In a precedent-setting ruling that ensures, among other things, cable channels’ constitutional right to churn out scandalous, ripped-from-the-headlines TV movies, a California appeals court has tossed out 101-year-old Academy Award-winning actress Olivia de Havilland’s lawsuit against Ryan Murphy. Specifically, de Havilland sued Murphy for defamation over his portrayal of her on Feud: Bette And Joan; at issue was the fact that Catherine Zeta Jones utters the word “bitch” in character as de Havilland, in a snide aside referring to de Havilland’s lifelong feud with her sister Joan Fontaine. While she did hate her sister, de Havilland basically argued, she only called her a “dragon lady,” not a straight-out “bitch.” Besides, the real de Havilland would never curse on camera, because she has a “reputation for good manners, class, and kindness,” according to the filing.
De Havilland first filed suit against Murphy and FX back in June, and it was rushed through the courts due to de Havilland’s advanced age. Last fall, a judge refused FX’s attempt to have the suit tossed on First Amendment grounds, but today a three-judge panel do so unanimously, ruling that creators have a right to embellish history in creative works.
The case was of special interest to Hollywood due to its precedent for docudramas and other works “based on a true story,” as it would have given any living person who didn’t like the way they were portrayed in a fictionalized movie, TV show, book, etc. the ability to sue the creator of that work. De Havilland’s case hinged on the fact that FX did not ask her permission to include her in the show, an argument that the court rejected outright. In its decision, the court gave several examples of living people portrayed in recent films and TV series—including Judge Lance Ito on Murphy’s own American Crime Story: The People Vs. O.J. Simpson—and said, basically, that real people are portrayed in fictional works without their express permission all the time. “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,” Justice Anne Egerton writes in the court’s 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 court also ruled that Feud didn’t make de Havilland look all that bad, comparatively, and therefore was not malicious in its intent. And they do have a point: After all, Stanley Tucci’s Jack Warner called Bette Davis a “cunt”on the show, and that’s a way worse word.