‘Reversal of Fortune’ at 30: Legal Thriller as Moral Conundrum
Last week marked the 30th anniversary of the only Oscar bait movie from the early 1990s in which the hero is Alan Dershowitz.
Directed by Barbet Schroeder and based on Dershowitz’s own book, Reversal of Fortune told the story of the attempted murder trial of Claus von Bulow, the Danish socialite and aristocrat who was accused in 1979 of intentionally overdosing his wife Sunny with insulin, leaving her in a coma until she died nearly 30 years later.
It’s a fascinating legal procedural, and provides an intriguing examination both of loveless blue blood marriages, and of the conundrum of lawyers defending a client who very well may be guilty. The film, which Sunny narrates from her coma, doesn’t take a clear, unambiguous stand over Claus von Bulow’s guilt or innocence, which is curious coming from a book written by the man’s own lawyer.
Provides an intriguing examination both of loveless blue blood marriages, and of the conundrum of lawyers defending a client
Watching it today, the film mostly holds up, except for one glaring exception: Knowing what we know now about Alan Dershowitz, his specious defenses of Donald Trump on television, and his ties to Jeffrey Epstein, it’s a bit of a leap to buy him as a hero. Especially when most of the film shows him in the presence of a creepy rich guy.
The film operates on two tracks. One is the story of Claus and Sunny (Jeremy Irons and Glenn Close), married aristocrats who spend their days icily engaging with each other in a series of massive estates. They clearly hate each other, and are headed for divorce when Sunny winds up in a coma, with Claus convicted of her attempted murder in a high-profile trial.
The other track follows Dershowitz (Ron Silver), a Harvard Law professor who occasionally takes pro bono cases. He wrestles with whether to take Claus’ case, but ultimately agrees, knowing this deep-pocketed client will pay for his work in the other cases. In the appeal, Dersh (as he’s called) is assisted by a group of current and former students, played by the likes of Annabella Sciorra, and a young Felicity Huffman, who these days could use her own criminal appellate lawyer.
Reversal of Fortune was nominated for three Oscars, and Irons won for Best Actor (Close, even though she got nominations practically every year in those days, was not nominated for Reversal.) It didn’t get a Best Picture nomination, in the Dances With Wolves/Goodfellas year.
Dershowitz has been portrayed in popular culture in other projects
Dershowitz has been portrayed in popular culture in other projects, many of them having to do with his involvement in the O.J. Simpson case. Evan Handler played him in The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, while in the 2000 TV movie American Tragedy, he was played by Richard Cox (in that same movie, fellow O.J. lawyer Robert Shapiro was played by… Ron Silver). Dershowitz has also been mentioned in various documentary projects in connection with the Epstein case.
Sunny von Bulow remained in a vegetative state until her death in 2008, while Claus von Bulow died in 2019 at the age of 92. The case has somewhat receded in the public imagination, mostly because it was so long ago and unlike most major true crime stories from the last 40 years, it’s never been adapted into a high-profile documentary or podcast.