If Sunny von Bülow woke up,” says lawyer Alan Dershowitz, ”she’d say two things to her children: a) ‘Why did you drag me through this publicity?’ and b) ‘Glenn Close’s performance is pretty good.”’
Of all those involved in the nearly decade-long legal battle against her husband Claus, the comatose Sunny von Bülow is the only one unable to make her feelings known about Reversal of Fortune, the critically lauded movie based on the scandal. But some of those involved in the real case are letting their opinions be heard, and they aren’t all favorable. Even Dershowitz, whom the movie portrays as the case’s central hero, has reservations.
Though Reversal (starring Jeremy Irons as Claus, Glenn Close as Sunny, and Ron Silver as Dershowitz) is based on Dershowitz’s book about his defense of Claus — who was tried, convicted, and later acquitted of trying to kill his wife — its faithfulness to the facts is in dispute.
The strongest objections have come from Sunny von Bülow’s two children by her first marriage, Ala Isham and Alexander Auersperg, who helped engineer the criminal case against their stepfather and later brought a $56 million civil suit against him that was settled out of court in 1987. ”In an effort to appeal to sensationalism, our mother has been portrayed as pathetic and self- destructive,” Isham and Auersperg stated through a publicist.
Sitting in a stark Warner Bros. conference room on the movie’s opening day, Dershowitz is quick to condemn the two stepchildren’s ”crocodile tears.” ”They made the decision to bring this case and publicize it and to hire private people to try and convict Claus in the media,” he says. ”When you live by the sword, you die by the sword.”
But Dershowitz, whose elder son, Elon, coproduced Reversal, isn’t perfectly satisfied either. ”I had hoped the movie would follow my book more closely, be more factual,” says the high-profile attorney and Harvard Law professor. He is especially displeased that the comatose Sunny narrates much of the film. Director Barbet Schroeder defends the ghostly voice-over. ”We’re not making Sunny say anything untrue or that she wouldn’t admit,” he says.
Dershowitz also feels he came across as too hot-tempered and not enough of a family man to be true to life. ”I don’t throw telephones,” he says. ”I don’t curse, except very selectively.”
”There are many more difficulties portraying a real person,” says Ron Silver. ”They’re compounded when the person is intimately involved with the work being produced and when you’re friendly with the person.”
The Von Bülow case provided the public with a rare — and satisfyingly sordid —glimpse into the lives of the American aristocracy. Predictably, many of the participants are unhappy about the renewed interest in the case. Von Bülow’s former mistress, Alexandra Isles, icily denies she has any intention of seeing herself portrayed on-screen by Julie Hagerty. But Dershowitz scoffs that Isles, as well as Isham and Auers-perg, who have also said they won’t see the film, don’t really mean it.
”They’ll see it,” he says, leaning forward and lowering his voice conspiratorially. ”They always do.”
As for Von Bülow himself, he still calls Dershowitz every few weeks from London. ”He likes me,” says the lawyer with a shrug. After seeing the movie, Dershowitz sent Von Bülow a long letter detailing his concerns about his own image in the film. As far as Dershowitz knows, the now-reclusive Claus hasn’t yet seen Reversal. But his former attorney predicts that the controversial figure — who once courted the media and posed for photographs in black leather — will find the lure of a movie about his life irresistible.