2012 was a heavy-hitting year. An embarrassment of riches. We had The Master, Moonrise Kingdom, Zero Dark Thirty, Django Unchained, Amour, Beyond the Hills, Argo, Lincoln. The majority of these were in my Top 10 list for 2012. But one movie slipped under the radar, and was strangely under-seen, despite the director/the stars/critical acclaim and that was Richard Linklater’s Bernie, starring Jack Black and Shirley MacLaine with a hilarious performance by Matthew McConaghey. It was one of my favorite movies of 2012, definitely in my Top 5. Linklater has always been a favorite of mine (and I can’t express how much I am looking forward to Before Midnight, the next installment in his Julie Delpy-Ethan Hawke series), and while his stamp on things is usually apparent, he is hugely versatile. He does what interests him. You can learn a lot about Richard Linklater himself by looking at the movies he has directed. This isn’t the case with some of our other directors, today, even some of the giant names in the business. School of Rock is a classic, and I mean that word quite literally. It’s what Old Hollywood used to do perfectly, and which happens all too rarely in our more independent age. So. But Bernie is a departure, for both Linklater and Black, although you can see the deep roots in the project, and you can understand why Linklater, a native Texan, would have been drawn to this true story, which went down in a town near to the one he grew up in, in East Texas.
Roger Ebert loved the film and wrote in his review:
In Richard Linklater’s droll comedy “Bernie,” Jack Black plays an east Texas funeral director named Bernie Tiede, and it is surely one of the performances of the year. I had to forget what I knew about Black. He creates this character out of thin air, it’s like nothing he’s done before, and it proves that an actor can be a miraculous thing in the right role.
Now, I’m not shocked at how great Jack Black is in this role. He is one of my favorite actors working today, and I think he can do anything. I’ve written about him before. He is tremendously gifted on an almost supernatural level, and of course comedy like that comes from a place of self-knowledge, self-awareness, and intelligence. Those same qualities, which help Jack Black be as funny as he is, are the very same qualities that would draw him to playing such a character as Bernie, which is unlike anything he has ever done before, yet completely in his wheelhouse. In one fell swoop, Jack Black expanded the audience’s understanding of his talent. Good for him. But again, I always knew he had it in him. Not everybody could helm a film like School of Rock and make that character so pathetic, so unlikable, so ridiculous, and yet so heartwarming, all at the same time. Jack Black does every role as though he was born to play it. He is not generic. And then, of course, there is this. And this.
I also have to say I love him as a leading man. It’s not always an easy fit, but then again, that’s real life. We are all leading men/women in our own lives, in our own love lives, despite the fact that most of us do not look the part. So I love him in those roles where he gets to be romantic, or a “suitor” (to be a Grandma about it). There’s still lots to be explored in that arena for Jack Black. The sky’s the limit with this guy.
Here, in Bernie, he plays a real guy, Bernie Tiede, currently serving a life sentence for shooting an old woman 4 times in the back. Seems an appropriate punishment for such a heinous crime. And yet the hook of the story (in real-life and in the film version) is that Bernie was such a nice guy, so well loved in his community, and she, the old lady, was so universally despised by everyone, that nobody thought he should do any time. Based on a Texas Monthly article by the great Skip Hollandsworth (you can read it here), (Hollandsworth also co-wrote the screenplay with Linklater), Bernie tells the story of Carthage, Texas, and the story of a well-loved assistant funeral director, Bernie, (Black) who befriends a mean old widow named Marjorie Nugent (MacLaine). The two become constant companions, baffling the town, all of whom despise her. Bernie and Marjorie travel together, go to piano concerts together, and have dinner at local restaurants. It is not believed that anything sexual went down between them, and it is thought that Bernie might be gay. He loved the old ladies in town, but didn’t seem that interested in women his own age. Bernie knows everyone, he takes care of everyone, he organizes community events, he helps out the needy and the sick, he sings in the choir, he is one of the best-liked people in the town.
Richard Linklater, who hails from East Texas, read Hollandsworth’s article and his curiosity was spiked. He attended the trial of Bernie, and befriended the district attorney Danny Buck (played by Matthew McConaghey). He is still friends with Danny Buck. I love that. In the QA following the screening of Bernie, Linklater describes wanting to do the film for years, since the late-90s. He loved Jack Black and thought he would be perfect for Bernie, except that he was too young at the time. And he always had Shirley MacLaine in mind for the role of Mrs. Nugent. When he was finally ready to make the film, he called MacLaine’s agent to make the offer, prefacing it with the comment, “I really want her to do this, even though she’s really too young for the part …” MacLaine is almost 80 years old. She loved that comment. Wouldn’t you? Linklater’s no dummy.
