Money sure beats the bejesus out of sex or drugs or rock & roll when it comes to choosing the top obsession of the Eighties – a decade when wealth was something to risk going to hell for. Lying, cheating and even killing for money had never entered the mainstream so pervasively. Our fascination with unbridled avarice, especially when filtered through celebrity, ran rampant.
Let's face it: It still does, so Reversal of Fortune should score at the box office. The film – audaciously directed by Barbet Schroeder (Barfly) and written by Nicholas Kazan (Patty Hearst) – examines the most lurid and emblematic trial of the Eighties: that of Claus von Bülow (Jeremy Irons), the Danish socialite who was charged with twice trying to murder his American-heiress wife, Sunny (Glenn Close), whom he allegedly injected with a near-fatal dose of insulin. (Sunny has been in an irreversible coma since 1980.)
Most of us weren't surprised by the first verdict, that of guilty, in 1982. The media presented Claus as the classic social-climbing leech, adding a few kinky twists (hints of necrophilia, matricide, S&M, espionage). And Irons plays him as a tantalizing amalgam of style and smarm. Claus had the manners; Sunny had the manors. It was her money that put the clothes on his back and the mistresses in his bed. But according to a prenuptial agreement, Claus would receive nothing from his wife in a divorce, though if she died during their marriage, he would inherit $14 million of her $75 million fortune, plus their Fifth Avenue apartment and Clarendon Court, their ten-acre estate in Newport, Rhode Island. Cinematographer Luciano Tovoli (The Passenger) gives these gilded trappings a perfumed allure. You don't just see wealth in this picture; you hear it purr. It's not hard to grasp why a Rhode Island jury believed that Claus would try to kill Sunny when she threatened to cut him off.
Reversal of Fortune – based on the book of the same name by Alan Dershowitz (Ron Silver), the Harvard law professor and attorney who won Claus a 1984 appeal that led to a retrial and acquittal in 1985 – goes beyond the question of von Bülow's innocence or guilt. What makes it such a mesmerizing, wickedly witty entertainment is the revealing portrait it paints of an era in which everyone is presumed guilty where greed is concerned. Instead of a trashy TV movie, like the recent Queen of Mean, about Leona Helmsley, another Dershowitz client, Schroeder has crafted an elegant black comedy of misfortune in the Gimme Decade.
Reversal is narrated by the comatose Sunny – a risky move reminiscent of Billy Wilder's decision to have a man's corpse floating in a pool tell the details that led to his demise in Sunset Boulevard. "This was my body," says Sunny in voice-over as we watch hospital staffers massage her flaccid limbs. Schroeder and Kazan may draw fire for playing fast and loose with a real person's tragedy. But the cool, ironic tone of the narration – delivered by Close, who acts the role in flashback with brilliant subtlety and compassion – should deflate charges of exploitation. Sunny's words, reliving the years that changed a happy marriage into one of suspicion and regret, are at the heart of the film's darkest concerns. "Is Claus the devil?" Sunny asks. "And can the devil get justice?"
Alan Dershowitz certainly believes in giving even the devil his legal rights. "If Hitler calls me up, what do I do?" asks Dershowitz, a Brooklyn-born Jewish divorced father, of his son. "Defend him," says the son, who knows his father well. Dershowitz leaves his classroom to take on the von Bülow case as a matter of principle. He claims the legal system should work for everybody – and his hefty $385-per-hour fee will support his worthy pro bono cases. As played by Ron Silver (Enemies, a Love Story), Dershowitz is every inch the firebrand once dubbed "the lawyer of last resort." But what does a human-rights activist residing in a clapboard house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, think of a high-living Euro-snob with a take-charge Hungarian mistress, Andrea Reynolds (a smashingly blunt Christine Baranski), who greets Dershowitz with the news that she had recommended him for the job with the words "Claus, get the Jew"?
Schroeder and Kazan revel in showing how the worlds of von Bülow and Dershowitz collide. During a lunch meeting at the kind of trendy restaurant Dershowitz abhors, von Bülow notes that until his trial, which he refers to as "the unpleasantness," he had always been shuttled off to the less-desirable tables; now headwaiters can't wait to seat him up front. Von Bülow is clearly enjoying his new celebrity, and Schroeder is clearly enjoying his chance to shaft the Eighties notion of fame.
