' "This case has everything,' declared the prosecutor. 'It has money, sex, drugs; it has Newport (Rhode Island), New York and Europe; it has nobility; it has maids, butlers, a gardener. . . . This case is where the little man has a chance to glimpse inside and see how the rich live. ' "
From its opening lines, Harvard Law professor Alan M. Dershowitz's book "Reversal of Fortune: Inside the Von Bulow Case," written in 1986, read like a breathless invitation to do the movie.
Next, he quoted an unnamed commentator who called the case "an epic drama," or a vehicle that would have "made Cecil B. De Mille proud, with its plots and subplots, major and minor characters, days of nail-biting tension and periods of comic relief."
And if a producer hadn't quite leaped to the phone, Dershowitz wrote a bit later in the book that "a legal case is somewhat like a long unedited film containing thousands of frames, only a small portion of which ultimately appear on the screen . . . ."
Dershowitz, of course, also provided a list of dramatis personae starting with Claus von Bulow, the aloof Danish-born aristocrat accused of twice trying to murder his wife Martha (Sunny) von Bulow by injecting her with insulin and twice tried for the alleged crime. In the first trial in 1982, Von Bulow was found guilty. In the second trial in 1985, which he won on appeal, he was acquitted.
Dershowitz, who built a national reputation as a civil liberties lawyer with clients like Patty Hearst, Anatoly Scharansky and a number of inmates on death row--he's currently handling the tax-evasion appeal of Leona Helmsley--represented Von Bulow on appeal.
Now comes "Reversal of Fortune"--the movie--starring Glenn Close as Sunny, heir to a utilities fortune that at the time of her second, irreversible coma in December, 1980, was approaching $100 million; Jeremy Irons as her second husband, Von Bulow, and Ron Silver as Dershowitz. The movie--an Edward R. Pressman Production for Warner Bros. and directed by Barbet Schroeder ("Barfly")--has been the hit of both the Telluride and Toronto film festivals and opens nationally Oct. 19.
It's a most unusual movie--all of the principals are alive, though the heroine/victim remains in a coma--that has been inspected scrupulously by lawyers on all sides, according to the filmmakers. Yet they also admit to the use of dramatic license, a mix of fact and fiction, in portraying a much-publicized case that seemed destined for filming from the beginning.
However Dershowitz, who plays a Rhode Island Supreme Court Judge in the movie (without lines), insists the thought of a picture deal did not occur to him until his older son Elon read the book manuscript and said, " 'Hey, this is a movie.' "
Dershowitz's son, now 29, took his father's book to his boss, producer Pressman, and is now a co-producer on the film.
"I had no idea about any movie," the author says. "It was just that obviously I wanted people to read the book and to make people read a book you talk about its popular aspect.
"I had a very specific goal . . . to illustrate how due process can really work to free an innocent person. Generally, it works to free guilty people, and here was a case where all these constitutional rights had turned around a verdict and had actually proved (someone) innocent, and that's the theme of the book . . . It's hard to put that into a movie. It's much easier said in 300 pages than in 100 minutes."
"But you do come away with a sense that here was a man who was falsely accused," he added. "And you understand why. Because he is an enigmatic character. There's one scene where he screams at me because he says I wear my emotions on my sleeve and he doesn't . . . He's a cold Dane, and I'm a warm-bodied Jew, and our worlds just don't mesh, and that provides some real interest in the movie"--as it had in the book.
Yet liberties were taken with Dershowitz's character as well. "It's not me as I know myself," said Dershowitz last week with a laugh, but he nevertheless deemed the movie "terrific." "The opening scene has me throwing a telephone on the floor. I have never done that in my life . . . "
As "Reversal of Fortune" screenwriter Nicholas Kazan puts it, the movie is "not docudrama; it's not documentary. Probably a good name for it would be some kind of fiction based on fact."
The role of late author Truman Capote, who figures prominently in Dershowitz's book--Capote told Dershowitz that Sunny had told him that she injected herself with a mixture of Demerol and amphetamines--has been trimmed from the movie for time's sake, though he rates a mention. "He was a wonderful character," muses Kazan. "I'm really very sorry to lose him. He's dead, so you can say whatever you want."
