In June 2017, two-time Oscar winner Olivia de Havilland filed a lawsuit against FX and Ryan Murphy Productions based on the depiction of her in the network’s Feud: Bette and Joan miniseries.
The 101-year-old is the only living person depicted on Feud, and as such, feels that the series has tarnished her more than 80-year reputation in Hollywood. Two major points are contended in de Havilland’s filing: 1) the falsity of a fictionalized interview she gives on the show, and 2) the wording she used in a comment about her sister Joan Fontaine.
de Havilland, who prides herself on a career devoid of engagement in Hollywood gossip, is shown in the opening scene of Feud (played by Catherine Zeta Jones) giving an interview at the 1978 Academy Awards, discussing the relationship between the series’ titular leads, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.
“A key reason for the public’s deep respect for Olivia de Havilland is that, in an 80-plus year career, she has steadfastly refused to engage in typical Hollywood gossip about the relationships of other actors,” reads the complaint filed last summer. “Olivia de Havilland has made efforts, spent time and money, protecting her well-defined public image as one who does not engage in gossip and other unkind, ill-mannered behavior,” it continues, noting that she and Davis were close friends (they starred in four movies together) and she has never given any interviews about the state of Davis’s relationship with Crawford.
In Feud, de Havilland also refers to her younger sister, Academy Award winning actress Joan Fontaine, as her “bitch sister”—a term de Havilland’s legal team says she’s never used: “[de Havilland] did not, and does not, engage in such vulgarity.”
While technically false, de Havilland has made some less than kind statements about her late sister, publicly calling her a “dragon lady” around the time of her 100th birthday.
The case, which is currently hearing appellate arguments in Los Angeles, has put the entertainment industry understandably on edge. Biopics and other media depicting real-life people has long borne the underlying agreement that events are not portrayed with 100% accuracy—it would simply be impossible to do so.
“Under the court’s logic, all unauthorized biographies would be unlawful,” legal scholars said on behalf of The Motion Picture Association of American and Netflix. “If the law mandated that all living persons must give permission before they could be depicted in documentaries, docudramas, and works of fiction, they would have the right to refuse permission unless the story was told ‘their way.'"
The fact that de Havilland’s case hasn’t been thrown out presents a concerning fork in the road for the film and television industries, possibly stripping biographical projects of all creative license.
de Havilland’s concern with her character’s use of the word “bitch” is tricky from a legal standpoint because it can be conflated as a modern-day translation of de Havilland’s original term: “dragon lady.”
“The word-swap of bitch for dragon lady was nothing more than a creative effort to resonate with a contemporary audience,” FX attorney Kelly Klaus explained.
But the issue stands: Feud, no matter their original intent, technically put words into de Havilland’s mouth.
The matter is currently under examination.
Update: A decision has been made in Feud's favor.
Variety reports that de Havilland's suit has been tossed by the appeals court. A three-judge panel decided in favor of filmmakers, maintaining that they have the right to embellish the historical record.