An unwinnable case becomes a golden ticket

When attorney E. Randol “Randy” Schoenberg saw himself portrayed on the big screen by hunky Ryan Reynolds in the movie “Woman in Gold,” he immediately spotted a difference.

“Obviously, I’m not the sexiest man alive,” Schoenberg acknowledged, referring to the label People magazine bestowed on Reynolds in 2010. “I don’t look like Ryan, with a T-shirt on or a T-shirt off.”

Such external differences aside, Schoenberg wasn’t bothered by seeing his years of struggle and triumph interpreted through the eyes and voice of an actor. “I looked at Reynolds not as me, but as a separate character,” he said during an interview at his Brentwood home.

“Woman in Gold” tells the story of the real-life dramatic international legal case centered on the recovery of a world-famous painting looted by the Nazis from its Jewish owners.

Specifically, the movie focuses on the relationship between Maria Altmann, the elderly descendant of one of the wealthiest and most prominent Jewish families in Vienna, and a young, unproven lawyer who took on the Austrian and American governments to recover what was then the most expensive painting in the world.

In a larger framework, “Woman in Gold” re-creates an era during the 19th and 20th centuries, when Vienna rivaled Paris as the cosmopolitan capital of the world, with Jewish talent, taste and wealth integral to its fame and lifestyle.

Among the most prominent Jewish families in what was, until the end of World War I, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was the Bloch-Bauer family. The head of the family, at the beginning of the 20th century, was sugar magnate Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer.

His glamorous wife, Adele, reigned over a glittering salon attended by Vienna’s leading artists and intellectuals. A frequent guest was Gustav Klimt, the most sought-after painter in Austria, as famous for his innovative style as he was for seducing the subjects of his portraits.

Between 1903 and 1907, he painted Adele in a gold-flecked portrait, which to Viennese, embodied the glamour and beauty of their city and was dubbed “The Mona Lisa of Austria.”

At the time Klimt was finishing the portrait, a struggling would-be painter named Adolf Hitler lived in a poorer section of the city. He was repeatedly rejected by the city’s Academy of Fine Arts, thus likely changing the course of history.

Klimt died in 1918 and Adele in 1925, the latter mourned by her family, perhaps most intensely by her adoring niece, Maria Bloch-Bauer, then 8 years old.

The good life of the wealthy and cultured family came to an abrupt end in 1938, when Hitler, the new dictator of Germany, sent in troops and annexed his native Austria to the Third Reich. The film shows his motor cavalcade entering Vienna, greeted by near hysterical, swastika-waving citizens, while their Jewish neighbors were forced to scrub the sidewalks with toothbrushes.

One year earlier, Maria Altmann had married Fritz, a handsome Polish-Jewish opera singer, who, with the Nazi takeover, was immediately imprisoned at the Dachau concentration camp, while Altmann’s sister was raped and her brother-in-law executed.

The Bloch-Bauer clan was stripped of its wealth, and its private art collection, including the Adele portrait, was confiscated so that Nazi bigwigs could admire the Jewish beauty in privacy.

The Altmanns escaped the clutches of the Nazis in a harrowing chase sequence shown in the movie, made it to America and settled in Los Angeles in 1942. They bought a middle-class home in the Cheviot Hills area, and Maria opened a small, fashionable dress shop for women over 40. Her husband, his opera ambitions unfulfilled, died in 1994.

Meanwhile, Austria came under increasing international pressure in the post-World War II decades to return, or pay compensation, to its former Jewish citizens for their “confiscated” property. In 1998, the country’s parliament passed a restitution act, which included compensation for looted art.

Altmann was informed of the new act but was advised to first hire a first-class lawyer. Her initial call was to Schoenberg, then a rising 32-year-old Los Angeles attorney.

He was a USC law school graduate and the descendant of Viennese artistic royalty as the grandson of two eminent composers, Arnold Schoenberg and Erich Zeisl. The latter’s wife had been a close friend of Altmann’s family.

Randy Schoenberg had a good position at a respected law firm but he acceded to Altmann’s request and agreed to work on a contingency fee basis — little thinking that the case would stretch out over nearly eight years.

Under this arrangement, Schoenberg would receive no payment if he lost the case — as everyone predicted he would — but if he won, he was entitled to 40 percent of the value of the “golden Adele” painting and four lesser Klimt works, once owned by the Bloch-Bauers but now hanging at the national Belvedere Museum in Vienna.

From the beginning, older and more experienced legal experts told the headstrong young Schoenberg that there was no chance he could successfully sue another country, Austria, in an American court, and even if, by some miracle, he cleared that hurdle, Austria would never give up its “Mona Lisa.”

It is not easy to compress, and dramatize, nearly eight years of legal wrangling into a 108-minute movie. In addition, director Simon Curtis and screenwriter Alexi Kaye Campbell had to squeeze in Schoenberg’s often complex working relationship with Altmann, as well as his domestic concerns, as when his wife went into labor while he was on a flight to Washington.

The purpose of that trip was to appear before the U.S. Supreme Court to argue that he had the right to pursue a case against a foreign government in an American court.