Kazan sees Von Bulow as someone who "reeks of guilt--but that doesn't mean he tried to kill his wife . . . . He may have tried to kill his wife but not in the manner alleged by the prosecution. I don't mean that he did try to kill his wife. I'm saying that no one knows."
When a fact-based project goes to Hollywood, Dershowitz knows, it can quickly change.
"When I gave the book over to my son," Dershowitz said a few months ago, "I realized that I was losing control over it, it was no longer my product. It was now his product, Kazan's product, Schroeder's product. Obviously, if I did it, I would have done it differently, but I'm not in the movie business. I would have made it much more documentary, very very limited to the facts . . . . But whenever you've written something and you give that up to a filmmaker, you're taking a little bit of a risk.
"But I'm a risk taker. I don't live in the shadows."
Elon Dershowitz, who has sidelined as a professional magician, had been Pressman's driver in Los Angeles when he first read his father's book. Besides co-producing "Reversal of Fortune" with Kazan, he shares rights to the book with his brother Jamin Dershowitz, 27, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Society in New York City. "I drove (Pressman) around in his little car," Elon recalled on the film's set last September. "I had the galleys. And I said, 'Ed, I'd like to give you first look because I work for you . ' "
"Six months into the job, and he had a manuscript," Pressman elaborated. "I sort of inquisitively looked at it and was immediately absorbed. I had always had a real fascination with the world of the American aristocracy. I had enjoyed the books of Lewis Auchincloss and Edith Wharton, and to see that world, not 'Dynasty' or 'Dallas,' but Newport, was something that was very interesting to me.
"And then the actual legal process," added Pressman, whose recent projects included "Blue Steel," Oliver Stone's "Wall Street" and "Talk Radio" (Stone is a producer on this movie as well). "I had known about trials and such through films like 'The Verdict' and 'Witness for the Prosecution,' but this book gave me a perspective which was more authentic and realistic . . . ." Pressman called it "a cinematic idea" to do a movie about investigative lawyers "in the way 'All the President's Men' approached its subject" about investigative reporters.
Kazan, whose screenplays include "Patty Hearst" and "At Close Range," was also drawn by the saga of the rich. He is descended on his mother's side from generations of "crusty New England lawyers (and) a great-great grandfather who was president of Yale." And he is the son of director Elia Kazan.
Schroeder was drawn to the story because "it deals with evil. Ever since I made the movie 'Idi Amin' (1974), it has been one of my concentrations . . . . Aaaah, the thing is that we don't really know where the evil is. Evil is omnipresent, it's everywhere. There are all kinds of possible evils, all kinds of hypotheses. Did he do it or did the (adult) children (by Sunny's first marriage) frame him? And is this man evil, or is it evil to let an evil man go free?"
I t is Christmas week, 1979. Sunny sits chain smoking furiously in a four-poster bed with separate mattresses. A bandanna over his eyes, Claus pretends to be asleep, until she picks a fight. Bottles of pills are visible on her night table.
Claus, trained as a lawyer whose last job was as an assistant to J. Paul Getty in London, yearns to work, but Sunny doesn't want him to. "At your age it's perfectly acceptable to retire," she says.
"I've already retired," he replies. "I haven't worked full time since Getty."
"Exactly. This is your ego," she says angrily. "You never had a career. Not really."
"I'm going to have one now," Claus says. "Come on, Sunny, your father worked. You want the children to grow up thinking the male's place is in a deck chair?"
"You marry me for my money and then demand to work?" she hurls at him before bringing up the matter of his mistress. "You're the prince of perversion."
Prince of perversion?
"What she's saying at a direct level (in that scene)," Kazan explains, "is that he has all the money in the world and he wants to work? Beyond that his whole attitude toward life, he relishes things which other people consider to be perverse . . . . He has a certain iconography around his house which suggests that he may not be a sadomasochist but he may like to tease people into thinking he is."
