Olivia de Havilland Takes Legal Feud to CA Supreme Court

By William Vogeler, Esq. on May 08, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Actress Olivia de Havilland saw her name in lights again last year, but not how she had imagined.

A star from Hollywood's golden era, de Havilland won two Oscars in a career that spanned more than 50 years. But the docudrama "Feud: Bette and Joan" took away that luster.

In De Havilland v. FX Networks, de Havilland sued for false light and other claims, but a state appeals court ruled against her. Now the drama is headed to the California Supreme Court.


The 101-year-old actress alleges the mini-series made her look like a vulgar hypocrite and gossip. But the state Second District Court of Appeal said the filmmakers are protected by the First Amendment.

"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," the appeals panel said.

Suzelle Smith, who represents de Havilland, is challenging the decision in a petition to the state supreme court. She says the Second District misapplied California's anti-SLAPP statute, which provides for summary disposition of First Amendment cases.

"California's anti-SLAPP statute involves several issues of constitutional significance, including the right to free speech, the right to petition, and the right to jury trial, which must be carefully balanced in applying the statute," she writes. "Otherwise, the statute can be used to undermine rather than protect constitutional rights."

Jury Trial

Smith said the appeals court erroneously concluded that de Havilland had to present "credible" and direct evidence to defeat the anti-SLAPP motion.

"It is the role of the jury, not the Court, to determine the credibility of admissible direct and circumstantial evidence produced by a plaintiff," Smith wrote in her petition. "The Opinion arrogates to the court the right to judge credibility, an unconstitutional extension of the statute."

"Feud," produced by Ryan Murphy, is a portrayal of the real-life rivalry between actresses Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. It also shadows the relationship between de Havilland and her sister, actress Joan Fontaine.

Catherine Zeta-Jones plays de Havilland, a supporting character who calls her sister a "bitch." At the appeals court hearing, de Havilland's lawyer said there was no record that her client ever used the word.

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