Last night we watched the movie Bernie with Jack Black. Or to be honest I watched half of the movie before I fell asleep to the amusement of The Dude (seriously, if you knew him you’d know how funny it is to call him that). The movie is based on real events and is about a small time funeral director who befriends and eventually kills an eighty-one year old wealthy widow (Margery Nugent).
In both the film and the real case Bernie is well loved by everyone in town while the townspeople generally dislike Margery, so much so that the real townspeople play themselves in the film and spend much of the time telling the camera what a horrible person she was and what a lovely charmer he was.
|Left: the real Bernie and Margery (Joe Rhodes) Right: from the film (Millenium Entertainment)|
According to her real life nephew she was always a nasty, vindictive person. Once when he was fourteen, he recounts, she locked him in her house and wouldn't let him use the phone. According to her son, Bernie systematically isolated her from the support network her husband had set up, all the while embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars from her estate. After the district attorney moved the trial in order to get a jury that would even consider convicting Bernie was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment.
The movie takes a very clear stance on Bernie’s crime. He is portrayed as a wonderful human being, always giving and kind, who was driven to the brink by a vindictive and controlling woman. Rather than leave he shoots her in the back several times and stuffs her body in the freezer, spending the next nine months lying about where she is and spending her money like there’s no tomorrow. The tone of the movie is generally sympathetic to him and makes no effort to treat Margery as an actual human being. Rather she is painted as a monster from whom Bernie is incapable of escaping.
I can’t speak to what the truth of the real story is, I don’t know. But in making the decision to sympathize with Bernie and make the film a comedy the filmmaker is making a very clear statement, and that statement is a classic example of victim blame.
The real life Bernie says that Margery Nugent was emotionally abusive, using her money as a lure to keep him in her control. I have to wonder though, how is giving him direct access to her accounts and power of attorney controlling? She doesn't just buy him things, she gives him control of her affairs. She systematically gives him more and more control over her life. She becomes completely dependent upon him. While Bernie has hundreds of people who would jump at the chance to help him out, Margery starts out with few and loses the few that she has during the course of her friendship with him.
There is something patently unfair about the fact that not only can Bernie tell his side of the story, he literally has dozens of people he knows in the film defending him as a great guy. Margery on the other hand can’t tell her story and there is no one else who can, because the only person she was close to was Bernie.
Let’s look at this from a different angle. People repeatedly say how charismatic and charming he was, he was full of public displays of charity but no one seems to claim a particularly close friendship with him. He was a pillar of the community. There are any number survivors of abuse that will tell you that this is a perfect description of their abuser. In cases like this public acts of charity are more about cultivating a particular image – both for the self and for the public – than they are about any sense of altruism. If these abusers weren't charmers they wouldn't be able to exert such a hold on their victims. This much-loved charmer befriends a lonely, rich widow by being the only person in town to treat her with kindness and care. Regardless of how her own behaviour may have led to her isolation, the fact remains that she was not accustomed to kindness. She was in a vulnerable place and his kindness and charm capitalized on that vulnerability. Of all the widows in town she was the only one that he took such a special interest in, he says it was mostly out of pity, I have my doubts.
For the film to ignore all of these factors elides the power dynamics at play. The hard truth is that they made the easy, the lazy decision. Because there is nothing easier in our culture than blaming the victim, especially when that victim is a woman who commits the sin of being unpleasant. What, after all, is more damnable than being a little old lady who isn't so dear.
* * *
 Rhodes, Joe. How My Aunt Marge Ended Up in the Deep Freeze . . ., The New York Times.
 The Associated Press with Sonny Bohannon. @marillo Globe-News: News: Trial begins for man accused in death 10/26/98 , Amarillo Globe News.