Friday, November 28, 2014
Like the rest of our state’s urbane filmgoers, I hooted and howled when my wife and I went to Uptown’s Magnolia Theater and saw Richard Linklater’s Bernie. The documentary-style black comedy was a limited release but became wildly popular across Texas on disc as it told a bizarre, under-the-radar true story from the 90s about Panola County mortician Bernie Tiede. Mr. Tiede was was sentenced in 1998 of murdering his wealthy companion, 81-year-old widow Marjorie Nugent and hiding her body in a chest freezer.
I hooted and howled in spite of the fact that I was close friends with the victim’s family.
And I hooted and howled even though I found out the Governor’s Film Office had subsidized Linklater’s struggling project, even though Jack Black and Matthew McConaughey had been attached to it. Based on existing provisions, the Film Office would have ended up giving the project an estimated $300,000 in taxpayer cash, not to mention additional sales tax exemptions provided by the Legislature.
Already filled with an uneasy shame over these facts, and because I had found myself laughing so hard at Linklater’s exploitation of my East Texas kinfolk (many of my ancestors and relatives are buried in Panola County; my mother was born in nearby Nacogdoches), I finally became sick when I heard last May that Mr. Tiede was going to get his sentencing reviewed and that he would be released from state prison where he was serving life.
The movie wasn’t funny any more. I felt like a sucker, once again, to Hollywood razzle dazzle and the unholy alliance of West Coast-Austin propaganda. Simultaneously, I began to privately agree with the vitriol of some in our Primary season this past spring that Texas was paying for things “we don’t want and don’t need.” I thought the film office might be one of these things.
The justification for Mr. Tiede’s release and review goes to a Texas statute that allows for a commuted sentence if things like childhood abuse are not initially reported in the defense, which it was not in the Tiede trial (as were other key facts about Mrs. Nugent’s victimization). Statute or not, the whole post-conviction appeal reeks of the same old tired, liberal, humanistic bromides that say “no one is really bad, they just had bad things happen to them as a child” and, “Aw shucks, Bernie wouldn’t have been driven to his crime of passion if he hadn’t been stuck in a such a sexually repressive situation.”
What Linklater’s movie completely glossed over was the knowledge in the community of Carthage that Mr. Tiede had active male relationships on the down-low and that he was reportedly giving them gifts out of Nugent’s fortune. In no way was he this misunderstood, good-hearted, small town “closet homosexual” that McConaughey’s DA, Danny Buck Davidson, describes.
Another key fact about the murder itself that is omitted in the film entirely was that Mrs. Nugent was shot – in the back – by Mr. Tiede as they were going to the bank to discuss financial discrepancies – discrepancies caused by Mr. Tiede!!! Motive, anyone? (According to DPS records, Mr. Tiede called the bank to cancel the appointment after the time of death). Mr. Tiede and Mrs. Nugent WERE NOT innocently going to the Mexican food restaurant where Bernie would have to suffer through Mrs. Nugent’s over-chewing of her frijoles.
Earlier this week, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (which is Texas’ version of the Supreme Court for criminal cases) has ruled Mr. Tiede could have a new hearing about his sentencing. The real Panola County DA, Mr. Davidson, will then be able to decide if Mr. Teide must leave his movie-star release accommodations in Austin and return to prison, or if he can spend the rest of his life as the grand marshal of any number of gay pride parades.
Close observers of the case believe Mr. Davidson, relishing his newfound fame portrayed by none other than McConaughey, will likely sentence Mr. Tiede to time served. Mr. Davidson just got reelected earlier this month, unopposed as a Republican. If ever any officeholder needed a TEA Party challenger, Mr. Davidson might be one if he chooses to let the sensibilities of Tinseltown betray his duty to the law and the Nugent family.
But I think the real culprits in this case are those of us who took delight in the film and either failed to consider or flat-out ignored the human beings involved. Even the filmmakers try to put a fig leaf on this sentiment during the opening scene of the film where Jack Black, demonstrating the proper way to seal a corpse’s lips from an accidental post-death smile, remarks, “We wouldn’t want to turn someone’s tragedy into comedy.”
But why would the filmmakers, enslaved to a liberal agenda, really want to cover their tracks at all? Could it because they were going to get taxpayer dollars for their project?
Regardless, the whole movie and its aftermath might represent the funniest miscarriage of justice in Texas history. Funny because the joke is on all of us who bought a ticket or rented the Blu-ray.