The perils of co-habitating with a screenwriter are playing out in a $3 million libel suit filed by actress and singer-musician Ronee Sue Blakley against her former lover, screenwriter Carroll Cartwright. In her suit (read it here), filed yesterday in Los Angeles Superior Court, Blakley, the Oscar-nominated leading lady in the 1975 classic film Nashville, claims that she was falsely and maliciously portrayed in Cartwright’s screenplay for the 2012 film What Maisie Knew starring Julianne Moore and Alexander Skarsgard. “The primary thrust of the lawsuit is simple,” read the 15-page suit, which is is requesting a jury trial. “Cartwright wrote the screenplay to further his own feelings of hatred for Blakley by maliciously and falsely portraying her as a selfish and uncaring mother, when in fact she was a devoted and loving parent. This false depiction of Blakley has damaged her reputation and caused her to suffer severe emotional distress.”
Although never married, Blakley and Cartwright had a six-year romantic relationship in the 1980s that ended in a bitter breakup shortly after she gave birth to his daughter Sarah in 1988. Blakley claims the acrimonious child custody battle that followed was the basis for the feature film, in which Moore as a spiteful, self-obsessed, foul-mouthed and drunken mother.
Winning libel-in-fiction cases can indeed be difficult. Most are settled or thrown out before they ever go to trial. Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein famously threatened to sue his ex-wife, Nora Ephron, after she published a thinly veiled account of their marriage and breakup in her first novel, Heartburn. Bernstein, however, didn’t sue. Such cases are not impossible to win, however. In 2009, a jury in Georgia awarded $100,000 to plaintiff Vickie Stewart in the “Red Hat Club” case after finding that she’d been defamed in the bestselling novel of the same name. Finding more than 30 real life similarities between Stewart and the fictional character portrayed in the book – including the jobs she held and how her husband died and – the jury ruled that the author had also falsely portrayed Stewart as a promiscuous alcoholic.
In her lawsuit, Blakley claims that there are many real life parallels in her life and the character portrayed in the film by Moore. In real life, the suit states “Blakley is a musician, singer, songwriter and producer whose career was on the wane,” while the character played by Moore “is also depicted in the film as a musician, singer, songwriter and producer whose career is on the wane.”
Cartwright could not be reached for comment, but said in an interview published on the WGA website when the movie came out that the film is a “reimagining” of the Henry James novel of the same name about a young girl caught in a custody battle, and that his own experiences made the novel easy to update. “When I got myself into a custody battle, years after having read What Maisie Knew, it came to mind as something I could relate too and bring up-to-date without much trouble,” he said. “It definitely resonated with what I was dealing with in my life.”
In the script that he co-wrote with Nancy Doyne, indeed, the father character’s last name in the film – Beale – is the same as in the novel. But the lawsuit claims that the mother’s name in film, Susanna, was changed from Ida in the book to more closely associate her with the evil mother character.
“Blakley is known to many of her friends and family as ‘Ronee Sue,’” the suit states. “Cartwright kept the father’s unusual name in the novel when he wrote the screenplay. If he had not wanted to keep the mother’s name in the novel (Ida), he could have chosen any name. ‘Ronee’ would have been too obvious, so he chose ‘Susanna,’ which is, of course, very similar to ‘Sue.’”
The suit also claims that there are many “striking similarities” between the plot of the fictional work and the real events Blakley’s life. “Blakley and Cartwright had an acrimonious custody battle over Sarah and were not married,” the suit states. “The film is also about an acrimonious custody battle between the parents of a little girl who are not married; Maisie and Sarah both had attractive young foreign nannies – Maisie’s is called Margo, and Sarah’s was called Marisela; in the sleep-over scene, Maisie’s friend starts crying and has to be picked up by her parents. On one occasion when Blakley gave a party for Sarah, one of Sarah’s friends started crying and had to be picked up by her parents; in the film, Maisie burned herself while staying with Beale. In real life, Sarah suffered a burn while she was staying with her father; Sarah had a canopy bed at Cartwright’s residence that is similar to Maisie’s bedroom in Beale’s apartment; in Susanna’s apartment, there is a distinctive statue of a South East Asian goddess, Kwan Minh; Blakley owns a very similar statue; also they both had leather furniture; Susanna sent Maisie flowers while she was staying with Beale. Blakley sent Sarah flowers while she was staying with Cartwright.”