Tag Archives: olivia de havilland

Olivia de Havilland: A Celebration

Olivia de Havilland with her pug, Oscar.

Olivia de Havilland died peacefully in Paris on Saturday.

She went the way we all strive to go–in her sleep, having recently celebrated her 104th birthday. Her daughter Gisèle had just been over for a visit. She was loved and adored not only by a wide circle of friends and family, but by fans all over the world. She knew it, and she felt it always. In short, she left this world a happy, fulfilled woman surrounded by love. The fact that this is how it happened for her fills my heart.

With that said, yesterday was a very strange day for me. Olivia de Havilland has been a bedrock of my life for many years. From Backlots’ earliest days, Olivia de Havilland’s life and career has been a source of fascination, inspiration, and admiration. She lived a life filled to the brim with experiences most of us can only dream of, and I viscerally feel her loss–as though there is something missing in the world now.

Her accolades are well-documented. Five Oscar nominations and two wins, the first female president of the Cannes Film Festival jury, and a woman of strength and backbone unafraid to stand up for what was right. She was a recipient of the Legion d’Honneur, and received damehood in 2017. She earned vast respect, gratitude, and admiration from legions of fans and members of the entertainment industry. “We all owe Olivia a great deal,” said her sister, Joan Fontaine, in an interview in the 1970s. Indeed, Olivia changed the industry forever with her landmark suit against Warner Bros., singlehandedly striking down a longstanding contractual practice that amounted to involuntary servitude.

With her two Oscars, the first for To Each His Own (1946) and the second for The Heiress (1949).

Her triumphs are in spite of, or perhaps because of, a life that was not always smooth sailing. From the very beginning, there were bumps in the road that she had to navigate, and challenges that seemed insurmountable. The pressures of early fame and her problems with Warner Bros. affected her psychologically–she developed anorexia and struggled with food for many long years afterward. Her first marriage, to writer Marcus Goodrich, was unhappy and violent. She lost her son, Benjamin, to the effects of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma treatment in 1991.

In many cases, the clarity and levelheadedness with which Olivia met these challenges paved her path to better days. Her landmark suit against Warner Bros. took on the practice of adding suspension time onto a 7-year contract, hinging on a then-obscure California law interpreted to mean that an employer could not hold an employee for more than 7 calendar years. She won, and the case is now a hallmark of entertainment law. It has been cited in such varied industries as sports, music, and writing, and by personalities such as Jared Leto and Johnny Carson.

Following her divorce from Marcus Goodrich, in which she was granted sole custody of Benjamin, Olivia took him to live with her in France, turning over a new leaf far from the stresses that she faced in Hollywood. She bought a house at 3 Rue Bénouville in the 16th arrondissement of Paris, which remained her home until her death. She married a Frenchman, Pierre Galante, with whom she had her daughter Gisèle. Though they amicably divorced in the 1960s, Olivia and Pierre remained great friends. While Gisèle was growing up, they remained in the same home to provide Gisèle stability, and Olivia cared for him on his deathbed in 1998.

With her children, Benjamin and Gisèle.

Her move to France allowed Olivia to explore her other interests (which were many), free from the scrutiny of gossip columnists and other Hollywood onlookers. She was able to work when she wanted to, and stay home when she wanted to. This contributed to her happiness, sense of normalcy, and, I believe, her longevity. When Benjamin died, Olivia turned in her grief to the American Cathedral in Paris, a “radically inclusive” Anglican community not far from her home. The Cathedral became a mainstay in Olivia’s life as she came to terms with the death of her child, and she became an active part of the community, often taking on “lay-reading” responsibilities at holidays.

Upon arrival in France, holding Benjamin.

She spent her last years in remarkably good health for a centenarian, and celebrated her 101st birthday by filing a lawsuit against Ryan Murphy for her portrayal in the docudrama Feud. The case, about which I wrote extensively, was based on fictitious elements that were written into Olivia’s character that were misleading to the public. The suit went through the legal system all the way up to the Supreme Court, where it was ultimately declined.

