de Havilland’s suit was initially allowed to proceed by a Los Angeles judge, but a California appeals court reversed that decision back in March. The California Supreme Court had previously declined to take up the case prior to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“We and Miss de Havilland are disappointed that the US Supreme Court passed on this opportunity to confirm that the First Amendment does not protect the publication of intentional lies in any medium, including so called docudramas,” de Havilland’s attorneys said in a statement. “The California Court of Appeal has turned the First Amendment upside down and without doubt more harm to individuals and public deception will result. 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.”
“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.
“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,” appeals court Justice Anne Egerton wrote in the March decision. “Nor does she or he have the legal right to control, dictate, approve, disapprove, or veto the creator’s portrayal of actual people.”
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.”
“The MPAA is pleased that the U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear the De Havilland v. FX Networks case, putting an end to this litigation and leaving in place the excellent opinion by the California Court of Appeal,” said Charles Rivkin, chairman and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). “This is great news for filmmakers and other creators, whose First Amendment right to tell stories that depict real people and events was resoundingly reaffirmed by the Court of Appeal, and for audiences everywhere who enjoy a good biopic, documentary, docudrama, or work of historical fiction.”