Some court cases concern life and liberty, some are about money and manipulation, and others grubby politics and power. But in defamation cases everything’s at stake.
Our reputation and good name is our most valued asset, because when all is said and done it’s all we have. Youth is transient, beauty skin-deep, and material riches illusory. Our physical strength and allure inevitably wane and fade like yesterday’s flowers, and affluence and influence desert us like a fickle, fatuous friend.
Try as we may, in the end we just can’t take any of it with us. But the one thing we know will survive long after we’re gone is the memory of us that we leave behind. That’s something worth fighting for.
This week Britain’s Sunday Telegraph newspaper carried the story of a major Hollywood law-suit launched in LA by a snowy-haired centenarian. The day before she celebrated her 101st birthday at her home in Paris, long-retired film actress Olivia de Havilland sued the producers of the major new television series Feud: Bette and Joan, claiming their depiction of her in the series as a tittle-tattle who engaged in “Hollywood gossip” and “unkind and critical” remarks was “completely false” and inherently untrue.
Millennials may never have heard of the once-celebrated actress, and others perhaps have long forgotten her. But in days gone by Olivia de Havilland was one of the biggest stars in the golden age of Hollywood, appearing in 49 films between 1935 and 1988, and winning two Academy Awards in the process. Raised in America by British parents, she presented every inch the consummate lady, her characters always imbued with a sense of gentile reserve, appropriate discretion, and just a hint of an indomitable stiff upper lip.
So she didn’t take kindly to Catherine Zeta-Jones’ portrayal of her in the opening episode of Feud, a dramatisation of the legendary rivalry between Hollywood film icons Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, in which she unloads a barrage of abuse about her younger sister. It is a well-documented fact that throughout adulthood Ms de Havilland had a strained relationship with her younger sister Joan Fontaine, who was also an Oscar-winning actress of the day, and passed away in 2013. But she maintains she always showed impeccable restraint when their relationship was questioned in the media, and bristled at the Zeta-Jones portrayal, in which she refers to her sibling as “the bitch sister” and dumps on the strained relationship between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.
The aging former actress complains the series Feud unfairly frames her as a hypocrite who peddled idle gossip to further her ambitions, in stark contrast with her reputation for good manners, class and kindness. That may not seem like much, and at 101 who wants to spend their time and money fighting court cases. But having spent a lifetime building a reputation for integrity and dignity, I guess it’s how Olivia de Havilland would like to be remembered. And that’s something worth fighting for.
Chris Nyst, Lawyer, Novelist and Film Maker