I was fascinated by the trial, and as longtime readers know, Backlots covered it meticulously. This site frequently broke news on the case, and I was present in the courtroom as the case was argued on appeal. Last summer I went to Oxford with the legal team (and Olivia’s family) to attend their lecture on the intricacies of the case.

While the Supreme Court’s decision not to take the case was disappointing, Olivia had made her point–that truth and respect should always prevail where real people are involved.

With Gisèle.

In a short interview in 2011, Olivia was asked about the most important things in life. Her response was indicative of the way she lived–the two most important things, she said, were love and laughter. “It is ‘to love,'” she clarified. “One must love.” Her smile lit up her eyes and her laugh was lilting and loud, reminiscent of her mother’s. Her sense of humor was extraordinary–intelligent, quick, and often quite bawdy.

I impart this information firsthand. I met Olivia in March of 2011 at a screening of I Remember Better When I Paint at the American Library in Paris, and she was everything I had heard she was. Dignified, classy, and articulate, a woman who loved people and valued their company. I heard that lilting laugh, as she realized with delight that my friend Sara and I both had a copy of her long out-of-print memoir, Every Frenchman Has One. As we spoke, she held my hand in hers, which felt so natural and gentle that I felt my palm melt into hers in reciprocation. It was a lovely moment that I cherish.

Olivia was not a big woman physically, but she dominated a room with her presence. Her voice, different in person than on the screen, was unlike any other that I have ever heard. When she stepped up to the podium to introduce I Remember Better When I Paint, I remember the precise moment when she began to speak. I audibly gasped at the beauty and uniqueness of that voice, which I frequently describe as “like melted chocolate.” It was perfect for the stage–deep and rich, carrying easily to the back of the room. To this day, it echoes in my ears every time I think of that evening.

Olivia signed my copy of Every Frenchman Has One.

I toasted Olivia last night with a glass of champagne and a screening of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935). The role of Hermia in Max Reinhardt’s production was very close to Olivia’s heart, that role having launched her career both onstage and in film. It seemed to me a fitting bookend to watch it yesterday, as I remembered all the joy and gladness she has brought to my life, and the lives of all who loved her. I bid Olivia goodbye with one of Hermia’s lines, in Act II, scene ii of A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

“Good night, sweet friend: Thy love ne’er alter till thy sweet life end!”

Olivia de Havilland Lecture at Oxford and Other Classic Film Adventures in Europe

Readers, I returned to the United States on Tuesday after 2 weeks in Europe, and as my jet lag seems to finally have been conquered, I wanted to write to you about the lecture and the other classic film-related things I did while abroad. It was an absolutely magnificent trip, filled with many wonderful surprises.

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Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford.

My trip began in Oxford, where I stayed at Lady Margaret Hall with a side trip to Bruern, a small town in the English countryside. At Bruern I attended a lovely dinner with Olivia de Havilland’s lawyers and other guests of the lecture, one of whom happened to be a retired British Supreme Court justice. It was fascinating to talk to him about Olivia de Havilland’s case, and the differences between intellectual property law in the US and in Britain. I learned that in Britain, the press is much more legally restrained than in the United States, where the courts tend to do whatever they can to defend the freedom of the press. I also had wonderful chats with Olivia de Havilland’s daughter, Gisèle Galante Chulack, son-in-law Andy Chulack, and other fascinating people from varied walks of life. It was very intellectually stimulating, and I came away from the evening with many new perspectives on law, life, and politics.

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Flower gardens of Bruern, near the cottage where I stayed overnight.

The next day, the other guests and I returned to Oxford for the lecture. Gisèle gave a beautiful introduction, after which Suzelle Smith and Don Howarth took the podium to talk about the history of the case. Suzelle and Don are Oxford fellows, and go to Oxford every year to talk about various cases that they have argued. They were proud to show me, too, a gate in front of Lady Margaret Hall that is named for them.

