The rivalry at the core of FX’s Feud: Bette And Joan is primarily waged between Susan Sarandon’s Bette Davis and Jessica Lange’s Joan Crawford. But Ryan Murphy’s anthology series has sparked a real-life debate that has little to to do with the What Ever Happened To Baby Jane actresses.
Dame Olivia De Havilland, a screen legend in her own right, initially said she didn’t have time to watch the campy intrigue play out on TV, but she must have caught at least one episode, because she filed suit against FX and Ryan Murphy’s production company last year over her portrayal on the show. It’s not the casting of Catherine Zeta Jones that De Havilland’s taken exception with, but the “false words” and a “fake interview” depicted in the first season. Specifically, De Havilland is disputing a scene in which the fictional version of herself calls her sister Joan Fontaine, another iconic actress, a “bitch.”
According to Variety, the Gone With The Wind actress’ lawyer was back in court on Tuesday to refute the depiction of De Havilland as a “gossip who spoke casually and disparagingly of friends and acquaintances such as Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Frank Sinatra, and her sister, Joan Fontaine.” At one point while in character, Zeta Jones says “I don’t like to play bitches,” something the real De Havilland famously uttered. But the show tacked on the line “call my sister,” which The Heiress star believes is tantamount to having called Fontaine a bitch. There was certainly no love lost between De Havilland and Fontaine—their real-life relationship could make up its own season of Feud—but De Havilland’s lawyer is arguing that there is “no record” of his client ever using the epithet, let alone to describe her sister. The network’s lawyer pushed back, saying that De Havilland is on the record as calling Fontaine a “dragon lady.”
One of the judges impaneled delved into the nuances of insults, asking De Havilland’s lawyer if there’s a “substantial difference between calling someone a bitch and calling her a dragon lady?,” prompting laughter in the courtroom. The attorney shot back: “Yes, there is, your honor. In my household, if you say the word ‘bitch,’ you get your mouth washed out.” But this parsing of words is just part of the larger issue De Havilland has with the production–she’s arguing that FX and Murphy took advantage of her “honest, closed-mouthed, ladylike” image by having her gossip about her peers and disparage a family member. As for De Havilland’s camp’s response to FX’s claim of artistic license, the lawyer said “Of course we will still have docudramas. What we need to have are docudramas that don’t defame, that don’t tell lies.” The suit hasn’t moved forward, but it hasn’t been dismissed either.