Backlots at the Courthouse: Olivia de Havilland DBE vs. FX

Portrait of Actress Olivia De Haviland her Two Oscars 1957


Following two days of trying to get the right LA Superior Court department, I am happy to announce that I am on the list of press to be present for the trial of Olivia de Havilland vs. FX when it takes place in Los Angeles in late November.

I am thrilled to be able to attend what will surely be a passionate and complicated proceeding. This is a case that I have been following closely, as it has a number of fascinating components. De Havilland, the plaintiff, has brought FX to trial for infringement of common law right of publicity, infringement of California’s specific right of publicity code, invasion of privacy, and unjust enrichment from Catherine Zeta Jones’ portrayal of her in Feud: Bette and Joan last year. De Havilland was not informed of the fact that she was going to be portrayed, and wasn’t compensated for a portrayal that she wouldn’t have consented to.

FX counters that their First Amendment rights to freedom of expression extend to this situation, and requested that the Los Angeles Superior Court throw out the suit based on the fact that it was based on protected rights. In late September, that request was thrown out. The court agreed that the suit was based on protected rights, but de Havilland’s attorneys had been successful in demonstrating that they would be successful should the case go to court. A court date was set, and the trial is moving forward.


De Havilland at the Hollywood canteen, around the time of her Warner Bros. lawsuit, 1943.

De Havilland, 101 years old and living in Paris, is no stranger to landmark lawsuits. In 1943, she singlehandedly took on Warner Bros. for contract malpractice, as they tacked time on at the end of a contract as punishment for roles turned down. Citing a California law that no employer could hold an employee for more than 7 calendar years, she was successful and the suit became the landmark entertainment law known as the De Havilland Decision. It has been referenced in many entertainment cases since, keeping employers of actors, writers, musicians, and athletes in check.

Feud: Bette and Joan creates a number of fictional situations involving de Havilland, including an instance where she refers to Joan Fontaine as her “bitch sister” and says that she doesn’t “play bitches.” This wording seems to be a central part of de Havilland’s case, saying that showing her using such language is damaging to her reputation. The case document says:

“This is false. Olivia de Havilland never called her sister a ‘bitch’ as portrayed in Feud and certainly not to a director. Putting these false words into Olivia de Havilland’s mouth in a documentary format, designed to appear real, has caused Olivia de Havilland commercial and private damage to her reputation. Again, she appears to be a hypocrite, who built a public image of being a lady, not speaking in crude and vulgar terms about others, including her sister, when in private she did the opposite by freely speaking unkindly about others. This is patently false.”

A number of months ago, before the suit was brought, Ryan Murphy, the producer of Feud, was asked about why he didn’t inform de Havilland of the forthcoming show that featured her likeness. He responded that he didn’t want to bother her.


Last year, at 100.

To my mind, de Havilland’s suit not only brings to light what she feels is unfair treatment, but also draws attention to what happens to the elderly on a far too frequent basis. Assuming that she was too old or too far away to care, Murphy acted without her permission. De Havilland is still vibrant enough to be able to stand up and fight for herself, while so many aren’t.

The trial begins November 27, and is expected to last 7-8 court days (Monday-Friday). I will go down to Los Angeles for the final few days of the trial, in order to get the build-up to the final verdict, and then the verdict itself. For the first part of it, I will be sent press releases by the court and will update Twitter and the blog each day with the day’s happenings. Stay tuned!



11 responses to “Backlots at the Courthouse: Olivia de Havilland DBE vs. FX

  1. hi Lara, the case is very interesting indeed, thankhfully Olivia De Havilland is still alive and willing to defend herself and object to what she feels it’s an unfair treatment but think of the many books , so called biographies, that tell lurid and often unchecked stories about movie stars who have died and certainly can’t defend themselves. Over the last years there have been so many ot them

  2. thetactfultypist

    Go, girl go!
    I am happy to say I have never watched that “mocumentary”.
    A lady is a lady is a lady… And never mess with a lady’s reputation!
    (‘Cause no one is tougher than an angry lady.)

  3. This sounds thrilling Lara! :O

  4. Thanks for the concise and thoughtful overview of what is certainly an important case, certainly equal to the aforementioned 1943 decision.

  5. Thank you, I think it has the potential to be. We’ll see what happens. Two landmark lawsuits in one lifetime. Regardless of the outcome, so many people owe Olivia so much.

  6. Alex Van Schuylen

    Olivia is a Lady, who happens to be a tough broad with nerves of steel! My money is on her!!

  7. Olivia is a Lady, who is a tough broad! My money is on her!!

  8. I was a very good friend of Joan Fontaine’s and in all the years I had spent with Joan I never heard her say a nasty word against Olivia. Joan always said, ” Olivia and I were always competitive and in the same business. I love my sister, I just wish things had been different” I can only see the same from Olivia. The fude they had was silly and as actresses, it did keep their names out in the limelight, but I know that Joan was sad about not being able to spend time with Olivia as the years went on. I remember Joan crying when she heard that her nephew had died weeks ago and no one called to let her know. All to sad

  9. What a beautiful comment. Thank you so much for that. I knew Joan from afar–we never met in person, but I conducted her last interview for this blog through email. I found her to be a very gracious, lovely person, and I loved her, even without meeting face to face. I did meet Olivia, in Paris in 2011, and I found her to be gracious and lovely as well. The “feud” makes me so sad, because I think people misunderstand it and them. There are so many things that we don’t know. Thank you so much for your comment, I would love to talk to you more about Joan, as I feel a very strong connection to her. Send me an email?

  10. Geraldine Smith

    I JUST now found your website being an old movie buff, and this court case threw me for a loop. I had no idea this was going on between Havilland and FX. Not that I would think of watching ‘Feud’ anyway because producers exaggerate, embellish and use false facts to ‘sell’ programs. I sincerely hope Havilland’s wins this case. Ryan Murphy made a mistake when he thought not to bother her.

  11. I’m so glad you found the site! Pretty interesting, isn’t it? It tests the limits of the First Amendment, and we now get to see Olivia in action standing up for herself. Yeah, Ryan Murphy picked the wrong person not to bother. This isn’t her first time at the rodeo.

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