Close apparently found the idea that Von Bulow may have sat and watched his wife's struggle particularly chilling. "It was the next morning when Maria (Schrallhammer, Sunny's personal maid) says she heard moaning and accused (Claus) of not calling the doctor," she said, "and he said she was just sleeping everything off, and finally about six in the evening she went into (Close imitates a heavy choking sound). Her heart stopped. "
By coincidence, Close had met the real Claus von Bulow. "He's very charismatic--and kind of scary-looking," she said. "When I was married, we lived on Fifth Avenue, and we went to some of (the same) dinner parties. I never sat at his table. He's very, very tall, and he always had a flock of people around him, and basically was always holding court. It was during the (second) trial . . . I was very put off by it actually. And I was very put off by the fact that all these people were flocking around him. It was very much like 'Bonfire of the Vanities.' "
Sunny von Bulow emerged from her first coma in 1979 with last-minute ministrations by her physician. A year later she went into the second coma. For nearly 10 years, she has remained at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York. According to Maureen Connelly, a family spokeswoman, "the correct terminology is that she's in a 'persistent vegetative state.' " ....................
The case divided Sunny's children. Annie-Laurie (Ala) Kneissl (now Ala Isham) and Alexander von Auersperg, the children from her first marriage to Austrian Prince Alfred von Auersperg, insisted that their stepfather was guilty. Cosima von Bulow, a teen-ager then, stood with her father.
As "Reversal of Fortune" went into production, her older children, who had also tried to suppress Dershowitz' book, apparently got hold of a copy of Kazan's script. Pressman said the children "had a couple of objections . . . We've been basically very careful in not doing anything that would be legally incorrect."
"I asked Ala about changes," noted Connelly, "and she said she and her brother objected to the way their mother was portrayed. She said they suggested changes but has no idea whether they were incorporated or not."
She said Ala called the film " 'a gross exploitation of my mother. People are seeking to profit from her tragedy.' "
Connelly added that both Von Auersperg children, who founded the National Victim Center and the Sunny von Bulow Coma and Head Trauma Research Foundation in their mother's name, consider the movie "another example of a trend that goes against victim's rights, that victims are exploited in the courtroom and then they are exploited in books and movies . . . . They don't want to continue a public fight. They want to get on with their lives."
Connelly has not seen "Reversal of Fortune," though she said she asked Warner Communications about attending an advance screening. She added that Ala and her brother are "distressed" about the upcoming movie, "but as Ala said, 'we faced a lot worse than this in the last 10 years.'
Pressman insists his movie "won't do damage to the memory of Sunny. Certainly in comparison to what we read in the press and see on the news at the time, her image is almost heroic and will be significantly enhanced by the film. A lot of the film is from her perspective."
"Reversal of Fortune" focuses on the appeal process and Dershowitz's use of teams of junior colleagues and law students to unravel puzzles in the case.
In real life, Von Bulow hired Dershowitz several weeks after the jury rendered its guilty verdict. He was sentenced to 30 years, but was granted $1-million bail pending appeal. Two years later, on April 27, 1984, the Rhode Island Supreme Court reversed the conviction on grounds that a private investigator's notes were not made available to the defense, and police violated the federal and Rhode Island constitutions by failing to obtain a search warrant before testing drugs from a black shaving bag found in Von Bulow's closet.
In the retrial, led by former "Abscam" prosecutor Thomas Puccio, who also used evidence gathered by Dershowitz' team, the defense argued the comas were most likely caused by combinations of alcohol, drugs, low body temperature and choking on vomit--not injection by insulin. On June 10, 1985, Von Bulow was acquitted.
In preparing his script, Kazan went beyond Dershowitz's book. He also used Dershowitz's 100-page appeals brief in preparing his script--"crammed pages full of footnotes and so forth, filled with all kinds of human details"--as well as the reply briefs. He watched Claus on two Barbara Walters' interviews after each trial, and read transcripts of the first trial, as well as 2,000 pages of Claus' deposition in response to a civil suit that had been filed against him by the Von Auersperg children. And Kazan researched material purporting to tell the other side.
Kazan said he "elaborated" on dialogue and character, though not on actual events other than for dramatic compression.
