Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Feud: Olivia and Ryan

“...I believe in the right to free speech, but it certainly must not be abused by using it to protect published falsehoods or to improperly benefit from the use of someone’s name and reputation without their consent. Fox crossed both of these lines with ‘Feud,’ and if it is allowed to do this without any consequences, then the use of lies about well-known public figures masquerading as the truth will become more and more common. This is not moral and it should not be permitted."

When I watched Feud last year, I remember wondering how much of it was fact and how much was fiction. I was surprised it wasn't based on a book, though in hindsight, I'm not sure why I made a point of that. Maybe because it was television? Not sure. Regardless, Feud had the air of authenticity to it.

Ryan Murphy
The scenes with Olivia de Havilland commenting on the story of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford had struck me as a construct meant to put everything in perspective, a use of artistic license to better tell the story. I never thought it was meant to be taken as literal (even though within the story context, it was part of a "documentary"). It's possible, though, that people could take it seriously — hence this lawsuit by the centenarian actress against Feud creator Ryan Murphy and FX.

The real ODH has portrayed famous people in her career: Charlotte Bronte in Devotion; Elizabeth Bacon Custer in They Died With Their Boots On; Queen Elizabeth II in a TV movie about Prince Charles and Lady Diana (ironically, the subjects of Murphy's next Feud installment).

Catherine Zeta-Jones as ODH in Feud
She was part of a Hollywood that often played fast and loose with the facts whenever they made biographies — not that it's much different today. Boots is an excellent example of this. One wonders if ODH had any objections to factual inaccuracies in these films.

Her own feud with her sister Joan Fontaine was common knowledge for a long time, therefore, when her Feud character calls Fontaine a bitch, that didn't strike me as odd. Then again, my knowledge of the private lives of celebrities past and present is limited, by choice.

Still, I don't wanna come down on her. I have total respect and admiration for ODH. The fact that her reputation and her self-respect mean so much to her that she's willing to go to court over her portrayal in Feud says much about the person she is and the era she forged her career in. I sympathize with her situation, and I sincerely hope she doesn't leave this world with the matter unresolved.

ODH (right), with Bette Davis
Still, I'm uncomfortable with the precedent this case could set if she wins. Should Murphy have at least consulted her first, out of respect, if not obligation? Yes, but even if she was unavailable, he wasn't making a documentary. 

There's a distinction between that and what we call a "docudrama": one purports to present the facts as is (emphasis on the word purports), the other dramatizes them, presents the facts in a narrative that resembles fiction, and both are legitimate forms of storytelling, practiced in media other than film and TV. Yes, there are exceptions in both cases, and yes, it's annoying when they get the facts wrong, but in general, I believe audiences are able to tell the difference between 20 Feet From Stardom and Dreamgirls, to pick two examples.

Was there intent to damage ODH's reputation on Murphy's part? That's for a court to decide, but what motive would he have? Was he secretly a Fontaine fan out for revenge? I can't imagine.

This is a case to watch, for its long-term implications lay beyond the realm of film.


  1. It is a very interesting case. Have you read Lara Gabrielle Fowler's take on the legal points?

  2. I have now. Thanks.

    I was pondering seeing I, TONYA yesterday. I think I'm a little more motivated to do so now, so I can comment further on this.

    1. Dramatic licence. Historical fiction. Re-imagining. It can get complicated.

  3. The only thing that bothered me in Feud was Catherine Zeta-Jones playing Olivia. She made the Hollywood legend seem distant, cold and preposterous - something that can be dismissed if we watch one single interview on YouTube. All the oter portrayals were respectful.
    It's too bad if this lawsuit becomes the thing Feud will be remembered for. Its discussion on sexism and ageism in Hollywood is brilliant, and the series surely deserved to win a few prizes.

  4. I doubt FEUD will be remembered that way, no matter what happens in this case. Murphy has an impressive track record of quality television. This is part of that. It definitely fits the current atmosphere in Hollywood post-Weinstein.