Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Jack Black's Power as BERNIE

Well over a year ago, I saw Shirley MacLaine in a short interview for the online edition of The Los Angeles Times.  The Oscar-winning Hollywood legend was asked about her role in a dark comedy making the film festival circuit.  She played the murder victim in Bernie, based on an actual murder case that happened in smalltown East Texas in the late 1990s.  MacLaine graciously put the attention on her co-star, comic actor Jack Black, and hailed his dramatic turn as the gentle Christian-turned-killer, Bernie Tiede.  The film played in arthouse movie theaters over the summer.  It's now on DVD.  I totally agree with Shirley MacLaine.  As Bernie, Jack Black gives one of the best and most memorable performances I've seen an actor give in a lead role this year.  He brings such life, conflict and humanity to his role as the sad assistant funeral director who befriends the meanest and richest widow in town.  He breaks your heart.  He makes you laugh.  He surprises you with his acting depth.  We have School of Rock director, Richard Linklater, to thank for this Jack Black gift of a performance.  They both delivered something special.
 This is not the same Jack Black you saw as the hip teacher in School of Rock or as Shallow Hal.  The comic performer is an acquired taste for some.  I like him.  I felt he was the real oxygen in 2000's High Fidelity.  Saving Silverman is a fun Black comedy rental.  I felt he was an odd choice for the Carl Denham role in Peter Jackson's over-produced remake of 1933's King Kong but Black committed to the character and worked hard as the man obsessed with bringing Kong from Africa to Manhattan.  Black was sophisticated and classy in the Nancy Meyers romantic comedy, The Holiday.  I really dug his crazed Brian Dennehy take-off as one of the big ego/low discipline actors on location in the Ben Stiller comedy, Tropic Thunder.  Black can be too frat-boy over the top (2010's Gulliver's Travels) but he's also willing to be reined in, directed and challenge himself as a actor.  That's the case -- the murder case -- in Bernie.  I think he did a "De Niro" (Raging Bull) and gained some pounds for the part.  As the gentle, neighborly Christian who commits a crime, he looks like a cross between an Ernie Kovacs TV comedy sketch character and a figure in a Fernando Botero painting.  He has a funny little walk.  Like a ballet dancer taking his place onstage before the curtain goes up.  He sings a spiritual as enthusiastically as he sings a showtune.  And Bernie loves a good showtune.
This simple, well-paced movie is about money and power.  And lonely hearts.  Bernie is a beloved resident but he's also an outsider.  A single man who's called "a little light in the loafers" but excellent for local business, tax help and community theater.  He's generous.  But is he really trying to buy affection and security?  I think this is a guy who could watch Now, Voyager and weep with a heartfelt connection to the Bette Davis character.  This is especially true in his relationship with Marjorie Nugent.  The stone-faced, stone-hearted widow of a Texas oilman and the assistant funeral director were truly the odd couple.
She had money.  She had power.  They had fun.  Then he killed her.  One of the Texas townspeople who speaks in this partially documentary-style feature says, "There was people in town, honey, who would've shot her for 5 dollars."  Another townsperson says, "She was just a mean ol' hateful bitch."  A third talks about a buddy who used to work for her:  "Mrs. Nugent took a broom to his ass one day."  No one in town liked her.  Even relatives tried to sue her.  The Carthage, Texas residents all liked Bernie.  "He tried to make people smile," one comments.  Bernie is the only person who takes little treats over to Marjorie after her husband's funeral.  She can't think of anyone in 50 years who's been that nice to her.  That includes the late Mr. Nugent when you think about it.  Bernie and the widow become friends and traveling companions.  The whole town is talking.
But Marjorie will once again become a heavy piece of furniture to handle.  Why is she such a demanding, condescending and conniving person?  Probably because she can afford to be.  Money has given her that power.  Before he realizes it, lonely Bernie can't enjoy his own life because he's become her servant -- just like Bette Davis' character was her manipulative rich widowed mother's servant and traveling companion in Now, Voyager.  Mrs. Nugent's meanness will go too far.  Tragedy ensues.  Think fast, Bernie!
Enter someone else who has and wants more power.  He's a man who never met a local TV news camera crew he didn't like -- hotshot district attorney Danny Buck, played with a thin slice of smoked hamminess by Matthew McConaughey.  Taking on the Marjorie Nugent murder case will beef up his career.  Some townspeople aren't too keen on Danny Buck either.  They prefer Bernie.  Shirley MacLaine  had three Best Actress Oscar nominations to her credit and was singing and dancing Bob Fosse numbers onscreen as Sweet Charity the year Jack Black was born.  They have definite screen chemistry together.  She had chemistry with two other Jacks -- Lemmon and Nicholson.
MacLaine hits it out of the park with this performance.  She's played cranky seniors before but each one is different.  Marjorie Nugent makes Ouiser in Steel Magnolias seem like Marlo Thomas as That Girl.  This is Shirley MacLaine in top form.  Young wannabe actresses really need to study her film work past and present.  In Bernie, she does more by clenching her jaw and clutching her purse than some new movie star girls can do with pages of dialogue.  She gives you a glimpse into the heartbreak that the widow Nugent never exorcised, the pain that contributed to her becoming such a witch.
She's had good luck with widow roles throughout her film career.  Her 1955 screen debut was as a sweet, young widowed mother in Alfred Hitchcock's The Trouble With Harry.
In 1964's What A Way To Go!, one of my favorite guilty pleasure feel-good movies, she wore black so often, she thought she was a curse.  She kept marrying low income men who became millionaires after they said "I do" and then died, leaving her sad and rich.
Not all the black was worn in mourning.  Louisa did have some relaxing moments.
This satire about a young lady who wants a simple life but keeps unexpectedly marrying a millionaire made Shirley MacLaine a supermodel for fashions designed by Edith Head.  Project Runway pales in comparison to Edith's creations for this comedy.
Shirley got to dance with Gene Kelly.  He was the washed up entertainer named Pinky Benson.  Pinky weds Louisa and gets discovered for big Hollywood musicals.
Paul Newman co-starred as the struggling artist, an American in Paris, who drives a cab.
After he weds Louisa, he'll be rich and famous. She'll wear his abstract designs.
And there's Robert Mitchum as the man who's already a millionaire when they marry.
Shirley had fabulous fun -- with fashions to match -- surviving widowhood in What A Way To Go!  Playing a widow raising a daughter in Terms of Endearment was really good luck for Ms. MacLaine.  It brought her some Hollywood gold.  She won the Best Actress of 1983 Oscar for playing the outspoken and devoted widowed mother, Aurora Greenway.
See?  Being a widow has been good for Shirley MacLaine.  On film, I mean.  I wanted see Bernie because of the praise she had for co-star, Jack Black.  Hers was great promotion for a fine film that was not well-promoted.  It deserved more attention than it got in its theatrical release this year.  Jack Black is a revelation as Bernie.
If he hears his name as an Oscar nominee early next year for his performance as Bernie, I will not be surprised.  This film deserves a Jack Black power salute from the Academy.

1 comment:

  1. I LOVED this movie. It is the only thing besides SCHOOL OF ROCK that I can tolerate him. Shirley was FIERCE!

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