Reversal of Fortune (1990): Schroeder’s Black Comedy Biopic, Starring Jeremy Irons in Oscar Winning Performance as Claus Von Bulow

French director Barbet Schroeder, better known for his documentaries, turns the actual Claus von Bulow murder case into a black comedy in Reversal of Fortune, a sly, elegantly shot, well played satire.

Did he or did he not That is the question. Did Claus von Bulow (Jeremy Irons) try to murder his rich wife Sunny (Gennn Close), who’s now in coma While the jury may think so, hotshot Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz (Ron Silver) takes the case of Bulow’s appeal because the evidence used against him in the first trial is shaky and unreliable.

Once the duo meet, the film becomes a variation of the Odd Couple, a rich, abrasive, arrogant Euro-trash man and a bright, hardworking, down-to earth Jewish lawyer, who perceived Claus von Bulow’s case as challenging beyond issues of guilt or morality.

Similarly to “Sunset Boulevard,” in which William Holden’s corpse narrated the black satire, here, it’s Glenn Close talking to the audience, from her comatose state. Through flashbacks, we get to see Sunny’s early life with Claus, though the saga leaves it quite open for us to speculate on what has brought the couple to its current status.

The text is one notch above scandalous gossip, the kind we enjoy reading about in trashy magazines. The subtext, however, is deeper and more satirical in suggesting that the rich and famous are bored, cold-hearted, unloved, and useless when it comes to the real world. Indeed, Bulow’s smug aristocrat might have been anti-Semitic, but he also realized that he needed a sweaty, feisty, loudmouth Jew to save his neck. Hence, “Reversal of Fortune” is effective in both exposing and contesting racial stereotypes.

After a bravura turn (actually double-turn) in David Cronenberg’s 1988 “Dead Ringers,” Irons again renders a dominant, charismatic performance, perceiving and playing his role with panache, as a ghoulish comedian who turns his very lawyer into his stooge.

Never addressing the ethical issues directly, which some critics complained about, “Reversal of Fortune” is also effective in describing the esprit de corpse that marked the work of professor Dershowitz and his collaborative team of students-assistants, who commit to the case, working around the clock until they succeed.

Oscar Alert

Oscar Nominations: 3

Director: Barbet Schroeder
Actor: Jeremy Irons
Screenplay (Adapted): Nicholas Kazan

Oscar Awards


Oscar Context

In 1990, the winner of the Best Director Oscar was Kevin Costner for “Dances With Wolves,” which also won Adapted Screenplay for Michael Blake.

End Note

Nicholas Kazan is the son of the famous and infamous director Elia Kazan.

Warner (Reversal Films Productions)