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Olivia de Havilland versus Hollywood

The 101-year-old star's case against FX Networks over the TV series 'Feud' isn't the first time she has taken a major studio to court

(left) Zeta-Jones as Olivia de Havilland in ‘Feud’, and de Havilland in a publicity still.
(left) Zeta-Jones as Olivia de Havilland in ‘Feud’, and de Havilland in a publicity still.

Olivia de Havilland may be 101 years old, but she can still make the establishment nervous. The British-American actor, best known for her supporting role as Melanie in Gone With The Wind (1939), brought a lawsuit against FX Networks for their representation of her in the limited series Feud. Her suit was denied by a California appeal court on 26 March, on the grounds that such portrayals are protected by the First Amendment to the US constitution.

Feud, which aired last June, took a scabrous look at the real-life battle of wills between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford during and after the making of What Ever Happened To Baby Jane (1962). De Havilland, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones, is a minor recurring character. In one episode, she turns down a part in a movie opposite Davis, saying: “I don’t do bitches. They make me so unhappy. You should call my sister." This line has its basis in a highly publicized falling out that she and her sister, actor Joan Fontaine, had—but the real de Havilland wasn’t amused. “When I learned the Olivia de Havilland character called my sister ‘a bitch’ and gossiped about Bette Davis and Joan Crawford’s personal and private relationship, I was deeply offended," she told The New York Times.

The possible implications of the case meant that it attracted some attention in Hollywood. Murphy did not approach de Havilland before making the series—nor, some would argue, was he obligated to. But there were fears that if de Havilland’s suit was successful, a precedent might be set as far as docudramas and prior permissions were concerned. Unlike in India, where most biopics are made with the permission of their subjects, this would have major implications for Hollywood movies and American TV.

Studio executives and writers with a sense of Hollywood history must have heaved a sigh of relief after the verdict. The last time de Havilland sued the establishment, it had a lasting and cataclysmic impact. As a contract player at Warner Bros., she was frustrated with the studio suspending her temporarily and adding the time to her contract. In 1943, she took the studio to court (in 1930, Davis had lost a similar case), citing a clause in the California labour code which stated that a contract was valid only up to seven years from the start date. She prevailed in 1944, and the “seven-year rule" for personal services contracts became state law in California, contributing significantly to the dilution of the powers of major studios and upping the bargaining power of artists and talent agencies. It became known as the De Havilland Law.

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