Opposing the young attorney was a battery of experienced lawyers representing the Austrian and American governments. In an almost Hollywoodian twist, the justices ruled 6-3 in Altmann’s favor.

Nevertheless, Austria did not recognize the American verdict and, in another major gamble, Schoenberg agreed to submit the dispute to an arbitration panel of three Austrian experts.

Again, against all odds, the panel ruled in Altmann’s favor, thus making history and changing the fortunes of the Altmann and Schoenberg families.

The “golden Adele” painting, after a brief exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, was sold by Altmann for $135 million. Four other works by Klimt, a later portrait of Adele and three landscapes, were later auctioned off for nearly $193 million, bringing the total for Altmann and some close relatives to some $326 million.

Schoenberg declined to spell out his share of that sum (“half of it goes for taxes anyhow,” he said) but media reports generally put the figure at about $139 million.

“Woman in Gold” is based largely on the book “The Lady in Gold,” by former Los Angeles Times reporter Anne-Marie O’Connor, and draws much of its strength from the performance of Helen Mirren in the role of Altmann.

Best known in this country for her royal movie roles as Queen Elizabeth I and II, Mirren exchanged her upper-class British accent in favor of a more continental pronunciation and captures much of the spunk and sparkle of the woman she portrays.

I met Altmann a number of times, first during a lengthy interview at her house in 2005, and found her a gracious and accessible respondent. Despite the enormous wealth coming her way, she made no changes to her home of 30 years and emphatically declined to upgrade her ’94 Chevrolet for a newer model.

Later, through a mutual friend, my wife and I had Maria over for dinner at our home, and a few months later, spent an evening with her at our friend’s home.

During a conversation, Altmann, coming from a highly musical family, spoke of her great admiration for, if not infatuation by, tenor and conductor Placido Domingo, director of the Los Angeles Opera.

I tried to make a shidduch (match) by suggesting to the always fund-starved LA Opera that if Domingo took Altmann out to lunch and turned on the charm, it could eventually benefit the opera’s bottom line.

The meeting took place, and though the encounter did not meet Altmann’s high expectations, she left a “substantial bequest” to the opera in her will, according to Schoenberg.

Altmann died in 2011 at 94, survived by four children, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Schoenberg, now 48, also stayed in his longtime home, and he and his wife, Pamela, the owner and director of the DNJ Gallery in Santa Monica, have not changed their basic lifestyle.

But, he acknowledged that the “tons of money” coming his way have freed him from such common concerns as paying the mortgage or saving for the education of his three children.

“When you consider how much of our life is taken up by worrying about bills, all of this is a real liberation,” he said.

Given his own family background, is it not surprising that the fate of Austria’s, and Europe’s, Jews is part of his conscious legacy. He has given $7 million to the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust in Pan Pacific Park, which also received a bequest from Altmann.

Schoenberg also has become a much more generous tipper, but in other ways he finds it hard to break old habits.

“I still can’t get myself to fly first class on a plane, although I could well afford it,” he said.

Most of his time is now taken up as hands-on president of the Holocaust Museum and in teaching law at UCLA.

When Schoenberg agreed to the “Woman in Gold” project, he decided not to get involved by second-guessing director Curtis or influencing Reynolds’ performance. “I only met once with Ryan,” Schoenberg said. “I realized that, as an actor, he needed to develop his own conception of the character he played.”

When the actual legal case was underway and Schoenberg had to deal with Austrian lawyers and government officials, he found that his last name was a major asset. “Everyone in Austria knows the name of Arnold Schoenberg, and being his grandson helped a lot,” he said.

Asked how close the film version came to the actual happenings, Schoenberg summarized that while certain details had been fictionalized for dramatic effect, “The spirit and core of the movie is truthful.”

In a few instances, as when Altmann and her husband escaped the Nazis, “The actual experience was more terrifying than shown in the movie,” Schoenberg observed.

By contrast, Mirren watched numerous videos taken of Altmann and plowed through stacks of legal depositions in the case.

After “Woman in Gold” premiered at the Berlin Film Festival, American and British film critics slammed the movie with an odd, almost vicious glee. Curiously, one of the critics’ repeated complaints was that the movie portrayed the swastika-waving Austrians of the 1930s, and the country’s cold bureaucrats of the present, in a most unkindly manner.

In addition, The Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney objected to the casting of Reynolds – “everything about him screams ‘goy’ ” — as the Jewish Schoenberg.

Even in 2015, the struggle over Klimt’s paintings is still not over. Just this month, the Austrian government refused to return Klimt’s 112-foot “Beethoven Frieze” — or pay compensation for it — to the heirs of a Jewish art dealer. The heirs’ claim that the frieze was sold under duress at a discount price was rejected by the Austrians.

This rejection reminded Schoenberg just how easily the decision in the “Woman in Gold” case could have gone the other way.

“Before I took on this lawsuit, I talked it over with my wife, and we both realized that our family could easily go down with this case,” he said. “If that had happened, there would have been no book, no movie and no big payoff. I would have just put my tail between my legs and looked for a new job.”

“Woman in Gold” opens April 1 at the Landmark Theatre in Westwood and Laemmle theaters in Claremont and North Hollywood.

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