernie looks a little cherubic and plump but admirably handsome and masculine, with an earthy directness. (Apparently, the real world arrest led to the confiscation of Bernie Tiede’s private visual recordings, which captured an active bisexual life.) Jack Black’s Bernie breaks down in grief and regret when questioned by a police officer; and Bernie maintains the town’s affection. The trial for Marjorie Nugent’s murder is moved to another locale, where the district attorney Danny Buck shows to the working class and poor jurors the freezer in which Marjorie was hidden, and has her estranged but now crying relatives testify, and Danny Buck paints Bernie as someone chasing after class, the finer things in life. Bernie Tiede is found guilty of murder, and confined to prison. Morality has been asserted. The film’s shifting balance of moods is appealing, and it is great to look at, with orderly compositions and warm bountiful colors. Bernie offers the freedom to speculate.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.