Claus was "easy to embellish because he's kind of a rococo figure," said Kazan. "His sense of himself--'What do you give a wife who has everything? An injection of insulin'--it's like that these jokes he (repeats) so frequently give you a sense of play which is exciting, comic and terrifying simultaneously. . . . The trick with Claus is everyone sees him as being kind of devilish, and part of my job was to make him a human being also . . . ."
"With Sunny," Kazan continued, "I have affidavits about her falling down in public parties, and drinking and smearing lipstick all over her face. These are depositions which Claus got from people in Newport for the appeal. Then there was Claus' civil deposition. One has to look at that with a certain amount of skepticism but he's not lying for 2,000 pages.
"So the trick is to take everything . . . her pattern of self-destruction--all the pills, aspirin constantly, up to 20 laxatives a day, chain smoking cigarettes three or four packs a day, this woman was really on a collision course, and she stayed in bed constantly. And you also want to present a human being you're sympathetic to. This person lived. This person cared about her children. I tried to make a portrait of someone who was trapped in her life."
Still there were constraints. "Working on the script was a nightmare from a legal standpoint," noted Kazan, "because the assumption is everyone's going to come out of the woodwork, everyone is going to sue, and a lot of the people who are going to sue are very rich. Every time there was a revision we had to go to the lawyers. If an actor had a problem with a line, you'd rewrite the line and go the lawyers, then the lawyers would send it to the insurance agent."
How do you make a movie about a woman in a coma? Even taking into account the "flashbacks," Glenn Close said her character is really the movie's "leitmotif"--her role was shot in the first three weeks of production--while "certainly in size of roles, Jeremy and Ron Silver are carrying the weight of the movie."
Schroeder enjoyed the contrast in their characters. "I see (Von Bulow) as totally amoral and pleasure-loving, who's bored to death when he's with his wife, but who has a lot of fun when he's in trouble. Nothing matters ultimately. Nothing has any importance. That's a very unusual character. And what I liked was the confrontation between those two--Dershowitz and him. And that's the heart of the movie.
"Of course basically you have the idea also of life versus death," continued the director, "because the surrounding of Von Bulow in his big house is very cold, and the surrounding of Dershowitz is all these young students and that is very exciting too. Von Bulow has a dandy libertine detached view of the world. On the contrary, for Dershowitz, justice is almost like a religion. Things do matter, even if it's for the idea of justice to free someone that maybe is not completely innocent."
Not completely innocent? "The possibility of his guilt has to be there; otherwise the movie doesn't work dramatically," Schroeder said. Not that he injected his wife with insulin for "that charge was completely ludicrous," but that Von Bulow is "somehow responsible."
Perhaps guilty, he suggested reluctantly, "of having collaborated with his wife in order to have her die. She may have (attempted to) committed suicide and he may have facilitated that."
And Kazan pointed out that "there is considerable evidence, if you read the book, that Sunny was suicidal. Three weeks before the final coma Sunny took 65 aspirins." Dershowitz suggests that Von Bulow was "frozen with indecision" about calling the doctor at the time of the first coma because "he doesn't know how sick she is, the maid is saying, 'Call the doctor.' He's saying, 'She wouldn't want me to call the doctor, she doesn't like invasion of her privacy, she doesn't like the doctors in Newport, don't worry she's done this before.' And then in retrospect it was much worse than he thought.
"There's nothing in the second coma. He learned from the first coma that he had been wrong and he called immediately."
Shortly after his acquittal Von Bulow told Dershowitz he thought Robert Duvall ought to play him in the movie, which Dershowitz duly reported in the book. Now living in England and according to Dershowitz doing charitable work, Von Bulow played no role in the making of "Reversal of Fortune." One of the stipulations between him and Sunny's older children in settling the civil suit was that he maintain silence on the case.
However, Dershowitz did confide, going into an ever-so-slight imitation of his client's voice, " 'You know, I'm not allowed to talk about this film, and I'm as anxious as any subject would be.'
"He's heard very good things about Jeremy," Dershowitz added. "He was just a bit concerned Jeremy Irons didn't have his accent right. He said Jeremy Irons has never been to Oxford or Cambridge."