In November 1996, 38-year-old Bernhardt “Bernie” Tiede (pronounced
tee-dah), shot 81-year-old rich widow Marjorie Nugent in the back
four times. He stored her body in a freezer in the garage of the
widow’s home in Carthage, Texas. For the next nine months, Tiede
managed to bamboozle an entire community into believing Marjorie was
alive but indisposed, meanwhile spending her money lavishly, mostly
charitably. Upon being caught, Tiede confessed to the murder,
claiming it was the result of years of emotional abuse and
possessiveness, and later was convicted of the murder and sentenced
to life in prison.
Although a slam-dunk case in the court, it remains to this day a
story that is debated. Was Tiede a calculating monster who preyed
upon a wealthy lonely widow and gained her favor only to betray her,
or was he a genuinely nice man who befriended her out of compassion,
with the riches being incidental, and truly was driven to a moment of
insanity by her cruelty?
Director Richard Linklater (“Dazed and Confused,” “Fast Food Nation”
and “Before Sunrise”), addresses this story in “Bernie,” co-writing
it with Skip Hollandsworth, who penned the article on which the movie
Jack Black, in a performance that may earn him nominations come
award season, plays the title role in “Bernie.” Black is perfectly
cast as Tiede, a seemingly gentle soul who arrives in Carthage to
assume a job as an assistant funeral director. In this work he is an
artist, not only in preparing the dead for their eternal rest, but in
marketing and dealing with the grieving. He also becomes a pillar of
the community, active in a Methodist church, organizing events like
art shows and being a driving force in the local theater productions.
Also wonderfully cast is Shirley MacLaine as Marjorie Nugent. Nobody
can affix that dour look like MacLaine, and she presents the widow
Nugent as a truly mean woman, basically friendless, generally loathed
in the town and alienated from her siblings and children — she was
even sued by them.
Linklater structures the movie as a semi-documentary, inserting
comments from townspeople (not real Carthage citizens although some
residents served as extras). Some see “Bernie” as a dark comedy, but
the story itself is not humorous. The funny parts are the candid
comments from the citizenry.
The Nugent family is said to be upset with the movie, which
overwhelmingly presents a sympathetic view of Tiede and portrays
Marjorie is an unpleasant, self-absorbed and suffocating person.
Bernie and Marjorie meet at the funeral of her husband, and as a
dedicated employee, Bernie has made it a routine to make follow-up
visits to grieving widows, presenting flowers or gift baskets. But
with Marjorie, this soon escalates into an unlikely relationship.
Whether the relationship was romantic/intimate is never resolved.
Comments from the townspeople are mixed. The man who prosecuted Tiede,
Danny Buck (played with style by native Texan Matthew McConaughey),
alludes to a possibility that Tiede was gay. Real-life reports stated
that evidence of Tiede’s homosexuality was discovered in his home
after his arrest.
In “Bernie,” Tiede at first takes Marjorie on dates and has lunch
with her. Then they become traveling companions on junkets all over
the world. Ultimately, Bernie becomes her servant, cutting down his
job at the funeral home to a part-timer as he handles Marjorie’s
finances and soon becomes a 24-hour on-call nurse maid.
Even the citizens of Carthage acknowledged that for a while,
Marjorie seemed happier and looked lively. Then things started to
slip as Marjorie became more demanding, her impatience growing
thinner, her verbal abuse increasing.
Black’s Tiede shows enormous patience and despite being smothered
remains loyal to Marjorie — until a fateful day in November 1996.
Post-murder, Tiede displays exceptional savvy in deception, holding
inquisitors at bay with claims Marjorie is recovering from strokes
and other ailments. The most tenacious of those trying to locate
Marjorie — it is interesting that nobody in the Nugent family seemed
motivated to follow up on Tiede’s claims for many months — was the
widow’s stockbroker Lloyd Hornbuckle (Richard Robichaux), one of the
few people in town who suspected Tiede had sinister motivations.
Those who defended Tiede’s murder of Marjorie, insisting it was an
act of temporary insanity, argue that Bernie putting the body in a
freezer instead of disposing it was evidence he wanted to be caught.
He said he wanted to keep the body fresh so her could give her a
respectful funeral he believed she deserved.
Another strange aspect of the story is that once he had control of
Marjorie’s money, he continued to live in his modest home and drive a
clunky old car. Overwhelmingly, the money he did spend was of a
charitable nature or investing in businesses in town.
While the comments from the Carthage citizenry are a highlight of
“Bernie,” the movie is a showcase for Black in demonstrating his
acting skills beyond comedy in addition to his musical talent. He is
shown singing in church and at other events, significantly a tender
rendition of “Beautiful Dreamer” and a lively stage production of
Like the real event, “Bernie” does not provided the definitive
answer as to who Tiede really was — a gentle man blinded brief a
brief moment of uncontrollable rage or a cool, manipulative customer.
One sure conclusion: Tiede accepted responsibility for his actions
and has transferred his acts of good will from the Carthage community
to the prison community.
ATTENTION “STAR TREK” FANS
On Monday, July 23, Fathom Events will be offering “Star Trek The
Next Generation 25th Anniversary Event” at theaters throughout
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The event will include big-screen presentations of two popular
episodes: Episode 106, “Where No One Has Gone Before,” and Episode
114, “Datalore.” There also will be behind-the-scenes footage and
interviews with cast members. Go to www.fathomevents.com for more
information and locations of screenings.