Linklater uses what amounts to a Greek chorus, having the actual townspeople speak to the camera, give background, fill in gaps. In the special features of the DVD, they talk about the auditions they held. Many people who showed up actually knew Bernie, actually knew Mrs. Nugent. So the question then became: who can tell a good story, but also not freeze up in front of the camera? Who can keep their “essence” intact in a filming situation? The people Linklater found to be the “Greek chorus” are unbelievable. Their interviews make up so much of the film, and at times they are touching (the final woman in particular, who ends the film), but at other times, they are uproariously funny. One woman says (and this was apparently a line she improvised, and Linklater said he died laughing after he called “cut”): “Honey, there were people in this town who woulda’ killed her for five dollars.”
I did not see Bernie originally in the movie theatre. I watched it alone in my apartment. Seeing it in a packed movie theatre, again, made such a huge difference in what the film actually feels like. I mean, it was funny and sick to begin with, but it’s a whole other ballgame when those images are writ so large, and so many people are reacting. The laughter was thunderous, from that very first scene of Bernie giving a lecture on embalming. Bernie plays like a bat out of hell.
Ebert had long been a supporter of Linklater and his films. That support was so helpful and necessary during low times. Martin Scorsese, in his statement released following Ebert’s passing, touched on that. Tennessee Williams had long relationships with critics, especially Brooks Atkinson, who always gave a new Williams play his full attention, even when Williams’ star had fallen critically. It can help “stiffen the space between your shoulder blades” (to quote Clifford Odets) to know that someone out there is watching what you are doing, paying attention, taking you seriously.
Michael Barker, co-President and co-Founder of Sony Pictures Classic, interviewed Linklater following the film, and there was a great and lively QA session with the audience. (Hats off to the organizers: so often QAs are fiascos, because people can’t be heard, there is microphone confusion, but they really had it down to a science there at the Virginia Theatre.)
Best of all, Jack Black called in to the QA, and his voice was blasted out from the speakers on stage right. The sound was great, and he could hear us perfectly, so it did feel like he was in the room. It was so exciting, I love him! He talked about the responsibility he felt in playing a real-life person. Linklater and Black went to visit Bernie in prison (which took some doing). Footage of Black listening to Bernie talking plays over the credits at the end of the film, and I love it because Bernie is just talking, telling his story, interacting, and then the camera moves over to Black’s face, and he is listening, but more than that, you can see he is absorbing the man in front of him. Many of the questions had to do with how Black created the character, the specific walk, the tone of his voice, the hand gestures. Black said, “That was all from Bernie, the real guy.” Black said that if ever there was a moment during shooting where he felt lost, or not sure what to do or how to do it, he would think of the real guy and it worked every time. People, it’s that good a performance.
Ebert had Tweeted, during Oscar season, something along the lines of “If the world were fair, Jack Black would be a nominee this year for Best Actor.” I felt the same way after I saw the performance (although, as I’ve said, I’ve always thought he had a Best Actor prize in him.) Michael Barker read that quote during the QA, and you could hear Jack Black say over the speakers, almost to himself, “Wow.”
The whole thing is a “Wow”.
Oh, and one detail: One of the townspeople interviewed in the film (the one who said the line that made Linklater laugh so hard) actually used to cut Elvis’ hair in the 70s. Black said, “Yup, she cut The King’s hair.”
The questions were great, except for one idiot who stood up and said, “How do the people of Carthage feel about how you portrayed them? Surely there are SOME cosmopolitan people in that town?” In trying to show how enlightened he was, all he did was show how snobby he was and how he needs to get out of his liberal enclave more. I felt the same way about people who complained that Melissa Leo’s performance in The Fighter was “over the top”. Really? Go hang out in a sports bar in Southie, and you will be SURROUNDED by that character, you snobs.
Linklater handled the question great. He said something along the lines of, “Yeah, I thought it was pretty accurate. As I said, I grew up around there. This is what it’s like. Of course, since I’m from there, I’m allowed to make fun of them – but outsiders can’t!” I think anyone could relate to that sentiment. It’s how families act, too. A family bitches about certain family members, but let an outsider make the same observation, and watch the family fight that person to the death!
I was high from the entire day, which had been a great one. Mum and I headed back to the hotel, and despite the late hour, I was able to get to sleep. It was so good having Mum with me. She hadn’t seen Bernie before, so we had so much fun talking about it, and how nice and sweet both Linklater and Black were.
We have Ebert to thank for all of it.