Tag Archives: fx

Olivia de Havilland Case Headed to the Supreme Court

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Armed with the rejection of the California Supreme Court in her case against FX, Olivia de Havilland is to file her case with the United States Supreme Court this September.

This is a huge undertaking, and while the SCOTUS only takes a small fraction of the thousands of cases filed with them every year, this one may be of special interest to them–it would be only the second right of publicity case ever filed with the court, and would seek to clarify the case of New York Times v Sullivan. That case established the standard of “actual malice” (publishing of information that is knowingly false or with reckless disregard for truth), and said that newspapers could not be sued for libel unless they had actual malice. Lawyer Suzelle Smith says “The issue for the SCOTUS is whether or not the First Amendment creates an absolute immunity from suit for publishers of docudramas or whether that format like all others is governed by the actual malice of New York Times v Sullivan.”

I have been following de Havilland’s suit closely since the beginning, and was a member of the press at the appellate court hearing in March. If the Supreme Court takes the case, I will go to Washington, D.C. and hear it. Backlots’ readers have been extremely interested in this suit and helped to set a record for the number of amicus letters sent in support of a case at the California Supreme Court (a whopping 90 letters). It has meant so much to me and I know it means a lot to Olivia and her legal team.

While the US Supreme Court does not accept amicus letters, Suzelle Smith tells me that the best thing that Backlots readers can do right now would be to go to the article where the filing was originally reported and leave supportive comments in the comment section. Here is the article, and I will continue to keep you posted as things progress.

On behalf of everyone involved, thank you for all you have done, and continue to do, to preserve integrity in docudramas dealing with living people.

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Olivia de Havilland vs. FX: On Opinions, Arguments, and Accuracy

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In the aftermath of the Olivia de Havilland oral arguments yesterday, I have seen many reports about what happened during the hearing, and opinions about the case from varied sources. As one who was in the courtroom as it happened, I would like to address a few things that I’ve been seeing frequently over the past 24 hours.

The case is ultimately about holding the powerful accountable to the truth. FX, a big and powerful corporation, took immense liberties with de Havilland’s characterization in Feud, putting vulgar words in her mouth and attributing lines to her that she would not have said, nor signed off on, should she have had the privilege of seeing a script first.  It is true that if the characterization were truthful and accurate, by the standard that we use to judge credible news stories, FX would be well within its legal rights to use her image and likeness. But the false or misleading statements attributed to de Havilland in the series are a disservice not only to de Havilland, but also to the viewers of Feud. No one likes to be lied to or misled, and as I have mentioned before, I myself was misled by the interview that framed the series. I thought it was a real interview that I had missed–I went looking for it, and only when I couldn’t find it did I realize that it was created by the series. I’ve seen just about everything she’s ever done. Can we imagine a passive viewer, who had never heard of de Havilland before, watching Feud? I shudder to think how many passive viewers of Feud are out there who now think that de Havilland gave that interview, and called Joan Fontaine a “bitch” to industry professionals.

This morning, a piece appeared in Vanity Fair whose headline ran “Olivia de Havilland Tries to Prove in Court That She’s Never Used the Word ‘Bitch.'” The first line ran: “You’ll never hear a recording of Olivia de Havilland using the word ‘bitch.’ At least, that’s what her lawyers are arguing now in their ongoing case against FX and its portrayal of the Oscar-winning actress in the series Feud.” This upset me on two levels–first, the gross misrepresentation of the argument (the argument is not that de Havilland has never used the term, but rather she never used it to refer to her sister to industry professionals, the way Feud depicts), and second, the way the article uses shock value and half truths in a similar way to Feud. I did write to Vanity Fair about this, and whether it was due to my input or an independent decision, the article has since been clarified.

But this is what we have come to expect of news and informational sources, of which Feud is one. Another argument I have seen frequently over the past day is one that says “Feud is entertainment, I don’t watch it for historical accuracy.” Entertainment that depicts real people, especially living people, has a responsibility to historical accuracy. Those of us who write about film are inundated regularly with people who believe fictionalizations of real people are rooted in fact. As I work on my biography of Marion Davies, The Cat’s Meow (a fantasy piece about what happened to Thomas Ince on William Randolph Hearst’s yacht) has been a fire that I’ve had to put out every time I give a talk. People love scandal, and if there’s a scandal, they tend to believe rumor above and beyond the facts that disprove it. In addition to the right of publicity claims that de Havilland is fighting for, shows like Feud that add artistic license to real personalities make our lives as film writers that much harder.

