On September 12, 1990, Reversal of Fortune opened in theaters and plunged moviegoers into a bizarre, true-life sex-drugs-and-near-death scandal among the East Coast’s upper crust that continues to captivate and intrigue.
Fortune‘s fact-based plot focuses on Claus von Bülow (Jeremy Irons), an icy Danish aristocrat who was convicted in 1982 of two attempts to murder his diabetic wife, Manhattan socialite Sunny von Bülow (Glenn Close), by intentionally injecting her with overdoses of insulin.
Throughout the film, as she did in life at that point, Sunny remains in a coma.
Famed Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz (Ron Silver) takes up Claus’s case and Fortune, from there, takes full flight.
Acclaimed director Barbet Schroeder (Barfly, Single White Female) weaves Reversal of Fortune into an intricate, spellbinding web of legal intrigue, courtroom fireworks, and unnerving human drama.
Jeremy Irons, most deservedly, picked up a Best Actor Academy Award for his simultaneously chilling, amusing, and altogether utterly amazing portrayal of Claus von Bülow.
One of Fortune’s wittiest, most acerbic touches is that the story is narrated by Sunny von Bülow while she lays motionless in her hospital bed. Perfectly voiced by Close (who also appears in regular flashbacks), Sunny fills us in on the details that so enraptured the public from the top echelons of the social register to the most outrageous tabloid headlines.
In 1966, the recently divorced Sunny Crawford met and married Claus von Bülow, a contract attorney and member of Denmark’s royal class who moved to New York and became the personal assistant of no less a societal titan than J. Paul Getty.
The couple endured until 1979, at which point Sunny discovered that Claus had taken up romantically with a debutante. That December, Sunny also slipped into her first diabetic coma, a condition from which she emerged in relatively short order.
Within a year, though, Sunny collapsed into a much deeper and more serious coma. Her son, Alexander von Auesperg, immediately suspected foul play on the part of his stepfather.
Von Auesperg then hired a private investigator and broke into a locked closet on the von Bülows’ Rhode Island estate. Inside, he unearthed a black bag containing an insulin-tainted needle.
Upon alerting the authorities, Von Auesperg claimed the needle was a “weapon” used against his mother and that Claus had purposefully hidden it behind the bolted door.
That evidence proved to be enough to get Claus tried for two counts of attempted murder in 1982, once for each of Sunny’s comas. A jury found him guilty and von Bülow got 30 years — at first.
Enter defense attorney Alan Dershowitz.
At age 28 in 1967, the funny, fiery, and forever outspoken Dershowitz became the youngest full professor in the history of Harvard Law School.
Fifteen years later, Claus von Bulow hired Dershowitz to handle his appeal. It worked.
True crime journalist and New York socialite Dominick Dunne covered the case for Vanity Fair.
As he witnessed devastating moves such as celebrity author and family friend Truman Capote coming forward to swear that Sunny von Bülow regularly shot drugs, Dunne likened the performance of the Dershowitz defense team against Rhode Island prosecutors to “something like a football game between the New York Jets and Providence High.”
Dershowitz dynamically argued that Sunny’s coma could have resulted from any number of causes other than an insulin OD. The court reversed Claus von Bülow’s conviction and he walked free.
Sunny von Bülow remained in a “persistent vegetative state” until she died in 2008.
In 1995, Alan Dershowitz repeated his grand-scale courtroom success as a member of O.J. Simpson’s “Dream Team.”
Claus von Bülow, in more than one sense, is still out there.
Throughout his trials and appeals process, Claus von Bülow reportedly came off to numerous observers as … odd. A multitude of alleged anecdotes (however unsubstantiated) involved him joking in dark-humored terms about Sunny’s condition and his own conviction.
Reversal of Fortune acknowledges those stories with a coda in which Irons-as-Claus asks for cigarettes at drug store counter and then adds, “And a vial of insulin” .
When the cashier recognizes who the customer is and registers shock, the movie version of von Bülow turns to walk out and casually snickers, “Just kidding.”
Still, Reversal of Fortune’s most famous dialogue (recreated later by Jeremy Irons in The Lion King) best sums up the public perception of Claus von Bülow.
It occurs when Ron Silver, as Dershowitz, tells von Bülow, “You’re a very strange man.”
Irons, channeling von Bülow at his deadpan peak, responds with cryptic deliciousness, “You have NO idea.”
Main image: Jeremy Irons as Claus von Bülow in “Reversal of Fortune” / Warner Bros publicity image [promotional material]