I walked into the movie Woman in Gold expecting another fabulous performance from actress Helen Mirren, and I got that.
What I wasn’t expecting was a star turn by none other than U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist.
Well, “star turn” might be a bit of a stretch. More like 60 seconds of screen time.
And it wasn’t actually Justice Rehnquist. It was Welsh actor Jonathan Pryce portraying the former top jurist.
But still, it was a pivotal scene depicting oral arguments in the landmark art restitution case of Republic of Austria v. Altmann, heard by the Supreme Court in 2004.
How often do you get to see hunky actor Ryan Reynolds argue eloquently and passionately to a seated row of actors wearing black robes and bearing only a very slight resemblance to Clarence Thomas, John Paul Stevens and Sandra Day O’Connor?
Not often enough, I’d say.
Recovering Stolen Artwork
You might have heard about the underlying case. Maria Altmann, a World War II refugee living in California, sued the Republic of Austria to recover her family’s valuable artworks that had been stolen by the Nazis. The most notable piece – Gustave Klimt’s “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” better known as the Woman in Gold – was hanging in the Austrian Gallery and had become a symbol of national pride.
The plaintiff filed her lawsuit in U.S. District Court. The defense claimed immunity under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976 (FSIA), while the plaintiff cited an “expropriation exception” allowing civil suits involving rights in property taken in violation of international law.
Ryan Reynolds, playing young lawyer Randal Schoenberg, reluctantly took her case despite having zero experience in such matters. At first skeptical, later indefatigable, he keeps going, year after year, even after he is fired from his law firm job and she is ready to throw in the towel.
The case eventually worked its way up the high court. Guess who won?
Lights, Camera, Arguments
Republic of Austria v. Altmann broke new ground in international law. I will leave the analysis of that holding to legal minds brighter than mine.
What I wanted to know after leaving the theater was this: have there been other movies that portrayed real-life Supreme Court justices?
I could think of one: Amistad, the 1997 Steven Spielberg drama based on the 1839 mutiny aboard the slave ship La Amistad. In that film, retired Justice Harry Blackmun played Justice Joseph Story. This is the only time in known film history that an Associate Justice portrayed another Associate Justice.
How about you? Can you think of any other movies in which real-life judges or justices were given the Hollywood treatment? Send us a comment.
- Internet Movie Database http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2404425/fullcredits?ref_=tt_ov_st_sm
- Christie’s http://www.christies.com/features/Woman-in-Gold-5880-1.aspx
- Republic of Austria v. Altmann https://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=2876377124827448035&hl=en&as_sdt=6&as_vis=1&oi=scholar
- Republic of Austria v. Altmann, Cornell Law https://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/03-13.ZS.html
Jay Reeves a/k/a The Risk Man is an attorney who has practiced North Carolina and South Carolina. Formerly he was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.