Starring: Jack Black (Bernie Tiede), Shirley MacLaine (Marjorie Nugent), Matthew McConaughey (Danny Buck), plus approximately 50 gossips, church goers, morticians, detectives and reporters mostly from Carthage, Texas
The 1996 murder of octogenarian millionaire Marjorie Nugent by her 39-year-old homosexual companion, mortician Bernie Liede was a scandalous tale that went beyond east Texas in its coverage and interest. Skip Hollandsworth’s Texas Monthly article, the best account of the case, “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas,” has now been adapted to the screen by the journalist and director Richard Linklater. The hype in Texas has been huge for the film, particularly among the director’s hip constituency in “The People’s Republic of Austin,” Texas.
Black comedy; courtroom drama; murder mystery complete with flashbacks
The strange and somewhat sordid tale of Bernie Tiede’s relationship with the rich and quite contrary widow Nugent is recounted by dozens of east Texas “witnesses,” local citizens who knew the duo and have opinions about every aspect of the case. Told in flashbacks, the odd couple’s unique tale involves church (where many of the good citizens—including Bernie and Marjorie—congregate every Sunday), the funeral home (where Bernie worked until Marjorie began to pay his way), travel (the two loved to go places ranging from Moscow to New York and send back photos) and the stage (Bernie loved to direct and sing and dance).
Charming and quirky, the tale turns grisly when Marjorie’s irascible nature finally drives Bernie to shoot her. Four times. In the back. And stick her in a freezer. And keep it a secret for months.
Eventually caught out, Bernie and his story then takes the strangest turn. Many residents of the small town of Carthage rose to Bernie’s defense when the murder was revealed. Ms. Nugent was a hardhearted and very difficult woman, who many hated. Bernie, on the other hand, was a sweetheart: he gave to charities (admittedly with Marjorie’s money), sponsored musicals (ditto) and was a charmer with a great voice, who often sang at the church.
Even Bernie’s nemesis, lawyer and lawman Danny Buck, could see that the man was loved. But, as Buck points out in the film (and in life), Bernie is a murderer. How should Texas’ legal system respond to a problem like Bernie?