Olivia de Havilland is going to court.
The day before her 101st birthday, the grande dame of Hollywood’s Golden Age filed suit in the Los Angeles County Superior Court against FX Networks and Ryan Murphy Productions. What’s the beef? In his made-for-TV hit mini-series, Feud: Bette and Joan, producer Ryan Murphy and his screenwriters included de Havilland (played by Catherine Zeta-Jones) in several episodes, using her name and identity, and giving her lines of dialogue that were gossipy, a bit catty, and disparaging of de Havilland’s sister, Joan Fontaine (the two were estranged for years).
The series followed the filming of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane and Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte, two films Davis and Crawford made together when they had become categorized by the film industry as “mature,” and finding movie roles was getting tough for these stars. Furthermore, Davis (played by Susan Sarandon) and Crawford (played by Jessica Lange) couldn’t stand each other, which made the fireworks — especially when they were both vying for an Oscar in 1963 — a really compelling reason to watch the series.
Neither Murphy nor any member of his production company approached de Havilland for her permission to introduce her into the story. And putting spiteful words in her mouth misrepresents de Havilland, who throughout her career refused to dish the dirt on her colleagues, co-stars, or her sister: in a line of dialogue, Zeta-Jones, as de Havilland, calls John Fontaine her “bitch sister.”
In an April interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Murphy said he never contacted de Havilland about Feud because he thought it would be intrusive. He said, “I didn’t write Olivia because I didn’t want to be disrespectful and ask her, ‘Did this happen? Did that happen? What was your take on that?’”
De Havilland’s attorneys said she was suing “based on the unauthorized commercial use of Dame Olivia’s name and identity in the FX hit series.” Murphy’s people could have approached de Havilland for her participation in the series, or at least for her permission to have her character appear. In fact, of all the characters portrayed in Feud, only de Havilland and Bette Davis’ daughter, B.D., are still alive.
The attorneys added, “Miss de Havilland was not asked by FX for permission to use her name and identity and was not compensated for such use.” Furthermore, they said, the screenwriters portrayed de Havilland in “a false light to sensationalize the series.”
It’s unlikely that de Havilland will appear in the courthouse in L.A. These days, air travel can be an ordeal even for the young and robust. A lady of 101 years of age should not be hopscotching over oceans and continents (de Havilland lives in Paris).
This isn’t the first time de Havilland has gone to court. Back in 1943 she took on the studio system — specifically the Warner Bros. studio — which locked in actors to personal service contracts that were the movie industry’s personal take on indentured servitude. Typically, the contracts lasted for seven years, and actors were compelled to take the roles the studio gave them. When de Havilland started refusing roles she considered fluff, the studio suspended her. Then it tacked on to her contract the months de Havilland had not been working.
By now she was 27 years old, had been in the business for nine years, had co-starred in eight films with the wildly popular Errol Flynn, and been nominated for an Oscar for her performance as Melanie Wilkes in Gone with the Wind. Nonetheless, taking on the studio system was a gutsy move, and could very well have destroyed her career.
But de Havilland won! In 1944, the appellate court ruled that the “tack-on system” was in violation of California law. De Havilland, and every other actor in Hollywood, was now free to find parts she liked and turn down ones she didn’t.
She walked away from the ingénue roles Warner Bros. had forced on her, and did movies that advanced her career — To Each His Own, The Snake Pit, and The Heiress. For her work, she was nominated three times for an Oscar, won an Academy Award twice, and won the New York Film Critics Circle Award. The landmark ruling is still known as the De Havilland Law.
For decades Olivia de Havilland has had a reputation for being gracious, generous, warm. Except when she turns her lawyers loose in a courtroom. FX and Ryan Murphy Productions may want to think about that and consider their options.
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