Ebert Fest 2013: Bernie, with Richard Linklater and Jack Black

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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.

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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.

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Richard Linklater, director of “Bernie” (photo be me at Ebert Fest)

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.)

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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.

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21 Responses to Ebert Fest 2013: Bernie, with Richard Linklater and Jack Black

  1. Courtney says:

    Thanks for this – we watched it this evening (it’s on netflix, woo!) based on this, and it’s great. I LOVE the townspeople. A great reminder: real life is really “over the top”.

    • sheila says:

      Courtney – I’m so psyched you saw it. Isn’t it fantastic??

      I know, the townspeople are just incredible. I loved the guy explaining the map of Texas. “And then over here, you have the People’s Republic of Austin …”

  2. Sylvia says:

    I remember going to see this in the theater. For the first minute or two I was thrown off and wondered if I was going to be able to get into it. Then, wham! Loved this movie and Jack Black so much.

    • sheila says:

      I also loved the interesting legal questions here. There is no question as to his guilt. He confessed. But what about the extenuating circumstances? Linklater said he saw it as an abusive relationship, and that Bernie began to feel trapped in a way that others might find baffling: Why didn’t he just LEAVE?? Jack Black said that meeting Bernie in prison, the overall impression is of the sweetest gentlest man – who wanted everyone to love him – “and that was his fatal flaw”, said Black. He really thought deeply about this part.

      It was fun to see it with so many other people finally!

  3. sheila says:

    Wasn’t Matthew McConaghey great?

    And Jack Black as Professor Harold Hill has absolutely made my YEAR.

  4. Chris says:

    I think you may have been a bit rough on the denizen of Liberal Enclavia. I live in a state (Kentucky) that is often mocked, ridiculed and dismissed in mainstream entertainment. When a media project that takes place in the Bluegrass state is announced, some of us hold our breath to see how fully the standard redneck/hillbilly stereotype will be realized.

    I could be wrong, but I believe that Linklater grew up in Houston and Austin, which are probably as culturally removed from Carthage, TX as my hometown, Louisville, is from “Dogpatch.” If I made a movie making fun of moonshiners in eastern Kentucky, I couldn’t justify it with the “I’m from here defense.” I think the better part of Linklater’s answer was his claim that the Carthage Greek Chorus represented Bernie’s particular milieu: diners, churches, the funeral home, blue collar folk working for the weekend. I actually recognized the people in Linklater’s movie because, quite frankly, they reminded me of the extended family I visit when I travel to a town about the size of Carthage in the rural part of Kentucky. I liked the Carthaginians in “Bernie” as much as I like my ‘country’ relatives, sincerely and without any condescension. I do think small towns (that don’t have a college or university) tend to be more parochial, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Carthage has its own, perhaps small, cognoscente that greeted the release of “Bernie” with some slight perturbation.

    I did like “Bernie” (second viewing, first on the big screen), I love Richard Linklater and I love Sheila O’Malley! I even like liberal enclaves but, you’re right, we do need to step out of the independently owned coffee shop every now and then and order some dumplings at the Cracker Barrel. Ahh, dumplings. If you like dumplings, my Granny has this great recipe, and she makes them for me every time I visit her. Instead of rolling them flat, she uses the “drop method,” so they’re lighter and fluffier… :)

    • sheila says:

      Chris – thanks!! I love Cracker Barrel, too. :)

      I believe we are saying the same thing? Maybe I wasn’t clear in my critique of that question. I completely understand your comments about people from certain regions of the country being afraid of how they will be portrayed – it’s one of my pet peeves, and I was trying to critique that. Ie: I can’t stand liberal-enclave hypocrisy, and am harsh on it as much as I possibly can be, ie: those who are “tolerant” (a word I also can’t stand) of everyone EXCEPT those from the South. That was my point. I go into it in my OXYANA review as well, which is either before or after this post. And people from the South are right to get their backs up about ALL of it. That was where that comment from that guy came from – and it was ignorant. He thought he was being enlightened – but he just showed his stupid card.

      It also seemed to place a higher value on being “cosmopolitan” than on being a good homespun small town person, as portrayed in the movie. That’s snobbery!! I LOVED the people in Bernie – and although I am not from the South, or Texas, or Kentucky – I recognize small-town stuff (coming from a small town myself). You know, everyone knows everyone, and yes, it’s very gossipy, but people try to help each other out, and as long as everyone tries to “get along”, you’re okay. That’s why Mrs. Nugent is hated. She refuses to fit in. And I felt Linklater loved those people, too – the church, and the Bible study, and the people at the diner … these are “his people”.

      Anyway, so I think we’re saying exactly the same thing – and your comment about people from Kentucky (etc.) holding their breath to see how they will be portrayed is WELL taken. This was another reason I loved Patrick Wang’s “In the Family”, which takes place in Tennessee. Hollywood, and liberal-enclave folks, have a long way to go and should stop congratulating themselves on their “tolerance”, as long as they keep dissing those who speak with Southern accents (or, hell, vote differently than they do.)

      • sheila says:

        and Linklater said Bernie played for months in Texas, months longer than it did elsewhere in the US. Who knows why that might be. He did describe the hostility he faced in Carthage – mainly because this murder occurred in recent memory and people were afraid he would make light of it. Which, of course, he kind of does. But for the most part, they were welcomed. I know the family of Mrs. Nugent was hugely disturbed by the film and I can’t say I blame them. :)

        Still loved it though. And love Skip Hollandsworth’s original article. You can totally see why Linklater would read that and clear his schedule so he could go watch the eventual trial. There’s a movie in that article!

