It is one of the oddest performances of recent years, an exercise in mannered behavior that has the audience snickering with disbelief before they realize it's all right to laugh because, in a way, it's supposed to be funny. The performance is by Jeremy Irons in "Reversal of Fortune," where he plays Claus von Bulow, a man accused of attempting to murder his wife.
As von Bulow, Irons strikes poses that would seem affected in a Noel Coward drawing room. He holds his cigarette as if it were being smoked by someone else. His dialogue sometimes seems to have been written by P. G. Wodehouse. The astonishing thing is that this strange performance not only works, it succeeds so well that it provides an avenue into this perverse material. Having read about the von Bulow case for more than a decade, having followed Claus' progress through two sensational trials, having read the periodic updates on his wife, Sunny - who is still alive in an irreversible coma - I would have said the story of this case was unfilmable. I would have been wrong.
"Reversal of Fortune" (opening Wednesday at the Water Tower) is a balancing act of such varied skills that it's hard to know which one to start with. It is, first of all, fairly close to the facts in the case. It is based on a book written by the famous Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz after he successfully defended von Bulow on appeal. It offers fair approximations of the principal characters. Irons gives us a man who feels like the von Bulow we know from the media. Ron Silver gets so close to Dershowitz that when I met the professor himself, I was struck by the resemblance.
And in the performance of Glenn Close, as Sunny, the movie finds a way to make this material bearable. If the entire film took place with Sunny as an offscreen, mute, accusing figure, it would be a very depressing experience. But the film's director, Barbet Schroeder, and his writer, Nicholas Kazan, have found a solution: The entire movie is narrated by Sunny, who, in describing the day she was found in a coma, finds herself as baffled as everyone else by the mystery of what really happened. "You tell me," she invites us, setting a tone for the movie that allows it to move through a remarkable range of moods and materials with surprising ease.
"A comedy laced with rat poison," Tom Luddy of the Telluride Film Festival wrote in his notes, when the movie premiered over the Labor Day weekend. It is indeed a comedy, but such an odd one that even the distributor, Warner Bros., seems unsure of what note to strike in its coming attractions trailer. Is this an expose, a denouncement, an accusation, a real-life crime thriller, a legal procedural or what?
A week after seeing the movie at Telluride, I sat down with Jeremy Irons at another film festival, Toronto, to talk about "Reversal of Fortune." The buzz had already started; here was a performance, a lot of people were saying, that would win an Academy Award nomination. And here was a film that would win box office success for director Barbet Schroeder, whose previous works have been either art house hits or movies such as "Barfly" that generated a lot of enthusiasm but limited receipts.
"Isn't it strange how things come together?" Irons asked me. "How does that happen? I'm thrilled the movie's being received so well because I per ceived it as being difficult to sell. It was a very loose script. I knew that I had to get some comedy into Claus because he has it about him, a sort of wicked black humor, and I needed it for the balance of the character."
Sitting in a hotel suite, sipping a beer, Irons seemed like the intelligent, soft-spoken character he has played in a lot of movies - films such as "The French Lieutenant's Woman," "Betrayal" and the public TV mini-series "Brideshead Revisited." From his work in the dual role as twin gynecologists in "Dead Ringers," we know he's capable of suggesting a buried malevolence, but his Claus von Bulow is a real leap - a leap into an affected British-European accent, a theatrical personal style, a hint of the possibility of evil even in the midst of wounded innocence.
It's that ability to seem plausibly guilty and innocent at the same time that makes his performance, and the movie, intriguing, because "Reversal of Fortune" does not finally say whether it thinks von Bulow is a wife-poisoner or simply a suspicious bystander.
"I think some people will be irritated that the film doesn't come to an obvious conclusion," Irons said, "but I love that. I think it would be a far lesser film if it painted one clear side or the other at the end."
Instead, it ends with a scene that Schroeder was still testing at Telluride. Von Bulow walks into a newsstand to buy some cigarettes, is recognized by the woman behind the counter, and asks her for "a small vial of insulin, please." Her face registers shock. She knows this man has been accused of giving his wife an overdose of insulin. "Only kidding," he says. The same note is struck constantly through the movie; von Bulow seems to enjoy tantalizing people with the possibility of his guilt.
"I'm not sure Claus still enjoys his celebrity as a possible wife murderer," Irons said. "I think he did when it was a real currency in New York. I think in London it's slightly tarnished currency."
He smiled that wan Jeremy Irons smile, and shrugged, as if to suggest that a man cannot, after all, expect to go on dining out indefinitely on the celebrity of having been tried for attempting to poison his wife.
You are not, I said, the first person I would have thought of to play this man. Why did they think of you, and how did you react when you were offered the role?
"Apparently they wanted an Englishman," Irons said. "I suggested to them they use Klaus Maria Brandauer or Robert Duvall. Claus himself had already suggested Duvall. I think they felt that so much of Claus was an Englishman that they had to get one to play him. Claus considers himself an Englishman, with an English reserve and a Scandinavian coldness, so that's why they thought of me, I suppose. I thought it was curious casting. I think a lot of his Englishness is a put-on, actually."
Did you meet him or study tapes of his voice?
