Subject and star match in 'Reversal of Fortune'

November 14, 1990|By Alan M. Dershowitz | Alan M. Dershowitz,New York Times

(Alan M. Dershowitz is a professor of law at Harvard Law School.)

When I attended the premiere of "Reversal of Fortune" at the recent Toronto Film Festival, I anticipated few surprises.

The new movie, directed by Barbet Schroeder, is based on my own book about how my students and I had reversed Claus von Bulow's conviction for twice trying to kill his wife.

My son Elon, who works in the film business, had come up with the idea of making a movie out of the von Bulow story. Since he was involved in every phase of the project, from script revision to casting to shooting and editing, I thought I had nothing to worry about.

I had met with the actor, Ron Silver, who had been chosen to play me. I had even been at the filming of several scenes involving my character.

I've also seen myself on the television screen many times, in interviews and in tapes of court appearances. While watching myself "perform" on TV, I have said to friends and family that the aggressive and fast-talking know-it-all they're watching isn't really me; it's my TV persona.

I expected to feel about the same when I watched myself being played in a movie, and I thought I was prepared for the experience.

But when Ron Silver's face appeared on the big screen playing me, I had a physical reaction -- not quite an out-of-body experience but a bizarre feeling that some stranger had borrowed my identity and was trying to encapsulate my entire life into several fleeting scenes.

When the time came to pick the actor who was going to portrame, I asked my son to look for someone with whom I could identify.

I didn't much care about physical resemblance, though I wanted him to look Jewish.

Shortly after Ron Silver won the Tony for his portrayal of the fast-talking Hollywood producer in David Mamet's "Speed-the-Plow," my son arranged for me to see the play and meet Mr. Silver.

I immediately thought he was perfect, especially when I learned that our politics and world views were strikingly similar.

He, like me, is liberal in politics, proudly Jewish, somewhat confrontational in approach and deeply involved with his family.

He is also regarded as something of a gadfly in the movie business, as I am in the law business. Whenever we met to discuss "the role," our conversation would quickly veer off into the issues of the day.

During the filming, I invited several family members to be extras at the courthouse scene in which my character argues the

appeal.

Ron looked so much like me during that scene that one relative ran up to him before the shooting and was about to give him a family hug, when she noticed the real me standing a few feet away.

Embarrassed, she backed away from Ron, who reached out and gave her a hug anyway, saying it's nice to meet the real "mishpocheh" -- Yiddish for family.

He added that he didn't think anything was amiss when my relative tried to hug him, since he had an aunt who looked just like her.

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