They spoke about the cases that Olivia de Havilland v. FX was based on, including Eastwood v. National Enquirer and Zacchini v. Scripps-Howard Broadcasting, and demonstrated the legal precedents that provided evidence for de Havilland’s argument. As I have noted here before, much of the case was terribly misrepresented in the mainstream press, and huge amounts of corporate money was thrown into FX’s defense. One of the judges on the 3-judge panel at the appellate court had served as legal counsel for NBC, and before being appointed to the appellate court had worked for the same law firm that was representing FX against Olivia de Havilland. Ideally, an appellate court judge would be unbiased, but as we know, the legal system doesn’t always work that way.

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Lawyer Suzelle Smith presents the lecture.

The whole event was warm, positive, and communal. I very much felt like I was part of a family, one of dedicated and passionate people trying to advocate for truth in media and corporate accountability. I am currently in the beginning stages of a soon-to-be-determined project about the case. I’m not yet sure what it’s going to look like, but I will be sure to keep you posted as it progresses.

From Oxford I headed to London, where I spent several days exploring. I discovered that the BFI Southbank was playing Letter From an Unknown Woman during my stay, part of their series of free matinées for seniors. Well…I’m far from a senior, but I was happy to pay the nominal fee for non-seniors to attend what I consider to be one of the screen’s greatest dramas.

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Letter From an Unknown Woman tells the story of obsession and rejection in 19th century Europe, with Joan Fontaine playing a girl madly in love with a pianist, whose undying love continues into adulthood. She ultimately finds that the pianist, a charming and uncommitted womanizer played by Louis Jourdan, couldn’t care less about her. If you haven’t seen it, I would highly recommend finding a copy along with a box of kleenex. It was one of Fontaine’s personal favorite projects, and this tragic melodrama shows her acting skill to a tee–as she plays the same character from girlhood through adulthood.

I ended up being the only one there under 80, and I shared the situation with my Twitter followers, as it was simultaneously amusing and par-for-the-course. I received a reply from the proprietor of Knebworth House, Henry Lytton Cobbold, who was rather impressed at someone who would give up an afternoon in London to see Letter From an Unknown Woman. He invited me up to the house to talk about Joan Fontaine, and see some paintings of hers that were there. I decided to go for it, despite the fact that I had a train out of London the next afternoon.

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I awoke at 6 AM, arriving at Knebworth House at 8, in order to make the most of my time before heading back to London for my train. What I found was a magnificent 15th century castle, updated in the Gothic style, which has served as a filming location for such major movies as The King’s Speech and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. It has also housed major rock concerts by Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones. Henry Lytton Cobbold is the 19th generation to live there, and he is also a filmmaker and devoted Joan Fontaine fan. He knew her well from the 1980s until the end of her life, and she willed him two portraits upon her death. Those are the paintings Henry was inviting me to see.

The portraits were absolutely beautiful, and after we had seen those (and a room full of Joan Fontaine posters), we went through binders of photos, documents, and letters that Henry has in his possession. I interviewed Joan Fontaine in September of 2013, shortly before she died, and this interview was the last one she ever gave. Our mutual connection provided the fodder for much enthusiastic conversation as we pored over Henry’s collection. I could have stayed there an entire week, as we both noted–I was in my element in a way that I rarely experience.

After several hours at Knebworth House, I reluctantly made my way back to London, where I caught a train to Paris. I wanted to write about going to see a film at my beloved Christine 21 Ciné (which I call the “Rue Christine”), my favorite movie theater in the world. I spent many a homesick hour there while living in Paris 8 years ago, losing myself in My Man Godfrey and Mildred Pierce for the price of 3 euros. Sadly, though, the Rue Christine is on a summer schedule and the movies playing during my brief time in Paris didn’t grab my attention. So alas, no Rue Christine this trip. But you can read about my connection to this theater, and the other theaters of the 6ème arrondissement here.

