Movies 27 November 2018 | 13:35

The Ryan Murphy and Olivia de Havilland dispute could change how real people are depicted on screen

27 November 2018 13:35

Who would have thought that the first season of Ryan Murphy and FX’s TV drama series Feud: Bette and Joan (2017) – about the now infamous rivalry between film stars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford – would give rise to a new high-profile dispute all of its own?

In June 2017, the day before her 101st birthday, Olivia de Havilland mounted a multi-claim lawsuit against Murphy and FX. Not only, did the complaint state, that de Havilland hadn’t given her permission for FX to use her name, identity or likeness in the show, it also claimed that their portrayal of her (she was played by Catherine Zeta-Jones) damaged de Havilland’s ‘professional reputation for integrity, honesty, generosity, self-sacrifice and dignity.’ She took particular issue with scenes in which the show has her making snide comments about Frank Sinatra’s drinking, along with her description of her sister Joan Fontaine (with whom she had her own long-standing rivalry) as a ‘bitch’.

Although dismissed by the Court of Appeals, the two-time Academy Award winner and her legal team then attempted to take the case to the California Supreme Court. But once again they were knocked back. However, rather than giving up, it was reported last month that de Havilland – now 102 years old and the only person portrayed in the drama who’s still alive – is now taking her suit to the highest court in America: the Supreme Court.

‘We must persevere and speak truth to power,’ Vanity Fair reported de Havilland saying in a statement about this new development – a point that she once again reiterated yesterday from her home in Paris. ‘The fight is itself important to the principle of honesty, so much in need today in the face of deliberate public confusion for selfish agendas.’

The case appears to rest on the issue of First Amendment rights, with de Havilland’s legal team claiming that the California courts’ decisions were based on protecting the state’s film industry interests. A victory for de Havilland could, for example, have set a precedent for lawsuits from real people depicted on the screen.

The Supreme Court is expected to consider the petition in early January. In the meantime, one has to wonder whether Feud’s writers are already beavering away turning this unfolding drama into a future season of the show, especially since it was reported at the end of the summer that the proposed second season, ‘Charles and Diana’, is no longer going forward.