THE CASE OF CLAUS VON BÜLOW. AN AMERICAN SAGA OF MONEY AND MYSTERY.
Three years after winning an Oscar for playing him, Jeremy Irons met the real life Claus Von Bülow. This was their first encounter. Von Bülow told Irons that he had heard of his old lawyer Alan Dershowitz representing Mike Tyson and Leona Helmsley, and asked the actor if he had been offered to play either of them as well. Irons replied, “I thought Mike Tyson might be beyond my range, but I’d have a crack at Leona.” A bizarre moment in both men’s lives, I’m sure. Then again, much in the Von Bülow case remains hard to grasp.
In 1980, the American socialite Sunny Von Bülow (Glenn Close) falls into a coma. Her husband Claus (Irons) is reluctant to call for help and keeps telling the housekeeper that Sunny is asleep and should not be disturbed. When she has convulsions, Claus finally calls for an ambulance. After a while, Sunny regains consciousness, but the same thing happens once again a few months later. This time, she does not wake up. In 1982, Claus is charged with attempted murder and is found guilty. Sunny had a high insulin level and investigators found a used needle and a vial of insulin in the Von Bülow home, which becomes the prosecutor’s main evidence.
Claus is sentenced to 30 years in prison and contacts a Harvard Law professor, Alan Dershowitz (Ron Silver), asking him to take the appeals case. By now, the general public considers Claus a monster and Alan makes one thing clear to him – he will not take the case for his sake, but for a constitutional reason.
Flashbacks offer revelations
This is the story of how Dershowitz built the appeals case and had the conviction reversed. It was not about Claus Von Bülow’s guilt – but the filmmakers still want that question burning in everyone’s mind. Unusually enough, the movie begins with Sunny providing narration from beyond her coma, underscoring the fact that inside her sleeping mind lies the key to what happened. When we meet Claus, it’s as if every fiber of his being tells us that he did it. After all, he stood to gain $14 million from his wife’s death and his aristocratic, weirdly haughty demeanor did him no favors in the public eye.
The filmmakers keep teasing us about his eventual guilt, but the fact of the matter is that the deeper Dershowitz and his team dig into the case, the more disturbing details they find that make Claus look better. As the film progresses, intriguing flashbacks offer revelations about the state of the Von Bülow marriage and we’re also treated to an interesting portrayal of how Dershowitz worked, assembling a crack team of young law students and others who could help him sort out the case. Director Barbet Schroeder moves comfortably between these worlds, the chilly, even eerie lives of the Von Bülow family and the warm, fun-loving Dershowitz community. Silver is engaging as the man whose motivation was outrage at how the state’s case could be bought by Sunny’s children.
Irons and Close are fascinating with performances that are over-the-top, humorous, tragic and melancholy at the same time. Watching the former, it sure looks like he’s having fun with his Brideshead Revisited persona.
Sunny died in her coma in 2008. Claus now lives in England. As Dershowitz tells him near the end of the film, “Legally, this was an important victory. Morally – you’re on your own.” The stepchildren were certain of his guilt, yet the evidence pointed at Sunny herself. We’ll never know what happened – and this film triumphantly (and frustratingly) celebrates the mystery.
Reversal of Fortune 1990-U.S. 120 min. Color. Produced by Edward R. Pressman, Oliver Stone. Directed by Barbet Schroeder. Screenplay: Nicholas Kazan. Book: Alan Dershowitz. Cast: Glenn Close (Sunny Von Bülow), Jeremy Irons (Claus Von Bülow), Ron Silver (Alan Dershowitz), Annabella Sciorra, Uta Hagen, Fisher Stevens… Felicity Huffman.
Oscar: Best Actor (Irons). Golden Globe: Best Actor (Irons).
Last word: “My ambition was to have the audience split 50-50 at the theater exit and arguing over what happened – which from the point of view of Von Bulow was a big gain, because before the movie was made everybody thought he did it. And I was very sensitive to the humor and irony linked to the fact that you don’t know. So for me it is a comedy of manners, a strange comedy. For me, ‘Barfly’ was also a comedy. Hopefully one day I’ll do a comedy that’s not in the closet like those two.” (Schroeder, Film Comment)