In March, a three-judge panel of the state appeals court tossed out de Havilland’s defamation suit, in which the actress claimed that the miniseries “Feud” included a damaging portrayal of her. The decision by the appeals court was viewed as an affirmation of the right of filmmakers to embellish the historical record.
“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 wrote at the time. “Nor does she or he have the legal right to control, dictate, approve, disapprove, or veto the creator’s portrayal of actual people.”
In a statement Friday, de Havilland’s attorney claimed that the appeals court threatens the actress’ rights and those of others, including non-celebrities.
“The Court of Appeal opinion, if allowed to stand, will infringe on the Constitutional right to a trial by jury not only of Miss de Havilland, but for any person in a similar situation, whether a celebrity or not. This puts everyone at the mercy of the media and entertainment industry, which may find that false statements and fake news sell better than the truth,” said Suzelle Smith, who represents de Havilland. “No filmmaker, biographer, or reporter with integrity can support the Court of Appeal decision. It rewards the unscrupulous and will put those who investigate and seek to tell the public the truth at an economic disadvantage.”
“Feud,” from executive producer Ryan Murphy, is a dramatization of the real-life rivalry between actresses Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. In the miniseries, de Havilland is played by Catherine Zeta-Jones and is a supporting character. De Havilland’s attorney argued that she is incorrectly portrayed as a gossip who spoke casually and disparagingly of friends and acquaintances such as Davis, Crawford, Frank Sinatra, and her own sister, Joan Fontaine.
A key issue at a hearing in front of the appeals-court panel in March was the use twice by de Havilland’s character of the word “bitch” in reference to Fontaine. De Havilland’s lawyer argued that no record exists of de Havilland ever using the word, much less to identify Fontaine. FX’s lawyer cited on-the-record comments that de Havilland has made referring to Fontaine as a “dragon lady.”