The role of von Bülow is a devilish challenge. The actor must reveal the man's genuine charm without losing his calculation. Irons is more than up to the task. On an impromptu visit to Dershowitz's home, von Bülow strikes fear into the law students by his mere presence. Then he offers a silly wave – wagging two fingers and smiling crookedly – that completely defuses his media image as the Prince of Perversion. Afterward, sitting incongruously with his defense team in a cheap Chinese restaurant, von Bülow delivers a cheap gag. "What is another name for fear of insulin?" he asks, then quickly answers, "Claustrophobia." Dershowitz is appalled at how von Bülow can be so uncaring about his wife. Later, von Bülow strikes back at him. "Of course, I care," he says. "I just don't wear my heart on my sleeve. We can't all be you, Alan." Publicity photos of Irons with aging makeup and a shaved hairline create the impression of a waxwork dummy. The sight of him onscreen is another story. Alternately sincere and sinister, droll and decadent, Irons makes an ambiguous figure vividly real and disturbing. It's a tricky, triumphant portrayal.
And Silver is electrifying as Dershowitz. With his glasses, mustache, bleached eyebrows and permed hair, he's a ringer for the crusading lawyer, with a trace of Groucho Marx. The script trumps up a love interest in the form of Carol, a former student acted with vigor and intelligence by Annabella Sciorra (True Love), but Silver is best at playing Dershowitz in the heat of workaholism. He approaches the law like a man possessed. Dividing his students into groups – they even wear team sweat shirts with names printed on them like INSULIN NEEDLE and BLACK BAG and play basketball against each other – Dershowitz sends these Mission: Impossible task forces out to go over every aspect of the case.
Schroeder directs the film as a full-throttle combination of mystery, drama, eroticism and ferocious fun. But the effect isn't jarring, it's exhilarating. The detective-story elements offer tremendous excitement, with a documentary feel that recalls All the President's Men. The Dershowitz team carefully examines the testimony, especially from such witnesses as Maria, Sunny's loyal maid (artfully hammed by Uta Hagen), Alexandra Isles, a socialite actress and former von Bülow mistress (sexily played by Julie Hagerty), and David Marriott, a source with shaky evidence concerning Sunny's alleged drug use (sharply done by Fisher Stevens). Then there's Sunny's children, Ala and Alexander, who bring a civil suit against von Bülow for allegedly trying to kill their mother, and Cosima, the only child of Sunny and Claus, who stands by her father. Dershowitz tells his team that appeals aren't won on the basis of a defendant's guilt or innocence but on constitutional issues or procedural faults in the trial. Were some lab reports improperly admitted as evidence? Did the prosecution withhold notes made by an attorney hired by Sunny's children to investigate von Bülow?
Dershowitz, who came to believe in von Bülow's innocence, didn't publish Reversal of Fortune until after his client's acquittal, but he was hotly criticized by some for treating speculation as fact. Schroeder wisely sidesteps similar attacks by presenting various versions of what might have happened and making clear that all are pure conjecture. Claus as a failed murderer, Sunny as a failed suicide, Claus as a victim of a failed frame-up – all contingencies are dramatized with equal weight, and all seem equally plausible. But what sticks most in the memory is the sight of the von Bülows trapped in the vast mausoleum of their wealth. (Claus claimed he wanted to go to work in the oil business but Sunny insisted that he stay by her side.) Sunny lies in bed, using pills and liquor to dull the pain of her failing marriage. And Claus sits in bed reading while Sunny sleeps or uses a bandanna over his eyes to blot out her presence. He has long ago stopped interfering in what his wife eats, drinks or injects. In a flashback, Schroeder presents Claus and Sunny at the time of their courtship. The lovers seem to bear no relation to the couple we watch enduring a long night of the living dead.
Schroeder's spellbinder is a potent anomaly: a feeling film about the lack of feeling that defined an era. At the end, Sunny and Claus are still bound together by a fortune neither can touch. In the film's view, Sunny – shut off from life – is enjoying the jest. "When you get where I am," her voice tells the audience, "you'll know." And the last shot of Claus – shut off from emotion – shows him smiling at another self-deprecating joke. It's gallows humor – savage and scary in its precision. Reversal of Fortune is an often chilly movie, but the chill cuts to the bone.