In terms of de Havilland and Fontaine, I frequently find myself correcting or defending. One of the things that irked me the most in the courtroom yesterday was the opposing counsel repeatedly referring to the relationship between de Havilland and Fontaine as a “feud.” I highly dislike that term to describe them. They were sisters, who had their ups and downs and good times and hard times. Theirs was a very complex relationship, one that no one understood but them. I make it a point never to judge one sister for her actions regarding the other. Because all we know is the tip of the iceberg of what drove their relationship to be what it was–and it’s truly none of our business anyway. For Feud to touch on that relationship at all, much less without talking to de Havilland first, was inappropriate.

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My favorite picture of the de Havilland sisters, on the night Joan Fontaine won the Best Actress Oscar for Suspicion.

I’ve been seeing many comments expressing the viewpoint that if de Havilland wins, it’s going to change the way docudramas are made. It won’t–it will simply hold studios accountable to the truth when the docudrama involves a living person. If the studio is not willing to do accurate research using reliable sources (non-salacious biographical books with endnotes, newspapers, documentaries, interviews), perhaps that living person should not appear in the docudrama. The Divine Feud, the book by Shaun Considine that Feud references in the case as a research tool, is very salacious and I was surprised to see it in FX’s list of sources.

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California law is explicit in its different applications of the law to the living and to the deceased, and de Havilland’s right of publicity stands for fictionalized works. If she were deceased, a separate statute exists that exempts fictionalized works like movies, books, and plays from having to answer to right of publicity suits. But Olivia de Havilland is alive, and she has a right to be heard.

#odehvfx

Olivia de Havilland vs. FX: Oral Arguments on Appeal 3/20/18

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Courtesy of the New York Times, Olivia de Havilland at her home in Paris last month.

As many of you know (certainly those following my Twitter account over the past 24 hours), today I was privileged to attend the oral arguments at the University of Southern California in the case of Olivia de Havilland vs. FX. It was a fascinating day, and a major coup for Backlots to get one of the very limited press seats. I’m pleased to be able to bring you the events as they happened.

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The main law building at USC.

The case was heard in the USC Gould School of Law building, and the hearing was part of an agreement between the law school and the 2nd District Appellate Court. Once a year, the court moves its proceedings to USC, in order to give students a taste of what it’s like to be in the courtroom. Before the Olivia de Havilland case was brought before the court, there was another that we heard regarding the firing of a social worker who was negligent in his duties regarding a family in which a child died from abuse. It seemed quite heavy and disturbing. I don’t know enough about that case to have drawn meaning from what was being said by the appellants and defendants, but it was interesting to watch how both sides approached something as sensitive as this, in their body language and word choice.

The de Havilland case came before the court immediately after the final argument in the previous hearing. Three judges sat before the attorneys and questioned them on the intricacies of their arguments–starting with FX, followed by the amicus curiae for FX, followed by de Havilland’s side. The attorney for FX, Kelly M. Klaus, made the argument that de Havilland’s claims do not meet the requirements for “actual malice,” which he defined as necessarily “deliberate” or encompassing “reckless disregard.” He said that FX’s intentions were not bad, and thus they should be protected from claims of portraying Olivia de Havilland in a false light. Jennifer Rothman, the amicus curiae for FX (and the author of the Los Angeles Times op-ed piece “What Does Olivia de Havilland Have Against Allison Janney, to which I responded with this post), cited the Guglielmi case (in which the heir of Rudolph Valentino objected to a fictionalized version of his life) as evidence that biographical films are protected under the First Amendment. She asserted that any decision in de Havilland’s favor would be “devastating” to creative expression.

Finally, de Havilland’s lawyer, Suzelle Smith, came up to speak. Addressing the Guglielmi case, Smith noted that California applies right of publicity cases differently to those who are dead and those who are alive, and that the arguments referred to in the Guglielmi decision are irrelevant to what is at hand in this case. Additionally, when pressed on whether or not FX would have had to procure de Havilland’s permission if the depiction was not defamatory, Smith said no. She argued that the First Amendment does not permit right of publicity claims for accurate, non-defamatory representation. The portrayal of de Havilland, she said, was not accurate, and cited Eastwood v. Superior Court (National Enquirer Inc.) to say that one knowingly false statement can discredit the whole work.

