Oscar snubs are pretty much a given. When the Academy made the number of Best Picture nominees variable, it virtually guaranteed them in the Best Director category, and it’s no secret that I think both Ben Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow deserved nods this year. Still, If you haven’t seen Richard Linklater’s Bernie, you probably had to read the title of this post a couple times. But yes, I do believe Jack Black deserved a Best Actor nomination for his performance in the title role.
The film is a genre-defying mix of reality and fiction based on the true story of Bernie Tiede. It blends documentary style interviews, scenes with only actors, and scenes where actors play off real townsfolk playing themselves. Tiede befriended and eventually murdered an elderly woman, Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), in Carthage, Texas in the mid-1990s. The character Bernie is unlike any other I’ve seen Black play. To be fair, I’d only seen him in The Holiday, Be Kind Rewind and Year One, in which his characters were all sort of similar, funny, a bit wild, sometimes manic, and seemingly based on himself.
Bernie Tiede is a complete departure. He’s a popular small-town funeral director who favors gospel music, community theater, and the company of women 20 years older than himself. Black becomes Bernie, but his performance isn’t just an imitation of mannerisms and speech. The actor invests the character with enough heart so that, murderer or not, he’s likable. We can relate to Bernie and his apparently innocent desire to help improve the lives of the town’s residents.
First this clip, Black as Bernie:
And an interview with the real Bernie
So why wasn’t Black nominated for an Oscar, despite receiving Golden Globe and Independent Spirit nominations? Part of it is that the Golden Globes have separate comedy/musical categories for Best Picture, Actor and Actress, while comedies are notoriously unpopular with Academy voters. And, because the film didn’t receive a wide release, I think it’s a safe assumption that many Academy members, like many of the moviegoing public, completely missed it. Also, the story unfolds on such a small canvas that it reminded me of Jane Austen’s work, and her description of it as “the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush.” Yet, also like Austen’s work, it manages to comment on class conflict, justice, and human nature. How easy for a film like this to get lost in the shuffle of special effects showcases and global-history dramas. Which is really a shame.
PS: I’ve said before, Bernie is a character study, and boy oh boy, is it ever full of characters. Make sure you watch the credits to see who is acting and who are actual members of the town. I’ve included some clips below in the hope that they’ll convince you to give the film a try:
Matthew McConaughey as Danny Buck Davidson, district attorney in Carthage:
A Carthage resident’s guide to Texas:
Plus, sing along with Bernie on “Love Lifted Me” — this scene is our first sight of Black in the film:
This post is part of the 31 Days of Oscar blogathon.