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The last few days of my trip were spent with a good friend in the south of France. This friend is a close relative of Marion Davies, and I have become very close to her over the past few years of my research. Together we watched Lights of Old Broadway, the movie I introduced at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival this year. Lights of Old Broadway is a delightful comedy, one of the many early films in which Marion plays a dual role. Here, she plays actual twins, separated at birth and adopted by two very different families–one from the aristocracy, and one from the poor slums of New York. The movie showcases Marion’s skill as an actress, as she plays each twin with really astonishing nuance. One of my favorite aspects of the movie is that the character of Fely, the twin from the slums, is very much like Marion Davies in real life. Anne, the aristocratic twin, is soft and refined, but Marion still inserts just a touch of the real Marion Davies in her, too. It’s a complex interpretation, and Marion’s acting style in this movie really deserves an analysis all its own.

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I began my journey home on June 24, and finally arrived home in the afternoon of June 25. It has been a busy, classic film-filled few weeks, and I feel that there is going to be more to do than ever in the coming months. I will be sure to keep you posted on my Olivia de Havilland project, and anything else that comes of this trip.

Thanks for reading!

BACKLOTS AT THE COURTHOUSE–Olivia de Havilland Lecture at Oxford Law

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Good morning, dear readers! I wanted to update you briefly on some upcoming excitement at Backlots.

As TCM’s 24-hour Doris Day tribute plays in the background, I find myself in the midst of packing for a big trip. Due to my coverage of the Olivia de Havilland v. FX case, I received an invitation several months ago to attend a lecture on the case at Oxford Law School. I leave tomorrow, and will spend several days at Oxford with the lawyers, Don Howarth and Suzelle Smith, as well as other guests important to various aspects of Olivia de Havilland’s case.

For those new to the blog, when Olivia de Havilland brought her suit against Ryan Murphy for her portrayal on Feud, I found it particularly interesting and began to write about it. In addition to my classic film work and particular love for Olivia de Havilland, I also have a fascination with government, civics, and court cases, so this was right up my alley. I followed the case closely, analyzing prior cases that influenced it and what it meant, and didn’t mean, for the First Amendment and right of publicity. As the case went through the appeals process, Backlots emerged as the go-to site for information about Olivia de Havilland v. FX. I was in the courtroom when the case was heard at the California Court of Appeals, alongside The Los Angeles Times, Bloomberg, and The Hollywood Reporter. Backlots’ coverage also influenced a large article in the New York Times, and frequently broke news about the case before mainstream outlets. Along the way, I communicated closely with Olivia de Havilland’s lawyers and won the CiMBA Award for Backlots’ coverage.

That communication with de Havilland’s lawyers led to this invitation to Oxford, and I’m very happy to be able to go.

I will be keeping readers up to date via Twitter and a post or two here, with new insights from the lecture and any other classic film-related themes that I encounter in Europe. Following the lecture at Oxford, I will be in London for a spell, then France for a brief visit (including a few days in Paris where Backlots was “born”). I’ll keep an eye out for any interesting classic movie links during my trip.

See you on the other side of the Atlantic!

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Supreme Court Declines to Take Up Olivia de Havilland Case

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I received confirmation this morning from Olivia de Havilland’s counsel, Suzelle Smith, that the Supreme Court has declined to hear the case of Havilland v FX, Olivia de Havilland’s petition to the court to allow her case against FX to go to trial.

It is a disappointing decision, but de Havilland has fought an enormous battle, persevering until the very last recourse. That type of persistence is a quality that she has always had–and clearly continues to have at the age of 102. May we all learn from her, and may we all be so fortunate as to live to see the day when we can act on her example.

From the email this morning: “One day someone else who is wronged for the sake of Hollywood profits will have the courage to stand on the shoulders of Miss de Havilland and fight for the right to defend a good name and legacy against intentional, unconsented exploitation and falsehoods. Miss de Havilland hopes she will live to see the day when such justice is done.”

