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“The Case Against 8” Makes a Washington Star at Sundance

The documentary about the Supreme Court case defending marriage equality finds a compelling character in Gibson Dunn lawyer Ted Olson.

Ted Olson addresses press outside the Supreme Court, with David Boies on his left. Photograph by Diana Walker.

At a movie-star mecca like the Sundance Film Festival, where celebrities strolling up and down Main Street or clogging up traffic in Lincoln Navigators are ten a penny, you wouldn’t necessarily expect Washington lawyer Ted Olson to be fending off requests for selfies. And yet, thanks to a new documentary by Ben Cotner and Ryan White, Olson spent much of his sojourn in Park City, Utah, surrounded by fans eager to take pictures with him and thank him for his work.

Olson is one of the stars of The Case Against 8, which won the Directing Award for US Documentary at Sundance Saturday night and has garnered enormously positive reviews since it premiered January 18. The film focuses on how the formidable (if unlikely) same-sex partnership of Olson, a conservative, and David Boies, a liberal, fought for marriage equality by working to overturn California’s Prop 8, the state amendment banning recognition of same-sex marriages. Washingtonians might remember the pair from their adversarial roles in Bush v. Gore; it was then, Boies tells the camera, that they first became friends, because everyone else was sick to death of discussing that case with them.

Over the course of five years spent filming the lawyers, the four plaintiffs, and the case’s many developments, Cotner and White capture scenes of wrenching pathos, including one in which plaintiff Kris Perry breaks down in a conference room as she tells Olson about having felt all her life like a second-class citizen. While we know the film has a happy ending for all involved, the suspense leading up to the Supreme Court hearing is still remarkably taut. Olson, by contrast, often makes for exceptional comic relief, whether he’s staring confusedly at a catered lunch of tacos or reading e-mails out loud in which strangers declare him “an honorary lesbian.”

Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin channels some of the general sense of skepticism about Olson’s involvement in the fight for marriage equality when he states that Olson “has been on the other side of everything I’d ever done in my life.” And yet Olson’s reasoning for same-sex marriage—that it strengthens families and defends all American citizens’ fundamental right to happiness—becomes the key argument Boies and Olson take to the Supreme Court. “Marriage is a conservative value,” says Olson. “We should want people to come together in marriage.”

This argument might not fly with Rush Limbaugh, who’s shown bemoaning on-air the fact that Olson “used to be one of us,” but it wins him a whole new fan base nonetheless. At one point in the film Griffin tells Olson to get ready because he’s going to be in parades in Dupont Circle and West Hollywood. Judging by the scores of people eager to meet the Gibson Dunn partner at HRC’s party for the film, they’re going to need a bigger float.

The Case Against 8 screens on HBO in June. For more information, visit the movie’s website.