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A Story With Everything--the Von Bulows : Sunny and Claus had it all--and now there's a movie about their aristocratic lives and tragic conflict. How does Hollywood make a film about these still-living people? Very carefully.

September 30, 1990|JUDITH MICHAELSON

' "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."

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