I want to thank all of you for following this case, and my coverage of it. It has been a true learning experience to do this kind of work, and to examine meticulously the inner workings of a lawsuit of this caliber has been an enormous privilege. While this outcome isn’t what we had hoped, the response to this case in the record number of letters sent to the courtrooms has proven that Olivia de Havilland continues to be loved and supported by people all over the world.

On behalf of myself, everyone involved in the case, all the newspaper and magazine outlets devotedly following the case since the beginning, Olivia de Havilland’s counsel, and everyone who has rooted for truth in media–thank you.

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Supreme Court to Decide Whether to Take Up Olivia de Havilland Case Today

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Hello readers, just a very quick update for those following the Olivia de Havilland case. Today, the Supreme Court is expected to decide whether or not they will take up her petition. If you would like to follow the case on the SCOTUS blog, here is the link to the petition page. I will update as more information becomes available.

For more information on what this petition is about, to fill in those new to the blog, here is a list of my full coverage on the case.

I will be following the page throughout the day to provide updates as they come in.

Thanks for reading, and for following this fascinating piece of legislation.

UPDATE: No order was released today on the Olivia de Havilland case–there will be additional orders released on Monday, January 7 and perhaps some on Tuesday.

California Fires Are Burning Hollywood History

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Image of the Woolsey Fire in Los Angeles, courtesy of ABC7 New York

As I write this post, I’m looking out the window into a haze of smoke, blowing down to the Bay Area from the Camp Fire in Chico. California is fighting several severe wildfires right now, and as of this writing, the entire city of Malibu is evacuated, we have over a dozen dead, and more who have lost everything. The fires this year and over the past few years have been devastating and tragic, and the smell of smoke in the air has become all too familiar.

And now, the fires are threatening Hollywood history at both ends of California.

Yesterday, I was sad to learn that the Western Town at Agoura Hills’ Paramount Ranch has burned in the Woolsey Fire. Purchased by Paramount in 1927, the Paramount Ranch has been used continuously as an outdoor movie set for 90 years. It has served as the filming location for The Sign of the Cross (1932), Sullivan’s Travels (1942), and Morocco (1930), and the Western Town was famously the set of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman between 1993 and 1998, as well as the current show Westworld.

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A tweet from the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area states: “We are sorry to share the news that the has burned Western Town at in Agoura. We do not have any details or photos, but it is our understanding that the structures have burned. This area is an active part of the incident and we cannot access it.”

Farther north, in Chico, the Camp Fire is threatening Bidwell Park, the location that served as Sherwood Forest in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). As of right now, the park is safe, but the fire remains unpredictable.

In the absence of a proper Sherwood Forest in the area around Los Angeles, Warner Bros decided to move production of The Adventures of Robin Hood up to Chico, a town in far northern California near Mt. Shasta. Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland spent many hours in lower Bidwell Park (the park is divided into an upper and a lower section), the area chosen to serve as the legendary forest where Robin Hood woos Maid Marian.

One of the wonderful things about the classic Hollywood community of yesteryear was their ability to rally and come together when times were tough for any of them. They were all there for each other–donating time, money, and resources to their fellow industry workers as needed. Right now, times are tough for the communities that have given us our movies. If you are able to help financially, volunteer, send supplies, or simply keep the communities in your thoughts, I know it would be much appreciated and a gesture very much in the spirit of classic Hollywood. Here is how you can help:

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Hannah Darden for the Sacramento Bee outlines what is needed. Here are some places she suggests:

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From Danny Clemens of ABC7 in Los Angeles:

Thank you for helping to keep our classic Hollywood heritage alive, and the people and animals who live in those communities safe.

