Olivia de Havilland defamed by 'lies' in FX miniseries Feud: Bette And Joan, US court told

Olivia de Havilland said she did not consent to the use of her likeness FX's Feud: Bette And Joan, nor receive payment.
Olivia de Havilland said she did not consent to the use of her likeness FX's Feud: Bette And Joan, nor receive payment.PHOTO: NYTIMES

LOS ANGELES (AFP) - Hollywood veteran Olivia de Havilland was defamed by the "lies" in FX's Feud: Bette And Joan, a court heard Tuesday (March 20), as the star pursued a lawsuit over how she was portrayed in the show.

The 101-year-old two-time Oscar winner, who came to embody the elegant glamour of Golden Age Hollywood, says she did not consent to the use of her likeness in the hit 2017 miniseries, nor receive payment.

Feud focuses on the famous rivalry between Bette Davis, performed by Susan Sarandon, and Joan Crawford, as portrayed by Jessica Lange.

British actress Catherine Zeta-Jones portrays De Havilland - Davis's friend - in the show. Of the stars of yore seen in the miniseries, only De Havilland is still alive.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Holly Kendig ruled in September that the actress could move forward with her "right-of-publicity" lawsuit, but the network is challenging the decision in a state appeals court in Los Angeles, claiming the producers' right to freedom of expression is protected by the First Amendment.

De Havilland - who under the law is a public figure - contends that the series put her in a bad light, violating her right to privacy, by showing her fictional version describing her sister, Joan Fontaine, as a "bitch."

The star's attorney Suzelle Smith described the word as a "vulgarity," telling the appeals panel: "In my household, if you say bitch, you get your mouth washed out." Smith argued that allowing producers to take such liberties with characters would leave public figures unable to "control their identity." She said she had no problem with docudramas, but added that "what we need to have are docudramas that don't defame, that don't tell lies."

FX attorney Kelly Klaus argued, however, that the show portrayed De Havilland in a positive light, painting her as a fiercely loyal friend.

"The show simply does not portray Ms. De Havilland as a vulgarian," Klaus said, noting that while the actress may never have called her sister a "bitch" in real-life, she she had once referred to her as a "dragon lady."

"Docudramas are understood not to be a literal retelling of history, that's the role of documentaries," Klaus said.

In the September ruling under appeal, Kendig found that De Havilland had demonstrated that the network either knew that aspects of the series were false, or did not care whether they were.

The judge cited four examples, including a depiction of a 1978 Academy Awards interview in which De Havilland disparaged Davis and Crawford.

Kendig said the evidence showed the interview never took place, adding that De Havilland had been falsely portrayed as someone who was a "gossip" who had bad-mouthed Fontaine and made disparaging remarks about Frank Sinatra's drinking habits.

Kendig said she disagreed with the defense that the series was "transformative" and said there was evidence the network benefited financially from the use of De Havilland's name.

The actress rose to fame in the 1930s playing ingenue roles alongside Errol Flynn, but moved on to more challenging fare, winning Academy Awards for the 1946 film To Each His Own, and four years later for The Heiress.

Legendary director Victor Fleming chose her for the role of Melanie Hamilton in the US Civil War epic Gone With the Wind and other notable films included My Cousin Rachel in 1953 with Richard Burton, and Hush... Hush Sweet Charlotte in 1965 with Bette Davis.

"A key reason for the public's deep respect for Olivia de Havilland is that in her 80-plus year career, she has steadfastly refused to engage in typical Hollywood gossip about the relationships of other actors," her complaint reads.

The case continues.