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The Argumentative August Blogathon, Part 2: Reversal of Fortune

July 26, 2015

This is my second entry in the “Argumentative August” blogathon, hosted by Movierob and Ryan (Ten Stars Or Less). Enjoy!

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                                   Claus Von Bulow (Jeremy Irons) and Sunny (Glenn Close) in happier times.

In the book of Reversal of Fortune, a prosecutor describes the Von Bulow case as “”where the little man has a chance to to glimpse inside and see how the rich live (emphasis his)”. He also describes the case as having “everything”, as it has “money, sex, and drugs.” One would think that a tabloid-heavy case like this (described in some quarters as “the case of the decade”, according to Dershowitz’s book) would inspire a tabloid-type movie, but instead, Kazan and Schroeder do something more interesting; they combine a detective story a la All the President’s Men (where the outcome is known but the mystery is never quite solved) with a comedy of manners that shows what happens when the little man sees how the rich live.

Alan Dershowitz (Ron Silver) after finding out some bad news.

After a glimpse of Newport, Rhode Island, where Claus (Jeremy Irons)  and Sunny Von Bulow (Glenn Close) lived, we see Sunny in a coma in a hospital room. She narrates (a la William Holden in Sunset Boulevard) as we see a condensed version of Sunny’s first and second comas, the growing suspicions of Sunny’s maid Maria (acting teacher Uta Hagen) – as well as the suspicions of Alexander (Jad Mager) and Ala (Sarah Fearon), Sunny’s son and daughter (respectively) from her first marriage – the investigation that led to the discovery of a black bag containing insulin, and how that all led to Claus being convicted of attempting to murder Sunny by injecting her with insulin to make her go into hypoglycemic shock. Dershowitz (Ron Silver) then comes onto the case when, while at home despairing over two clients of his who are facing the death penalty even though they’re innocent, he gets a phone call from Claus asking him to help out with the appeal. Dershowitz is skeptical at first (in the book, Dershowitz says he received the call on April Fool’s Day, and thought someone from his family was playing a joke on him), but after meeting with Claus, he agrees to take the case. After he assembles some experts and former students to help him – including Sarah (Annabella Sciorra), a former student and ex-girlfriend, Jack (Tom Wright), who knows the Rhode Island political system, and Tom (Gordon Joseph Weiss), a prosecutor who opposed Dershowitz on several cases (though they agree on nothing, Dershowitz knows Tom is better than the Rhode Island D.A., so he can win if he can beat Tom’s arguments) – Dershowitz goes to work on trying to destroy the prosecution’s case in order to win.

Minnie (Felicity Huffman) questions why Dershowitz is taking Claus as a client.

Though Dershowitz doesn’t take the case to prove Claus’ innocence – he assumes most clients are guilty, and are lying if they say otherwise; he takes the case primarily because he’s upset about the fact Sunny’s children hired an investigator who decided what could be turned over to the prosecutor – he soon finds some irregularities. For one, through both Claus’ interviews with Dershowitz, and information gleaned from David Marriott (Fisher Stevens), a somewhat shady figure who claimed he supplied drugs to Sunny through Alex, Dershowitz learns Sunny drank a lot and used a lot of drugs, so she wouldn’t have been above injecting herself. At the same time, we learn Sunny was unhappy because Claus wanted to go to work, and because he had been seeing Alexandra Isles (Julie Hagerty, uncredited), a soap opera actress (she appeared on Dark Shadows) who wanted Claus to leave Sunny and marry her. Also, the students prove there couldn’t have been a residue of insulin on the needle, as the prosecution claimed, throwing the attempted murder into doubt. Finally, Dershowitz realizes when Maria found the bag, what she said may not have meant what the prosecution claimed it meant (she actually didn’t think the bag was Sunny’s). Dershowitz finds himself in the unusual, and unwelcome, position of having to prove Claus’ innocence; he thinks it can work in court thanks to precedent Peter (Jack Gilpin), an expert on the Rhode Island Supreme Court, finds, but he knows if it turns out Von Bulow is really guilty, it’ll make Dershowitz look like a fool.

Claus with Andrea Reynolds (Christine Baranski), his new girlfriend.

When he first meets with all of his students and experts, Dershowitz explains the public perception is just as important, if not more so, than the actual case (as he puts it, he wants the justices to be able to go home and explain to their wives why they overturned the conviction), and Schroeder and Kazan put that right up front, even if the most we see of public perception is a few stray news reports. Minnie (Felicity Huffman), another one of Dershowitz’s former students, asks him point blank at the meeting why he’s taking the case when Claus is so obviously guilty (it’s her he tells about the reason why he took the case, convincing her it’s more complicated than her moralistic viewpoint). And as Dershowitz and the rest of his students play detective in trying to find out what really happened, Schroeder and Kazan put us in their place, as we, too, try to sort out what happened. We get scenes as told from Claus’ point of view, from Sunny’s when she narrates from the coma (cinematographer Luciano Tovoli, who shot The Passenger and Suspiria, and went on to shoot five more films for Schroeder, shot Sunny’s flashback scenes from above and with a floating camera to give them a dreamlike quality), from the testimonies of Alexandra and Maria, and from Dershowitz and his students as they try to guess what happened (for the second coma, Dershowitz and Sarah give their own versions of what they think happened). As with the book, the movie takes the position there’s enough reasonable doubt that it’s clear Claus should have been found guilty, but it suggests, at the very least, Claus was morally culpable (either he didn’t do enough to stop Sunny from killing herself, or he encouraged it or helped her along; as Dershowitz tells him later, “Legally, this was an important victory. Morally, you’re on your own”). It keeps everything ambiguous. Another part of this is Sunny narrating the story. Kazan says on the DVD commentary he wanted to find a way to present information without the film bogging down, and he thought that was the best way, though he acknowledged it wasn’t universally accepted; while critics (particularly Roger Ebert) loved the device, audiences weren’t happy with it. I must confess, the first time I saw the movie, I wasn’t happy with the narration either, though while I think some of the lines Sunny says while in a coma (“When you get where I am, you will know the rest”) are a little too self-consciously clever, I have come to see Kazan’s point, and accept it as a device.

