So I went to see Richard Linklater’s delightful new movie, “Bernie” the other day. If you’re not familiar with the movie, the title character, Bernie Tiede (played by Jack Black in the performance of his career to date), is the assistant funeral director at a funeral parlor in the town of Carthage, Texas, and is the most popular, best-loved man in town. He’s sweet, charming, solicitous, leads the church choir, directs the school musicals, buys neighbors spontaneous gifts both large and small – he’s just an enormous-hearted guy. Being a fastidious bachelor with a love of musicals, most of the townfolk assume he’s gay, but even though this is a pretty conservative place they look past that.
Anyway, one of the little nice things Bernie does on his own initiative as part of his campaign to spread the love is brings flowers to new widows, and he duly brings some to the town miser, the widely-hated Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine, in another bravura performance). And, after a few tries, he manages to touch her heart, and she becomes quite attached to Bernie, making him first her traveling companion, then her informal adviser on financial matters, then giving him power of attorney. It all looks pretty good for Bernie, but with the money and attention come more and more demands on his time, and eventually Marjorie dismisses all the rest of her staff and makes Bernie into her virtual 24-hour servant, on-call at all times to cater to her every whim.
Bernie soldiers along gamely for a while, sucked further and further into the bottomless abyss of Marjorie’s need, but finally he cracks. And [spoiler alert!] shoots her four times in the back with an armadillo gun.
Bernie has virtually blacked out while he commits the murder, and, coming to his senses, appalled by what he’s done, begs Jesus for advice on what to do now. And, apparently, Jesus’s advice is: stuff the body in a freeze box in the garage and get on with your life.
(By the way, did I mention the movie is based on a true story?)
The rest of the movie follows the unraveling of this strategy of conceal-and-delay – Bernie tells everybody, including Marjorie’s estranged kin (who hate her as much as everybody else in town) that she’s in a nursing home out of town, then goes around spending Marjorie’s money, almost all of it on extravagant gifts for other people, which doesn’t exactly dampen the suspicions of Marjorie’s financial advisor or the D.A. (the third great performance, by Matthew McConaughey). Eventually the body is found, and Bernie confesses, goes to trial, and is convicted of first degree murder.
The movie is wonderful on multiple levels. First, there are the three central performances. What Shirley MacLaine can do by just crinkling her eyes is magical. And Jack Black finally gets a role that lets him use his adorable “School of Rock” side while suggesting a deeper, creepier interiority, a role that delivers on the promise of his (kind of scary) performance in “Margot at the Wedding.” Then, Linklater has intercut the narrative with interviews with townspeople about Bernie – some of whom are actual townspeople, not actors. Their voices alone are enough to make the film worth seeing.
But the main reason is the story itself, and the central mystery: who is Bernie? Is he a psychopath who deviously plotted to earn Marjorie Nugent’s trust so he could take her money, then bumped her off when she started to prove difficult? Or is he the sweet, loving man we see throughout the movie, who just finally cracked under pressure, and then panicked?
The whole business about stuffing Marjorie’s body in the freeze box, rather than disposing of it more effectively (which Bernie certainly could have managed), strongly suggests the latter, which is the view the town (though not the D.A.) and the movie as a whole takes. But there’s something about stuffing a body in a box and leaving it there to be found, almost as if one hoped someone would find it. I feel like I’ve seen that movie before.
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I’ve never much liked “Rope,” Alfred Hitchcock’s film inspired by the infamous Leopold and Loeb case, either as a movie or as a cultural document. As a movie, I find the famously long takes more dull than claustrophobic. As a take on Leopold and Loeb, I find it shallow and manipulative, the message being, I suppose, “IDEAS HAVE CONSEQUENCES” if those caps were forty feet high. And while the movie doesn’t explicitly blame the killers’ homosexuality for their crime – indeed, doesn’t explicitly say they are a gay couple at all – it’s so obvious that nobody can miss it, starting with the blatant homoeroticism of the opening murder scene.
I find John Dall’s performance as Brandon, the one who plans the murder and who dominates his partner Phillip, frankly campy, and therefore hard to take seriously, and the last minute swerve to righteousness by the Rupert Cadell character (Jimmy Stewart) – the one who’s to blame for this crime, in some measure, because he taught the boys Nietzsche – utterly unpersuasive. And, though this is probably perverse of me, I’m annoyed at the transmutation of the Jewish Leopold and Loeb (their victim was Jewish as well) into echt-Wasps Philip and Brandon, and, with the updating from the twenties to the then-present (1948), the larding on of references to the Nazi Holocaust by the murder victim’s father. It’s perverse because, what, I’m proud that these two infamous murderers were fellow Jews? – but I think it’s because this whitewashing, as it were, of the killers’ backgrounds leaves them as blanks, as walking representations of an idea rather than flesh-and-blood people.
