Court throws out Olivia de Havilland suit over FX miniseries

Actress Olivia de Havilland, photographed in Paris April 8, 1970
AFP

Los Angeles (AFP) – A California appeals court has tossed out a lawsuit by Hollywood legend Olivia de Havilland, who sued FX over her depiction in the network’s Emmy-nominated miniseries “Feud: Bette and Joan.”

In a unanimous decision Monday, the 2nd District Court of Appeal prioritized the show’s creators’ First Amendment rights to freedom of speech over the actress’s complaint.

“Books, films, plays, and television shows often portray real people … Whether a person portrayed in one of these expressive works is a world-renowned film star — ‘a living legend’ — or a person no one knows, she or he does not own history,” the panel of three judges wrote in its decision.

“Nor does she or he have the legal right to control, dictate, approve, disapprove, or veto the creator’s portrayal of actual people.”

The 101-year-old De Havilland, who won Oscars for Best Actress in 1946 and 1949, had argued that she did not consent to the use of her likeness in the miniseries, nor has she received any remuneration for the use of her name and identity.

She also contended that the series put her in a bad light, violating her right to privacy, by showing her fictional version describing her sister, Joan Fontaine, as a “bitch.” 

Court documents indicated writer Ryan Murphy used “bitch” as a modern synonym for “dragon lady,” a term De Havilland had publicly used to describe her sister. 

But the judges added that overall, the portrayal of De Havilland by Welsh actress Catherine Zeta Jones was “overwhelmingly positive.”

“As played by Zeta-Jones, the de Havilland character is portrayed as beautiful, glamorous, self-assured, and considerably ahead of her time in her views on the importance of equality and respect for women in Hollywood,” they said.

The FX miniseries focuses on the famous rivalry between Bette Davis, played by Susan Sarandon, and Joan Crawford, as portrayed by Jessica Lange.

Also depicted in the show is the rivalry between De Havilland — Davis’s friend — and her younger sister by 15 months Joan Fontaine, also an Oscar winner. The rivalry only ended with Fontaine’s death in 2013.

Of the stars featured the miniseries, only de Havilland is still alive.

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