As important as their reputation is to their career, public figures (by the nature of their jobs, which puts them in the spotlight) have a hard time controlling that reputation. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects most forms of freedom of speech, especially those regarding public figures. The idea is that free and unprohibited discussion of public figures makes for a more informed public, which can only be good for the public.
This includes creative renderings of historical events and people. Writers and artists often choose to write about things that actually happened decades, or even centuries ago, either because those events are interesting in and of themselves, and/or to make some sort of commentary on modern society.
Ryan Murphy chose to make a limited series about the making of the movie, “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane,” which starred Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. The series, “Feud: Bette and Joan,” was Murphy’s way of discussing sexism and ageism in Hollywood, two factors that continue to affect the movie and TV industry (among others) to this day, more than fifty years later.
The problem, according to a recent lawsuit, was the fact that, in addition to Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, the show necessarily had to write about other people who surrounded and interacted with those two stars at the time the film was made, including Olivia de Hallivand, now 101 years old. De Hallivand objected to the way she was portrayed in the limited series and says they never obtained her permission to use her name or likeness for the show.
Specifically, de Hallivand objected to the way she was portrayed as an immoral gossip of low integrity who spread nasty rumors about other actresses in order to boost her own chances of winning an Academy Award (the actress has two Oscar wins under her belt, as well as numerous other awards and accolades). She particularly objected to a line in which Catherine Zeta-Jones, while portraying de Hallivand, calls Joan Fontaine her “bitch sister.” In fact, says de Hallivand, she actually called Fontaine a “dragon lady.”
While no one likes having someone else put words in their mouth, the panel of the appellate court hearing the case determined that de Hallivand was being too picky about word choice. According to the court, as far as meaning is concerned, there is no significant difference between “bitch” and “dragon lady.”
While one might argue that the word “bitch” is often considered a swear word and “uncouth” (and therefore unfit language for a Hollywood starlet to use) the panel has a point that, as far as meaning is concerned, “dragon lady” is not much significantly better – certainly not enough to justify filing a lawsuit.
Moreover, the court determined that, overall, de Hallivand was portrayed in a positive light in the limited series. The show made her out to be glamorous, witty, smart, and ahead of her time concerning issues such as gender equality.
While the trial court sided with de Hallivand and allowed the defamation lawsuit to proceed, the appellate court reversed that decision and dismissed the lawsuit. Additionally, the court ruled that de Hallivand will have to compensate FX for the legal fees it spent in defending itself against her lawsuit.
Unfortunately, such lawsuits are often a hazard of the creative industries, especially when portraying real people. But if the lawsuit had been allowed to continue, it would have set a dangerous precedent that would have required all creators to obtain permission from who knows how many people before making any creative interpretations of historical events. The result would no doubt be that the rest of the world would lose out on countless creative works.
Our Park Ridge IL libel and slander lawyers concentrate in this area of the law. We have defended or prosecuted a number of defamation and libel cases including cases representing a high profile athlete against a well known radio shock jock, a consumer sued by a large car dealer in federal court for negative internet reviews and videos, one of Loyola University’s largest contributors when the head basketball coach sued him for libel after he was fired, a lawyer who was falsely accused of committing fraud with the false allegation published to the Dean of the University of Illinois School of Law where the lawyer attended law school and the President of the University of Illinois.
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