As the “Before” trilogy and especially “Boyhood” have shown us, Richard Linklater likes to live with his movies for a very long time. But here's a slightly different example of his dedication, and one that blurs that art-life boundary in rather a touching way: Linklater is due quite literally to live with the subject of his 2011 comedy “Bernie.”
“Bernie,” you may recall, told the true story of Bernhardt Tiede, a mild-mannered mortician from Carthage, Texas, who murdered his wealthy 81-year-old companion and benefactor, Marjorie Nugent, in 1996. After storing her body in a deep freeze for nine months, he confessed to police, claiming he had acted in response to her extreme emotional abuse; he was sentenced to life imprisonment. The story was minor tabloid fodder until Linklater's film, which starred Jack Black (in a Golden Globe-nominated performance) as Tiede and Shirley MacLaine as Nugent, gave it greater prominence.
Now, nearly 17 years after his conviction, the 55-year-old Tiede will be released on bond, after new evidence concerning his childhood history of sexual abuse was taken into account. Among the conditions of his release, however, is that he must live on the Austin property of Linklater himself, who has become Tiede's sponsor of sorts since bringing his life story to the screen.
Linklater, who has known Tiede for the past four years, told Judge Diane DeVasto, “I was very impressed in prison how the other inmates looked up to him. He seemed to be a very positive force in a negative environment … Myself and others are determined to help him in any way we can.”
Other conditions of Tiede's release are that he receive psychological counselling for his sexual abuse, hold down a job as a legal clerk for his defence lawyer Jodi Cole and not speak to the media — so Linklater's unapologetically exaggerated film is about the only side of his story we're going to hear for a while. Unflatteringly depicted in the film Matthew McConaughey was district attorney Danny Buck Davidson, who confesses to mixed feelings about the news, and admits that revelations about Tiede's childhood changed his mind about the appropriate punishment: “It's a tragedy all round… there are no winners.”
What role did Linklater's film play in this reversal of fortune? Hard to put an exact name to it, but it was after the film's release that new lawyers took on his case; the film arguably treats Tiede as a figure of fun to some extent, but was also a sympathetic portrait. A filmmaker takes on a certain responsibility with a biopic, particularly one of a living figure, for defining the subject in the popular imagination. I maintain some reservations about “Bernie” as a film, but it's gratifying to see Linklater taking his duty of care to his subject so seriously — and so literally.