But there’s one thing that does work for me in the movie, and it’s Farley Granger’s performance as Phillip, the one who does the killing at his partner’s behest, and who seems aware that he has been manipulated into a murder he doesn’t want to commit by a stronger personality, and uses language that Bernie Tiede might recognize:
Brandon: Determined to get drunk, aren’t you?
Phillip: I am drunk.
Brandon: And just as childish as you were before when you called me a liar.
Phillip: You had no business telling that story.
Brandon: Why did you lie anyway?
Phillip: I had to! Have you ever bothered for just one minute to understand how someone else might feel?
Brandon: I’m not sentimental if that’s what you…
Phillip: No, that’s not what I mean; but it doesn’t matter. Nothing matters… except that Mr. Brandon liked the party. Mr. Brandon gave the party. Mr. Brandon had a delightful evening. Well, I had a rotten evening!
Brandon: Keep drinking, and you’ll have a worse morning.
Phillip: At least if I have a hangover, it’ll be all mine!
“It’ll be all mine” – unlike the murder that he committed, which he had to share; or, rather, which he committed at Brandon’s behest. I have the sense that Bernie would understand that sentiment – or, rather, that it would be good if he did.
The problem with “Rope” is that there is no mystery. We know why Phillip and Brandon committed their crime from the very beginning. All the movie has to offer is the tension of the bomb under the table – or, in this case, the body in the box – that we know about and the other characters don’t, and that wears thin pretty quickly, for me, anyway. The main satisfaction of the movie to me is in Phillip’s dawning awareness that he’s just a dupe.
“Bernie,” by contrast does have a mystery, but it’s not the mystery that the trial (formally) resolves – namely, why did Bernie kill Marjorie Nugent – but rather: why didn’t he just walk away?
For much of the movie, we see Bernie as the town sees him: as a ministering angel. But nobody is actually like that, and in his relationship with Marjorie we see the hollowness of Bernie’s personality. He is a kind of a monster – a monster of love, someone who’s entire self-definition comes from other people and their perceptions of him. He can’t leave Marjorie because Marjorie needs him, and if he doesn’t put her needs above his then he’s being selfish. So his only escape is to kill her.
The mystery is unraveled for us, but the tragedy of Bernie’s character is that it’s never really unraveled for him. We see Bernie in prison, and he’s the same guy he’s always been – teaching classes, leading bible study, caring for everyone. He misses his freedom, but he’s accommodated himself to his new environment. What he hasn’t done is reckon with his crime. He knows why he did it – he cracked. He hasn’t thought about how he wound up letting himself get into that position.
* * *
A final thought on these two films and the pictures they paint of homosexuality. As I said, nothing explicit is stated about the sexuality of Brandon and Phillip in “Rope,” but they live together, everyone treats them as a couple, there’s a huge amount of homoeroticism floating about, and both actors seem to be trying to project “gayness” to the audience. (Interestingly, Farley Granger, who played Phillip, was gay, while the campier John Dall, who played Brandon, was straight.) And it is very easy to read the movie as making an essentially anti-gay point – as implying a connection between the murder and unprocreative love between two men, and jealousy of the soon-to-be-married murder victim as the reason for his murder (Brandon had once dated the murder victim’s fiancee). And it’s easy to read Phillip’s domination by Brandon as saying something essential about gay relationships, his murderousness being somehow connected to his willingness to be another man’s “wife.”
Needless to say, I don’t hold to any of those notions, and I don’t think you have to read the film that way. But, just as it is easy to read The Merchant of Venice as a story not merely about a murderous Jewish villain but about the Jew as murderous villain, it’s easy to read “Rope” as a story not merely about a pair of gay murderers but as a story about gays as murderers.
Inasmuch as that’s the case, “Bernie” is a useful corrective. Bernie, after all, lives life precisely the way traditionalist conservatives say they would have a gay man live. So far as we can tell, he’s celibate (though the D.A., implausibly, claims to have identified his lovers), and he never mentions his sexual orientation to anyone. Instead, he lives a kind of sacerdotal life, ministering kindness to one and all, and never claiming a sphere for himself. And he’s enthusiastically welcomed into the community on those terms. But there’s a price paid for that lack of self, for that lack of a bounded, private sphere. “I’m a people person – I need my people,” Bernie says, on the stand, by way of explaining how Marjorie, with her jealous demands on his time, brought him to the point of murder – but Bernie doesn’t have any people of his own. He has everybody, and he has nobody. Because he hasn’t yet found himself.
We’re all of us alone with ourselves, in the final analysis, but most of us do need other people, and it’s in the boundedness of a family – the families we grow up in, and the families we create – that we learn what is ours (and who is ours), and what is not (and who is not). In different ways, Brandon-Phillip and Bernie-Marjorie are each sadomasochistic parodies of a true partner relationship. And if you want to say that if you don’t really know yourself (as Phillip and Bernie don’t), you’re more vulnerable to fall into a relationship of that sort, and that that sort of relationship can, in the extreme, carry within it the potential for murder, well, I guess I’ll go with you there.