The de Havilland-vs.-FX lawsuit is coming down to semantics.
You’ll never find a recording of Olivia de Havilland using the word “bitch” when referring to her sister, Oscar-winning actress Joan Fontaine. At least, that’s what her lawyers are arguing now in their ongoing case against FX and its portrayal of the Oscar-winning actress in the series Feud. The legal battle began many moons ago (i.e., last June) and has now come down to a question of semantics.
On the TV series, the de Havilland character (played by Catherine Zeta-Jones, who is avoiding the legal fray by hunkering down in Casa Zeta-Jones) calls her sister a “bitch,” while in real life she made comments calling her a “dragon lady.” According to Variety, de Havilland’s lawyers take umbrage at that script decision, claiming there’s no record of the esteemed actress ever using the word “bitch” in that context—especially not in regard to her sister, despite their famously difficult relationship.
Per Variety, Judge Halim Dhanidina (one of three judges on this case) asked de Havilland’s attorney a question that you might be wondering yourself: “Is there a substantial difference between calling someone a bitch and calling her a dragon lady?”
“Yes, there is, your honor,” de Havilland’s lawyer responded. “In my household, if you say the word ‘bitch,’ you get your mouth washed out.”
FX’s attorney then fired back, claiming that the use of the word in the script was not entirely out of character. He referenced the 1989 Shaun Considine book, Bette & Joan: The Divine Feud—a nonfiction account of the relationship between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford—in which de Havilland is quoted as saying, “I don’t like to play bitches.” As Variety notes, the de Havilland character on Feud says a similar line, then adds, “Call my sister.”
The FX attorney also argued that, overall, the show “does not portray Ms. de Havilland as a vulgarian”; instead, she is largely shown as being a loyal and supportive friend to Davis. In addition, said the lawyer, FX producers changed the use of “dragon lady” to “bitch” in one portion of dialogue because the two terms seemed synonymous, and the word “bitch” seemed more contemporary.
After we first published this article, de Havilland’s legal team reached out to Vanity Fair to further clarify its position: “Miss de Havilland is suing, among other things, because FX, without bothering to ask her if it was true or have other substantiation for it, had her calling her sister, actress Joan Fontaine, when they were both young adult professional actresses, a ‘bitch’ to fellow actors and directors.”
FX is aiming to get the suit thrown out under California’s anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) statute, which fights complaints that are designed to “silence and harass critics by forcing them to spend money to defend these baseless suits,” according to an anti-SLAPP organization. The anti-SLAPP statute, in essence, protects free speech. As of now, according to Variety, the court has not decided whether to move forward with the de Havilland case. Meanwhile, the actress—who will turn 102 in July—and her legal team will carry on.
This post has been updated with a response from de Havilland’s legal team.