        • sheila says:

          (Incidentally, it was that regional bigotry that faced Elvis as well – the vicious Albert Goldman biography is mainly a sneer at the South and all it represents. There are some people who still can’t deal with Elvis’ gospel stuff, because … I don’t know. They’re bigots. That’s all. Fine, don’t like gospel music if you don’t like it – but to not like it because it represents a religion you don’t respect, it is the voice of a region of the country you despise, whatever – then just admit you’re a bigot and stop calling it tolerance.)

          Strong feelings Sheila, that’s my name.

          • Chris says:

            I believe I understand you now, Sheila. I think your objection to the Ebertfest questioner was his implication that the Carthaginians in “Bernie” were a collection of rubes and uneducated mouthbreathers. You and I both know that’s not true. I believe that Linklater said the one guy improvised his “map” of Texas, which was a fine display of a very charming wit. Maybe I’m too darn nice, but perhaps I’m willing to cut the questioner some slack because popular culture tends to equate southern accents with ignorance. Some standup comics use a southern accent as a quick shorthand to portray a moron. In addition to liberal, his enclave might also be midwestern and a barrier toward meeting any regular southern folk. I also detected a sincere concern about the people of Carthage being insulted, as if he wanted reassurance from Linklater that the Carthaginians weren’t sore about their city’s portrayal.

            TOLERANCE: Boy, do I agree with you about that word. I think anyone who uses it should be required to employ it in the following manner, “Yes, I will TOLERATE your miserable existence. No, I will not slap your face because you are different. I am highly evolved (much more than you!) and thus, I shall TOLERATE you. Please, no obeisance is necessary.”

            Elvis: At one point I took a brief hiatus from your site – nothing personal, you know how internet reading habits can drift and meander. When I came back, The Sheila Variations seemed to be “All Shook Up.” I was so bewildered that I actually thought you had turned control of your webpage over to some Memphis Mafia madwoman. I kept double checking the byline of your essays to make sure you were the same person. I like the King as much as anybody, but damn, girl, you really love you some Elvis!

            BTW: “(Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame”, “One Night With You”, and ALL of the Sun Records tracks are my personal faves. :) … Oh, and Presley’s version of “My Way”, perhaps the only time anyone ever bested Sinatra.

          • sheila says:

            // I was so bewildered that I actually thought you had turned control of your webpage over to some Memphis Mafia madwoman. //

            Dying laughing. hahahaha.

            Yes, that’s exactly what I was trying to say – when “the South” is used for shorthand to say “racist ignorant bigots” – then that’s bigotry and unimaginative film-making, writing. Same with the portrayal of women in films, gay people, black people, whatever. If you rely on shorthand, you’re often not thinking deeply enough.

            And I think, yes, the questioner was concerned that the people of Carthage were pissed off. But Linklater seemed to suggest that, in general, they were not. At least not about how they were portrayed. That’s who they are. I think they come off as looking like a bunch of good-hearted people. The objections were from local churches and the like, who knew Linklater directed comedies, and an old woman had been shot 4 times in the back and kept in a freezer for nine months and there is nothing funny about that!

            But … well. There kind of is – it’s dark-black comedy, but it’s still there.

            So I think it was a sort of complex reaction – but he said that when they reached out to the people of Carthage to be in the film, there were lines of people down the block to audition. Have you seen the special features? They show some of those auditions. They’re amazing – Linklater must have felt like he had hit paydirt. These people will tell his story FOR him. I really think that “Greek chorus” effect is one of the things that MAKES the movie!

  5. Shelley says:

    I’m also a Texan writer, and regarding this film, I can certify: there is no quirky like Texas quirky.

    Same for Wes Anderson.

  6. sheila says:

    Lots of good filmmakers from Texas! Malick!

  7. Chris says:

    I haven’t seen the special features on “Bernie”, but I’ll bet they’re great. Richard Linklater is a rare bird, an artist who thinks deeply, cf. “Waking Life”, without neglecting his sense of fun and play, cf. “Waking Life”. Two years ago he brought “Me And Orson Welles” (a GREAT movie) to Ebertfest. After the screening, Linklater came on stage for the Q & A with a bag full of movie related bric-a-brac (posters, books, photos, etc.). In between queries from the audience he would think up a cinematic trivia question and hand out a prize to the first correct answer. He didn’t make a big deal out of it, it was rather low key and casual, but it seemed to me that Linklater has some kind of “Hey, do you know what would be neat?” attitude about daily life. Quite a groovy dude.

  8. rich says:

    i was there for the film and loved it. i also lucky enough to ask linklater a question.

    “if the verdict had been different, would you have still made the film?” he said that they had started production before the verdict was determined, and he was actually surprised. he really believed it was going to go the other way. considering this is a state in which a man was recently acquitted of murdering a prostitute because, even though he admitted to shooting and killing her, she did not provide the “service” promised. the jury believed he had a right to his money back, and deadly force was justified. amazing place down there.

  9. Lyrie says:

    Sheila, did you know about that development ? What a story!

    • sheila says:

      Oh my gosh, no I hadn’t heard that!! – I am crying with laughter reading Linklater’s comments. “It’s not like the judge said, ‘Okay, you Austin liberal, you think he’s innocent, he can live with YOU.'”

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