A California appellate court has dismissed Olivia de Havilland’s lawsuit against FX Networks over its limited series Feud: Bette and Joan, concluding that she does not have “the legal right to control, dictate, approve, disapprove, or veto the creator’s portrayal of actual people.”
At issue was just how fictionalized a portrayal can be before it crosses the line into defamation. The case had far-reaching First Amendment implications.
The California Court of Appeals 2nd Appellate District ruled today that Catherine Zeta-Jones’s portrayal of the Oscar-winning actress in the program “is not highly offensive to a reasonable person as a matter of law” (read the full ruling here). De Havilland’s lawsuit claimed that the portrayal damaged her “professional reputation for integrity, honesty, generosity, self-sacrifice and dignity.”
FX Nets in August had filed a motion to strike the complaint, but that action was denied. The company then appealed to the 2nd U.S. Court of Appeals last week, and today it ruled unanimously to throw out the suit. The court also said that de Havilland will have to pay FX Networks’ legal fees.
The two-time Oscar winner and Gone with the Wind actress had claimed that her name and likeness were used to promote the docudrama without her permission and that the series damaged her reputation by casting her in a false light as a hypocrite “selling gossip in order to promote herself at the Academy Awards, criticizing fellow actors, using vulgarity and cheap language.” She took particular issue with Zeta-Jones’ de Havilland referring to Joan Fontaine as her “bitch sister.”
“Books, films, plays, and television shows often portray real people. Some are famous and some are just ordinary folks. 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. Nor does she or he have the legal right to control, dictate, approve, disapprove, or veto the creator’s portrayal of actual people,” the appeal court wrote in a unanimous decision.”
De Havilland filed the lawsit in June, a day before her 101st birthday, seeking a jury trial, sweeping damages and an unplugging of the eventually Emmy-winning limited series. On appeal, her attorney Suzelle Smith argued that, “If this case can’t go forward, you won’t have a celebrity who can’t control their identity.” The case, she told the judges, was “not one of censorship,” but of holding filmmakers to the honest and factual depiction of the people and events they portray.
The appeals court disagreed.
Netflix and the MPAA had sided with FX Networks in the case.
Dominic Patten and Dave Robb contributed to this report.