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Linklater tackles a classic comic-tragic Texas tale

Matthew Odam
modam@statesman.com

Richard Linklater wanted to make a movie featuring characters from East Texas. He just couldn't decide what story he wanted to tell.

Then the January 1998 issue of Texas Monthly hit newsstands, and Linklater found what had eluded him. Skip Hollandsworth's "Midnight in the Garden of East Texas" told the bizarre tale of Bernie Tiede, an assistant funeral home director in Carthage, who admitted to killing his one-time friend and companion, 81-year-old widow Marjorie Nugent.

The story had all of the elements of both great tragedy and great comedy: A sweet, soft-spoken man widely beloved in the community kills a mean-spirited widow. A very rich widow, and one who had made Tiede her sole heir.

The outspoken residents of the small town rally around the admitted killer, pleading with the duty-bound district attorney, Danny Buck Davidson, to set Tiede free. The baffled district attorney requests a change of venue, believing the people of Carthage will never convict Tiede. Justice eventually prevails, much to the outrage and sadness of those who loved Tiede. Which was pretty much everybody.

An old lady murdered in cold blood and almost all of the sympathy from the colorful town gossips was directed toward her murderer? It's so twisted and oddly touching, it's hilarious.

If you made it up, nobody would believe you. Linklater, who went to high school in Huntsville, said he immediately related to the story.

"I kind of see the world in kind of comic-tragic terms. It fit me. It all just felt natural," Linklater says. "I knew Bernie and this town. I knew the Danny Bucks and all these gossips. I just knew this world so well. It stayed with me."

Twelve years after the story appeared in Texas Monthly, Linklater finally found the opportunity to make his film, co-written with Hollandsworth.

To capture the essence of the complicated Tiede, Linklater called on his "School of Rock" collaborator Jack Black. The portly actor brings a bizarre serenity and effervescent joy to a character obviously wrestling with a serious demon. After years of steadfastly serving as best friend, man-servant and whipping boy for Nugent (played in "Bernie" by Shirley MacLaine), Tiede eventually cracked under the weight of her hostility.

After killing Nugent, Tiede shoved the body in a freezer and spent much of the next nine months spending the widow's fortune on a host of good deeds while continuing to comfort the community in his role as assistant funeral director. Black found Tiede a conflicted and fascinating individual.

"To see him, just with ease, sort of putting on a show while you know that there's someone in the freezer. ... It's a heavy thing to watch knowing what he knows. But he's able to compartmentalize and put it behind him so he can do the good work," Black says. "Because he's a humanitarian outside of that one bad thing. It's a very strange story — how could someone be capable of this murder and also be capable of so much good."

Tiede's arc offered heavy emotional terrain, and the actor best known for making people laugh says he relished the chance to play with dark material. But the main reason Black wanted to take the role was the chance to work with Linklater again.

"He loves to rehearse and just work it like a blue-collar approach. It's not just showing up to the set and going on impulse and instinct alone," Black says. "He likes to lay the groundwork beforehand so when we get to the set we know what we're doing. It's a good feeling. It feels solid."

Linklater turned to another actor whose career he helped launch, Matthew McConaughey, to play the grandstanding Davidson. A man on an island, Davidson ironically and comically comes across as the film's enemy even though he is seemingly the only person in Carthage concerned with justice.

McConaughey says he laughed hard when he first read his friend's script, but he always made an effort to stay true to Davidson's core sense of justice in painting a larger-than-life character that stopped short of caricature. The mixture of self-righteousness and the unassailable fact that he is on the side of truth makes the preening showman Davidson a bit much to swallow.

"I pinned him on justice all the time," McConaughey says. "That was always the launch pad to jump off of, anywhere I was going with it ... with color, with grandstanding, with making sure the last point you hear is that this man is a dangerous man. The film does its job in a way if he's kind of unlikable."

Davidson's persona, all swagger and condemnation, is heightened by the magnanimous and effeminate Tiede. The notion that Tiede would be the last man in the world to ever commit such a heinous crime is what Linklater says makes the story. Tiede is not a dark guy, Linklater says, but a man who committed a dark act.

Black says he thinks the supplicant Tiede simply collapsed from the strain of constantly turning the other cheek to the vitriolic Nugent.

"If you're a 100 percent sweet individual who doesn't have a bad word to say about anybody but you're constantly feeling like you're being taken advantage of, there's a danger of being sweet and kind to a fault in that the pressure valve builds and builds," Black says. "And if there's no release, there's a danger of snapping. And I think that's what happened."

It's what happened after Tiede finally snapped that makes "Bernie" such a compelling story. From the misplaced indignation of a gossipy chorus of small-town residents, to Tiede's preternatural calm that belies his violent crime and a friendless widow who continues unloved even in death, "Bernie" has the feel of an absurdist Texas folk tale that could only be fully realized by one of the state's best filmmakers.

Linklater's love for the quirky and authentic of life in Texas — a place he says is full of mythic and fiercely independent people — is reflected in his appreciation for the detailed microcosms created by directors Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese, as well as foreign directors.

"That is why I like international cinema: You see something from another country, and you realize or think they've captured the honesty of that. It's kind of incumbent on storytellers, in a general sense, to tell stories from their area. It's something they know," Linklater says. "That's what people have always done. So it's in that tradition that I enjoy creating bigger-than-life characters. Because that's what we have around here."

Contact at 912-5986. Twitter: @Odam