`I didn't think it would be useful to meet him," he said. "To start with, I felt so unlike him physically that at the beginning I thought I was a dreadful idea for a casting choice. But strangely, when we got the hair right, and all of that, I thought it just might be possible. I knew that if I met Claus, he wouldn't tell me anything I really needed to know. He wouldn't tell me the truth, and even if he did I wouldn't be able to discern if it was the truth. And I didn't want to feel the need to play an impersonation. That's not what I do. I'm not very good at impersonations. I wanted to get a distilled essence of him. I thought meeting him would be too big an event in my mind.
"I did watch his interviews with Barbara Walters. She did two big ones, and Donahue did a big one. I watched those, and I talked to people who knew him quite well, and began to get a feeling for him."
The feeling was for von Bulow as a singularly odd man, a man who would seem to the average American moviegoer to have come from Mars. Irons gives him such an off-center spin that watching the performance would be absorbing no matter what the movie was about. He does something else, too, and it's the mark of a good actor. Many of von Bulow's scenes are with Silver, playing Dershowitz, and in those scenes Irons makes von Bulow seem especially affected, for a good reason: He is frightened to death. In one extraordinary moment at their first meeting, he actually tells Dershowitz he has "the greatest respect for members of the Jewish race."
"Everybody thought it was too much when I did it, when I played that scene," Irons said. "I certainly was worried that I might have gone too far. I thought it was too loud, for one thing. But I had to think of it from his point of view. I think he was frightened. He was pleading for his freedom. He might go to jail for the rest of his life, so he needs this man. He's very concerned as to whether Dershowitz will take on the case. The stakes are terribly high for him, and I think we tend to forget this when talking about it."
Yet it is beyond him to beg or plead.
"Yes. We see a man who, when he makes that horrendous remark about admiring Jews, really means that as a way to connect with Dershowitz, and of course it comes out all wrong, and it's taken all wrong. He is constantly concerned with making a correct appearance, and sometimes he has no real idea, outside of his own little world, of what a correct appearance might be." A lot of people were annoyed, I said, by Barbet Schroeder's previous film, "Barfly," because they thought Mickey Rourke's performance went over the top. Schroeder doesn't seem to believe that every performance has to be a naturalistic slice of life. Von Bulow is an odd person. You created an odd, eccentric man, but made me feel he was real. He's not like anyone else you've played. How did you come to that oddness?
"He was made up from different elements. The voice came embarrassingly late into the picture. It felt right about a third of the way through, and it wasn't until then that I knew what I was after. The accent is not accurate to Claus, because he actually speaks better English than that. But it's certainly right for my Claus.
"About the mannerisms. At times he uses that theatrical gravity, that ponderousness, for effect. You see people at dinner tables, who like to be the center of attention; they draw it out, especially if they have a secret, if people want to know something. They use that, and concentrate on that, sometimes, to cover themselves. You often see people speaking slowly to make sure they haven't left themselves open by what they say.
"In other words, Claus gives the impression of a man who perhaps is not saying the absolute truth, for whatever his reasons. He is a elegant man. He likes to think of himself as an aristocrat. He's not, but he is a great snob."
Irons smiled and reached again for his beer. "I mustn't talk about him," he said. "I promised I wouldn't talk about him. I can justify everything he does. I know why he's doing it. I know what he's thinking while he does it. But I'm not him, and I don't know the real truth.
"I fell into that trap very badly, in an early interview with a German magazine. It appeared that I was talking about Claus, and it was written as though I was talking about him, and I had never met him. I don't know him. I was talking about myself, about `my' Claus. He set me right about a few things, and obviously it concerned him, and I thought - he's right. I don't see why this man should have to put up with this. You know, of having his friends send him articles about what some lunatic actor has been pontificating about him. Most journalists will write as if I am pronouncing myself Claus von Bulow, rather than talking about my character, which unfortunately has the same name.
"My argument has always been that Claus is a victim. Claus is the one who has to live with all that publicity, all that finger pointing, and now - still - all the uncertainty about his guilt or innocence. He's as much or more a victim than Sunny."
In the film, in flashback scenes, Glenn Close portrays Sunny as a woman so adrift in tranquilizers and alcohol that she has only a tenuous hold on reality, and spends much of her time in bed. There is an eerie dinner scene where the others eat a normal meal while she smokes a cigarette and picks at an ice cream sundae. The film gives the impression that she would have died sooner or later by accident, or by her own hand.
"I think it's a shame that we don't see her a little bit more," Irons said. "A lot of people who knew her said she wasn't like that. I thought, well, of course she wasn't like that when she was out among people, because Claus got her home pretty fast. So they remembered her as charismatic and pretty."
Were there any problems portraying a living person from a legal point of view?
"No, because we based the film very closely on the Dershowitz book, and we knew the book was all right legally. If we wanted to deviate from the book at all, then yes, we had to tread most carefully. One of the witnesses in the case got ahold of a copy of the book before it was printed, and sold that copy to the stepchildren, and the stepchildren called and said they'd sue if it was published. Dershowitz said he'd sue them for receiving stolen goods if they did, and that's as far as it went."
You don't sue Alan Dershowitz lightly, do you?
"I don't think so," Irons said. "I mean, he was saying with gusto today at a press conference that he felt it was a frameup by the children, and one of the journalists said, `You're not afraid they're going to sue?' He said, `I'd be delighted to be sued, because then we'd get to the bottom of this case.' "