The lawsuit brought by former Hollywood actress Olivia de Havilland against the FX Network for its portrayal of her in the television show “Feud: Bette and Joan” has (most likely) reached its conclusion. Last week, a California Court of Appeal weighed in on the sufficiency of Ms. de Havilland’s claims, concluding that she does not have the right to dictate how she is portrayed in artistic media. You can read the full decision here.
Of particular interest to followers of defamation law is the ruling on Ms. de Havilland’s false light claim. In California, as in many other jurisdictions, a person bringing a false light claim must show that the Defendant’s actions exposed her to “hatred, contempt, ridicule, or obloquy,” and that the portrayal “would be highly offensive to a reasonable person.” Ms. de Havilland’s suit alleged, among other things, that she had been unfavorably portrayed to the public and sustained injuries as a result, due to the show’s depiction of her calling her estranged sister a ‘bitch,’ where the historical record only records her using the more dated term ‘dragon lady.’
As the Court noted, the brief portrayal of Ms. de Havilland in the program (which focuses far more on the relationship between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford) is of a character who was “beautiful, glamorous, self-assured, and considerably ahead of her time in her views.” In other words, regardless of the writer’s inserting an ugly word into the actress’s mouth, the overall impact of the depiction is positive, thus failing to give an impression that would offend a reasonable person. A false light action cannot stand where the recipient of the message leaves with a higher opinion of the subject. The California court also noted that modern-day viewers are unlikely to perceive the drama as faithfully re-telling actual history, rather than making dramatic embellishments for the sake of entertainment.
As in so many other reputational harm cases, it is the perceptions of the audience that hold the key to whether a communication can truly be held as a legal wrong. No matter how harsh a statement, if the relevant audience does not feel diminished regard for the subject, there can be no defamation claim. This decision will be better remembered for its important support of the notion (strongly forwarded by a number of amici along with the defendants) that no person can control the way in which her story is told. But its message to false light plaintiffs is important as well: minor exaggerations and positive exaggerations will never provide grounds for reputational injury claim.