Minnie tests the needle while Sarah (Annabella Sciorra) and Dershowitz look on.

Then, of course, there’s the comedy of manners. Schroeder and Kazan set up a distance between Claus and Dershowitz from the minute Dershowitz steps into Claus’ penthouse apartment in New York City, with Dershowitz in his rumpled suit and Claus with his impeccable style and lordly accent (Tom Carson, who loved the movie and Irons’ performance, said it “suggests Boris Karloff playing Cary Grant”). It’s also played up in my favorite scene in the film, when Claus visits Dershowitz at his home, where his students are, and they all go out to a Chinese restaurant for lunch. Claus looks to get the ginger prawns, but after he gets one, the other students take the plate away and pass it around so when it comes back to him, it’s completely empty, and Claus has to get his own order. While the plate is being passed around, the students, who are slightly unnerved by Claus’ ability to make jokes about his predicament (“What do you get the wife who has everything? A shot of insulin. What do you call a fear of insulin? Claus-trophobia.” According to Dershowitz, Claus was like this in real life), start peppering him with questions, particularly about Alexandra, to the point where Claus moans, “Alan, do they all want to be prosecutors?” Also, the cold, isolated rooms of both the Von Bulow house and of Claus’ apartment get contrasted with the ramshackle but warm house Dershowitz lives in and his students stay and work in, whether they’re doing work, debating the details of the case (Minnie eventually believes Ala and Alexander framed Claus), or playing pickup basketball games (Dershowitz is introduced in the film playing basketball with himself), The camaraderie Dershowitz has with the rest of his students (which includes humor; when Sarah wonders how Claus could go out with a whore – and an apparently ugly one at that – when he had a mistress as beautiful as Alexandra, Raj (Mano Singh), one of Dershowitz’s former students, quips, “There are some things even mistresses won’t do,” and refuses to elaborate) also contrasts with the uneasy relationship between Claus and Dershowitz, from the pointed way Claus and Andrea (Christine Baranski), his new girlfriend, congratulate themselves in front of Dershowitz for being progressive enough to hire a Jewish lawyer (in real life, Claus’ father was accused of collaborating with the Nazis), to Claus’ aloof manner throughout (in the movie’s signature scene, as Claus gets in the back of his limo, Dershowitz tells him, “You’re a very strange man,” to which Claus replies, “You have *no* idea”).

Maria (Uta Hagen) discovers the black bag.

Irons won the Best Actor Oscar that year for his performance as Claus, and while he wouldn’t have been my choice, he is excellent. He brings out the humor in the role, not just in the accent, but in the way he keeps himself removed from the situation he’s in, and with his tone (when Dershowitz tells him everybody hates him, Claus deadpans, “Well, that’s a start”). Silver has a tougher role, because Dershowitz is painted here as a little too good to be true; working the case of two African-American kids pro-bono (in real life, they were white), and being about the constitutional principle more than anything else (Kazan admits on the DVD commentary he gave Dershowitz a temper to make him flawed and more human; it’s likely he also plays up the relationship with Sarah for the same reason). But in addition to the intensity Silver brings to the role, he also brings an intelligence to it; he’s always reading the room whenever he visits someone, especially Claus (Kazan points this out in the commentary as well), and even brings a little humor as well (when debating whether to take the case, he tells his son Elon (Stephen Mailer) about his dream that Hitler calls him up and asks for a lawyer, and he and Elon agree he would take the case, and *then* kill Hitler). Close also has a challenging role in that she’s playing someone who’s always seen from someone else’s perception, and yet she manages to suggest an inner life nevertheless, most prominently in a flashback scene when a tiger cub crashes a party Sunny and Claus are at, and Sunny is the only one who not only remains calm, but seems glad the tiger is there. As for the rest of the cast, while Sciorra’s role isn’t always well-defined (possibly for legal reasons), she’s able to project intelligence, Stevens is appropriately smarmy as Marriott, and Hagen is also good at playing the devoted, if somewhat simple-minded, Maria.

Whereas Dershowitz’s book dealt with both the appeal and the second trial, Schroeder and Kazan deal only with the appeal, and they compress a few details as well (Truman Capote in real life was one of the first people to come forth and give a deposition that Sunny was a drug addict, but in the movie, there’s only an inference to a magazine interview he gave). Still, it turns out to be a thought-provoking legal drama that’s also entertaining and funny, and nowhere is that more true than in the final scene (which Kazan claimed was the first thing he wrote for the screenplay), where Claus goes to a drugstore to buy cigarettes, and when he notices the cashier has recognized who he is, adds, “And a shot of insulin,” before admitting he was just kidding.

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