Coverage of Olivia de Havilland vs. FX Wins 2018 CMBA Award for Best Classic Movie Series

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Hello dear readers,

Just a quick note to let you know that Backlots’ coverage of Olivia de Havilland vs. FX won the CMBA Award in the category of Best Classic Movie Series. It has been a marvelous run–and it’s not over yet! Stay tuned for more coverage as we wait to see if the United States Supreme Court will take up the case. If so, I will go to Washington, D.C. to watch the proceedings and report further.

Thank you for your diligent readership and for your support as we watch to see what happens. And thanks to the CMBA and the members of the Classic Movie Blog Association for their acknowledgment of my reporting.

Happy Sunday, happy reading and happy movie watching!

Olivia de Havilland Case Will be Filed With Supreme Court Within the Next Week

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Hello dear readers, the month of September seemed to whiz by so quickly that Backlots went without an update. But here we are at the beginning of October and I’m here to report that we have movement on the Olivia de Havilland case. De Havilland’s lawyer, Suzelle Smith, has informed me that the petition will be filed with the Supreme Court in the next 7 days–probably Friday or Monday.

The reason for the delay (the petition was originally to be filed in September) is the fact that the Supreme Court asks for 40 copies of the brief and the appendix, all bound. This is a massive undertaking, and Smith is working diligently to meet the demands of submitting to the highest court in the country.

This naturally segues into the elephant in the room–if Brett Kavanaugh is confirmed to the Supreme Court, what will this mean for de Havilland’s case? The main takeaway is that Kavanaugh has tended to lean on the side of corporate interests. Not only is FX a big and powerful company, but it has the backing, financial and otherwise, of other big and powerful companies. De Havilland’s case is one of a private citizen versus staggering amounts of corporate money. Based on Kavanaugh’s judicial record on corporations alone (and not even taking into account the other issues that may factor into his decision-making), Kavanaugh would tip the scales against de Havilland, should the Supreme Court decide to take the case.

I will keep you posted as I hear more from Suzelle Smith, and I will update with what seem to be Olivia’s chances with the court after the final Senate vote on Kavanaugh.

Talk to you soon!

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 Court Update: CA Supreme Court Denies Review

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Dear readers, I’ve been waiting to post about this until I got details from Olivia de Havilland’s lawyer regarding next steps, but a few days ago we got word that the California Supreme Court has declined to review de Havilland’s case against FX.

For those of us who have been advocating for her side, this comes as a blow. We don’t know how close the decision was–there was at least one justice, Justice Mariano Florentino Cuéllar, who voted to allow de Havilland to have her day in court. As judges are not required to publish their votes,  Justice Cuéllar’s is the only vote on record for either side.

We don’t know what, if anything, will happen next. The next step up in the legal system would be the Supreme Court of the United States. De Havilland’s team is weighing its options, but given the enormous pressure of being involved in a US Supreme Court case at the age of 102, this is not a decision to be taken lightly.

Regardless of what happens next, what has transpired in this case has been truly remarkable. When the case first went to the California Supreme Court, I posted an article outlining how to write an amicus curiae letter to the court in favor of de Havilland’s side. Thanks to all of you who sent your letters, 90 amicus curiae briefs were received by the court, a record-breaking number. In her email today addressing the outpouring of support, de Havilland’s lawyer wrote: “The fact that you collectively supported us and advocated for truth and fairness in the law was very important to our side.”

I have said and written from the beginning that no matter the outcome of the case, de Havilland wins. By simply putting pressure on corporate interests, showing them that civilians have the power to take them to task, she speaks truth to power and holds it accountable to the people. Since de Havilland filed her case, Ryan Murphy has shelved a season of American Crime Story about Monica Lewinsky, and the DVD release of Feud has been suspended. By daring to stand up, de Havilland has forced FX to back down and operate with more respect for facts and living people.

I will keep you posted about next steps, but in the meantime, may we all take a lesson from Olivia de Havilland–no matter how great our adversary, we cannot be intimidated by size or power. When we speak up and stand up, look the threat in the eye and assert our own presence, we see that maybe our biggest fears aren’t so big after all.

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