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Reversal of Fortune (1990) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

von bülow dershowitz claus

Principal social themes: end-of-life issues, addiction, suicide/depression

Warner Brothers. R rating. Featuring: Jeremy Irons, Glenn Close, Ron Silver, Annabella Sciorra, Uta Hagen, Fisher Stevens, Jack Gilpin, Christine Baranski, Stephen Mailer, Felicity Huffman, Mano Singh, Tom Wright, Bill Camp, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Christine Dunford, Julie Hagerty. Written by Nicholas Kazan based on the book by Alan Dershowitz. Cinematography by Luciano Tovoli. Edited by Lee Percy. Music by Mark Isham. Produced by Edward R. Pressman and Oliver Stone. Directed by Barbet Schroeder. Color. 120 minutes.


Reversal of Fortune is based on the true case of wealthy Newport heiress Sunny von Bülow, who went into a coma in 1980 and has remained in that state for the past twenty-two years. Amid rumors of attempted suicide, euthanasia, and murder, her husband Claus von Bülow was charged and convicted of attempted homicide based on evidence gather by private detectives working for Sunny’s children from a previous marriage. The autocratic von Bülow contacted noted legal scholar Alan Dershowitz, whose extraordinary appeal led to the granting of a new trial and eventual acquittal for von Bülow. The film was a critical success, and actor Jeremy Irons won the Academy Award as Best Actor for his portrayal of von Bülow.


Reversal of Fortune has a very complex structure as many characters express their own reminiscences about Sunny von Bülow (Glenn Close) and how she wound up in a vegetative state. Several key scenes are repeated in alternate takes, for example, some depicting Claus von Bülow (Jeremy Irons) behaving either innocently or criminally in the same situation. There are various layers of issues that can also be interpreted differently. In short, the film is an intellectual challenge. Oddly enough, Sunny von Bülow herself narrates the proceedings from her “brain dead” coma, as the viewers periodically witness the extent of the treatment to maintain her shadowy existence.

Harvard legal scholar Alan Dershowitz (Ron Silver) is approached by Claus von Bülow to review his case after he is convicted of the attempted murder of his wife, Sunny. At first, Dershowitz seems convinced, like the public at large, that von Bülow was responsible for inducing his wife’s coma. When he studies the case, he discovers that a basic legal principle had been violated, namely that most of the evidence against von Bülow was gathered by private detectives working for two of Sunny’s grown children, Alexander and Ala, from a previous marriage. The defense was never allowed to review the notes of the private investigators. The district attorney’s office merely accepted the filtered evidence presented to them and based their case on it. Dershowitz decided to file an appeal. At first, he discovers most of the legal apprentices working with him believe von Bülow is actually guilty, but as they uncover that more and more of the evidence was manufactured, their opinions change. Von Bülow appears before them for questioning, and he maintains his complete innocence. Sunny’s younger daughter, Cosima, also believes in her father’s complete vindication. The motives of Alexander and Ala are examined, including their desire to disinherit Claus and Cosima and to prevent anyone else from having any input in the care of the comatose Sunny. A potential witness secretly tapes his interview with Dershowitz and offers to provide him valuable testimony in exchange for money. When the lawyer declines, the tape is doctored and sent to the prosecutor’s office, but this gambit fails.

In private, Dershowitz asks his client to recount in detail his personal recollections of Sunny’s various drug addictions and her behavior before the onset of the coma. Dershowitz comes to believe fully that his client is innocent. He personally argues his brief before the Rhode Island Supreme Court, citing some of their own previous rulings regarding the introduction of new evidence in cases that are circumstantial in nature. When the prosecution responds by discussing the new evidence (the notes of the private attorney and inaccurate results reported by the medical lab), Dershowitz is confident of success. The court in fact sets aside the conviction and allows the defense access to the notes. This material completely undermines the prosecution’s case, particularly any evidence dealing with insulin (which the prosecution had theorized was the murder weapon). The hostility of the testimony of Sunny’s maid, Maria, was also exposed. Von Bülow was easily cleared in a second trial, but Sunny is left in legal limbo in her vegetative state.


Although Alan Dershowitz’s book Reversal of Fortune concentrates on the legal case, the film touches on other matters through the narration of Sunny, which adds a sense of fantasy to the production. This device is similar to the one used in the Bela Lugosi thriller Scared to Death (1946), in which a corpse narrates the story from a slab in the morgue. Sunny’s narration, in particular, stresses end-of-life issues with almost diametrically opposed results. She says she is brain dead and has no hope of recovery. Yet, by the fact the audience can hear her and follow her reasoning, she still appears to have cognition, which in reality she does not. The film can serve as a vehicle for the question of extending life medically when there is no consciousness or chance of recovery. Claus believes that she should be allowed to die. She was desperately unhappy, and when she was revived from a previous coma a year earlier, she seemed to resent it. If Claus did not actively kill her, could he have been guilty on some other level? Did he notice her collapse earlier than he admitted and chose to do nothing? Did he provoke her suicidal tendencies by discussing divorce? From the book and film, the evidence suggests not, but von Bülow was such an unlikable man that people wanted to think him guilty.

Jeremy Irons is brilliant in his portrayal, showing Claus as somewhat cold and formal but suave with a clandestine sense of black humor. Incidentally, von Bülow’s mistress, played in the film by Julie Hagerty, was Alexandra Moltke, best remembered for her role as Victoria Winters in the gothic soap opera Dark Shadows . Exteriors for the show were filmed in Newport, just a few blocks away from Claredon Court, the lavish home of the von Bülows. Claus was related on his mother’s side to the famous Cosima von Bülow, the daughter of Franz Liszt, and second wife of Richard Wagner. Sunny’s youngest daughter was named in her honor.

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