A film about the most popular man in Carthage, Texas.
by Erin Z. Bass
Released in the spring of this year, “Bernie” only hit three screens on its opening date, but now that’s it’s available on DVD, this film deserves a wider audience. I didn’t know much about “Bernie” before watching. I knew that Jack Black played an undertaker and that it starred Shirley MacLaine, but that was about it. Not until watching the opening credits did I learn it was based on a true story and an article in Texas Monthly magazine (and also that it’s directed by Richard Linklater, best known for “Dazed and Confused” and “School of Rock”).
“Bernie” tells the story of assistant funeral home director Bernie Tiede, who’s known around the small town of Carthage, Texas, for his skills at making the deceased look natural, beautiful singing voice and kindness to elderly widows. Everybody loves Bernie, and he loves them back by showering them with attention and expensive gifts.
Bernie doesn’t make a lot of money on his funeral home salary, but he’s rich in friends and companionship in the small pond of Carthage. The limits of his giving begin to get tested when he meets newly widowed Marjorie Nugent. Seen as the town “witch,” Marjorie has no friends and her own grandchildren have tried to sue her for some family money. After her husband dies, Bernie does his usual rounds of checking on widows at their houses and gets invited inside Marjorie’s. The two become fast friends, traveling to Europe, attending plays and having lunch together each day.
At first, Bernie feels an obligation to her as her only friend, but when Marjorie begins to show her true colors, he begins to feel trapped. She even closes the gates on her estate so that he can’t leave. What happens next is a spur of the moment decision by Bernie, helped along by a well-placed shotgun. It takes nine months for anyone to really notice Marjorie is missing and when the police find her in a freezer beneath frozen peas and pot pies in her garage, Bernie confesses to shooting her almost immediately.
At this point, Matthew McConaughey really gets to shine as District Attorney Danny Buck, about the only person in town interested in prosecuting Bernie. It helps that McConaughey grew up in Longview, Texas, also located right on the Louisiana border. He seems to understand his justice-seeking character perfectly and has the accent for him.
So, what’s true and what’s not? Based on the Texas Monthly article “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas,” it’s all true. Back in 1996, Marjorie Nugent was the richest widow in Carthage, located just over the border from Louisiana, and Bernie Tiede was the assistant funeral home director. Some of the best parts of Linklater’s film are the documentary-style interviews with the townspeople, whose quips about Bernie and Marjorie seem too spot-on to be made up.
Turns out most of them are true, too. “If I made a list of people I knew were going to heaven, Bernie would be the first on that list,” one woman says in the film, while her real-life version told this to The Houston Chronicle. Don Lipsey, who hired Bernie to work at his funeral home, told Texas Monthly, “He wasn’t bad-looking, and there were numerous girls in the community who would have dated him. But he showed no romantic interest in women his age at all. I think some of the men during their coffee shop talks would insinuate that Bernie was a little light in the loafers.” Rick Dial makes this exact statement as his character in the film.
“Bernie” is a fascinating story of the eccentricities of small-town life. It’s been called East Texas’s version of Savannah’s “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” but I can see undertones of characters who belong in a Flannery O’Connor or Carson McCullers story.
Rent “Bernie” this weekend and decide whether you’d be in favor of convicting the most popular man in Carthage.