Tag Archives: film

Decision in Olivia de Havilland vs. FX

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This afternoon, a decision came in for the case of Olivia de Havilland vs. FX, which I have been following closely here. The appeals court has decided to “reverse and remand” the case to lower court, overturning the decision of lower court judge Holly Kendig and giving the case to Feud.

A statement by Ryan Murphy says “The reversal is a victory for the creative community, and the First Amendment. Today’s victory gives all creators the breathing room necessary to continue to tell important historical stories inspired by true events. Most of all, it’s a great day for artistic expression and a reminder of how precious our freedom remains.”

As I have made clear in other posts, the day is great only for docudramas that want to tell half-truths and outright lies, planting seeds of gossip and rumor in viewers’ minds that grow to create a warped lens through which they view history. Ryan Murphy doesn’t have a particular interest in keeping those seeds of gossip and rumor at bay–he profits from this era where no one really knows where the truth lies. Not only do these half-truths and outright lies make Olivia de Havilland’s life difficult, but also mine. As a film writer and historian, I and others like me have to be the ones to untie all the knots that Feud has created.

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After the decision was released, I told myself that I would read the opinion with an open mind. Perhaps the justices would say something that I hadn’t thought of. But as soon as I opened and read it, it was clear to me that this case had been decided on erroneous legal precedent. The Guglielmi case, to which the author of the opinion, Justice Anne Egerton, refers frequently, is only applicable to dead people. California Civil Code 3344.1 exempts docudramas and dramatic interpretations from right of publicity claims if the person is dead, but the statute from which it branches, California Civil Code 3344, does not exempt them from right of publicity claims if the person is alive. If they had used a deceased celebrity, they would be protected under the Guglielmi decision. Not so with a living person.

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From the decision. This is not correct. De Havilland was within her legal right to challenge a historically inaccurate portrayal. If it had been accurate, she wouldn’t have been able to touch it. But it wasn’t, so she can and she did.

The decision also references Sarver vs. Chartier, also known as the “Hurt Locker” case. But once again, this doesn’t have anything to do with the de Havilland case at hand. In this particular instance, Sarver agreed to let people film him and the resulting character in the movie was a composite, so he had no case and it was thrown out of court. De Havilland did not agree, and the character was not a composite. I believe that the appeals court may be misconstruing “raw materials of life” in Sarver to mean something that it doesn’t.

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In reference to this part of the decision, in addition to the comments about Sinatra’s drinking not being defamatory or offensive, I think the court is giving too much credit to the average, reasonable viewer of Feud. In a previous post, I discussed my talks on Marion Davies, and how I frequently have to spend far more time debunking myths propagated by The Cat’s Meow than those myths are worth. Far too many people watch docudramas and believe they’re telling the truth–then, no matter how many facts are provided to disprove them, they keep believing the more exciting story. This ruling allows producers of docudramas to exploit that tendency, rewrite history, and put the onus on the historians to correct it.

We do know that there had been a draft opinion before the oral arguments, and it looks as though the case will proceed to a higher court. A statement from Suzelle Smith, de Havilland’s attorney, reads in part: “Miss de Havilland, her many fans all over the world, and actors in similar situations are rightly disappointed in this Opinion.  The Opinion does not properly balance the First Amendment with other important rights.  This case appears to be destined for a higher court, and we will be preparing the appropriate petition for such review.”

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Live From the TCM Classic Film Festival Day 2: THE THIN MAN (1934), GREY GARDENS (1975), DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), WHY WORRY? (1923)

The TCM Classic Film Festival continued seamlessly into its second day today, with a plethora of diverse films to choose from, running from 9:00 AM straight through midnight tonight. Though I am not attending the midnight movie this evening (I needed to get back to update Backlots), I will  be attending the midnight movie tomorrow night–a showing of Freaks for which I am very excited. Hence, I will be resting up tonight so that I can be alert and awake for this glorious midnight screening tomorrow.

This morning’s viewing was a true classic–one that I had seen on the big screen once before but of which I never tire. It’s The Thin Man, a fun romp of a detective story, a Dashiell Hammett murder mystery told through the lens of husband and wife Nick and Nora Charles and their endless supply of alcohol.

The Thin Man is as much about the drinking as it is about the detective story. There is barely a moment in the film when Nick and Nora don’t have martinis in their hands, or are talking about having martinis in their hands. It is also an incredibly sexual film, in a very subtle and effective way. Eddie Muller, speaking before the film, discussed the significance of The Thin Man‘s release right on the cusp of the enforcement of the Hays Code and the repeal of prohibition. Audiences thrilled at being able to see positive characters onscreen who drank and got away with it, and while Nick and Nora are certainly functioning alcoholics, they are among the most lovable, charming and memorable ones the screen has ever seen. And though the film had to comply with the newly strict rules of the Hays office (having Nick and Nora maintain separate beds, for example), director W.S. Van Dyke worked sexual innuendo into the film brilliantly. One of my favorite moments is when the police are at Nick and Nora’s house to arrest a would-be murderer, and this exchange happens:

Policeman: You ever hear of the Solomon Act?

Nora: Oh that’s all right, we’re married.

The film is also notable for establishing a precedent that husband and wife characters could be friends AND lovers. Nick and Nora are clearly the best of friends, teasing and ribbing each other mercilessly, but also show great love within that teasing mentality. Within this clip are some choice examples from this movie and from the rest of the Thin Man series.

Next up was Grey Gardens, one of my favorites and a highlight for me at the festival this year. A documentary by the Maysles brothers about former aristocrats Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edie, the aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, living in squalor at their East Hampton estate after their fortune was mishandled. It is a powerful documentary, and sheds light on what it means to be a member of the old aristocracy, what it is like to be a person “fallen from grace,” and what it means to be a family.

Both characters are very strong personalities, and ever since I first saw this movie many years ago, I have loved Little Edie. Her ability to maintain such a clear sense of herself in trying times, her devotion to her mother, and her eccentric and unique fashion sense are indicative of a strong independent spirit that cannot be easily crushed. At this screening, we were lucky to have Al Maysles there, who talked to us a bit about what Little Edie was like. “It was love at first sight,” he said. Edie adored him right back, and they stayed in close touch right up until Little Edie’s death in 2001. Here is a recording of Little Edie talking to Al Maysles on the phone, many years after the film came out.

Next up was Double Indemnity, for which I was unable to stay for long, because I had to go see Why Worry? I have seen Double Indemnity so many times that I didn’t feel particularly bad leaving early, but suffice it to say–seeing Barbara Stanwyck on the new IMAX screen at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre was a magical experience. She dominates that role.

Someday I’m going to write an entire blog post on Double Indemnity. It would be futile to try to talk about it here in my limited space, so I will leave the richness of the plot, the script, and the story for another time. But I will say that for a Barbara Stanwyck fan, there is nothing better than seeing her on a big IMAX screen in Double Indemnity.

My last film of the night was Why Worry? This was a Harold Lloyd feature, his last with Hal Roach telling the story of a wealthy hypochondriac who ends up in the middle of a revolution at his health resort. It is a very funny movie, and expectedly so given the caliber and talent of Harold Lloyd.

But the highlight of this evening with Why Worry? was the debut of the new score by Carl Davis, who wrote a brilliant score and got a standing ovation from the crowd when it was over. In attendance was also Suzanne Lloyd, Harold’s granddaughter, who talked a bit about her father’s legacy and place in classic cinema.

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Harold Lloyd with Carl Davis and the orchestra.

Tomorrow I have to choose between Stella Dallas and City Lights. This is going to be a tough day! See you then!