Indeed, if I may interject here as a non-lawyer and the author of an upcoming biography, if I see one glaring mistake in a research piece, it does create a sense of distrust of anything else the author might say. The idea of a work being discredited after one false statement is not only a legal matter, but it’s one that affects us all as laypeople. When I watched Feud, I noticed several glaring errors and those errors changed the way I viewed the rest of the show.

After Smith’s argument, FX was given time for a rebuttal, in which Klaus reasserted the network’s claim that de Havilland hadn’t proven actual malice, and FX should be granted First Amendment protections. The court was adjourned shortly after 4:00.

Smith closed her argument with something I think is quite necessary to point out. This is a lawsuit about the truth, and representing fact as fact, fiction as fiction. We are living in an era in which facts don’t seem to count, and we’ve become accustomed to a gray area that leaves us unsure of what the truth is, or how to root it out. When we become numb to the highest powers in our country feeding us falsities, we hardly blink an eye when a docudrama does it. We should hold the powerful accountable to lies–whether that be from those in political office, or those in corporate America telling the stories we see on our televisions.

We will likely hear a decision in the next two weeks. With this lawsuit, Olivia de Havilland stands up to power–and no matter the outcome of this case, I am proud that we have in our midst a strong 101-year-old woman who’s not afraid to be on the front lines of protecting the truth.

 

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Backlots at the Courthouse: Olivia de Havilland vs. FX Oral Arguments on Appeal

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Hello again, dear readers, I’m here to let you know that I will be traveling to Los Angeles on Monday night to attend the first round of oral arguments in the Olivia de Havilland case, to take place on March 20. I will keep you all in the loop as much as I possibly can. I’d like to let you know what to expect from me on that day, so here’s what I know right now, based on frequently asked questions:

1. Will it be a typical court experience?

The arguments are taking place at the University of Southern California, in order to give the law school students an opportunity to watch a court proceeding in real time, on their own campus. The court has assured us that all the arguments will be just as binding and legitimate as they would be in a traditional setting.

2. Is Olivia de Havilland going to be there?

As you might imagine given her extremely advanced age, Olivia de Havilland doesn’t really travel anymore. If the case makes it past this stage, she is going to need to conserve her energy for potential future court dates, if she is needed in the courtroom later. So she will not be there on Tuesday.

3. Do you think she’s going to win?

Legal precedent is on her side. There have been a number of articles recently that try to distill the case down to its bare bones for comprehension’s sake. But in court, there are many issues at stake and lots of nitty gritty legal details that are necessary for fully understanding what is being asked. Some of these issues are things that this court or other courts have already decided. Having read all the briefs in detail, and independent of my own personal attachment to the case, I say that legally they should order the lower ruling to stand, and that Olivia de Havilland be able to continue with her suit. Here is some of my analysis.

4. Will you be able to update us live from inside the room?

I don’t know. I will if I can, but naturally whatever rules the court and USC enact for the courtroom need to be followed to the letter. On the day of the hearing, I’ll post a live Twitter feed on the blog and you can follow along there, with whatever I’m able to do.

Any other questions? Feel free to ask in the comments. See you in court!

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#odehvfx

OLIVIA DE HAVILLAND VS. FX: Date Set for Oral Arguments on Appeal

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Hello dear readers, there isn’t terribly much to say about this, but I’ve promised to keep everyone on the pulse of the Olivia de Havilland case as much as I can, so I wanted to make a brief post. A few days ago, I noticed an unusual update on the court website and wasn’t entirely sure what it meant. It noted that there was a “calendar date set” at USC, and nothing else. Today, I learned that this was the date of the oral arguments to determine the outcome of FX’s appeal.

On March 20, lawyers will meet at the University of Southern California to argue the merits of their respective sides. It is unusual that the arguments will take place outside a courtroom, but lawyers assure that it will be just as official as it would be in court. The purpose of the unusual setting is to allow USC students to view the proceedings in real time, allowing them a window into the beginnings of a potentially landmark First Amendment case.

For a timeline of the case thus far and an explanation of what it all means, check out my last blog post on the subject. I will continue to report on anything that I learn.

Thanks for reading!

#odehvfx

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

Portrait of Actress Olivia De Haviland her Two Oscars 1957

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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.

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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.

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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!

#odehvfx