'Feud,' Olivia de Havilland and the "Bitch" vs. "Dragon Lady" Debate (Guest Column)

Left, Photofest; Right, courtesy of FX
Olivia de Havilland (left), Catherine Zeta-Jones as de Havilland on 'Feud: Bette and Joan'

As her attorneys petition the California Supreme Court, the actress' portrayal on the award-winning miniseries is again in the spotlight.

[Editor's note: Attorneys for Olivia de Havilland filed a petition with the California Supreme Court on Friday to review a California appeals court decision in March that dismissed the actress’ lawsuit against Ryan Murphy and FX in which she claimed the miniseries Feud: Bette and Joan made her look like a vulgar hypocrite and gossip. 

During the hearing that preceded the appeals court decision, much of the oral argument revolved around whether the word “bitch” — which actress Catherine Zeta-Jones, who played de Havilland on the series, uses to refer to de Havilland’s sister Joan Fontaine — is an acceptable synonym for the term “dragon lady,” a phrase that de Havilland did once use to refer to her sister. During the proceeding, de Havilland’s attorney argued that the actress never referred to her sister as a "bitch," while attorneys representing Murphy countered that he used the word “bitch” because he believed the terms "dragon lady" and "bitch" generally had the same meaning and “dragon lady” would not have been recognized and understood by modern audiences.]

In the oral arguments in the suit brought by Olivia de Havilland against FX and the producers of Feud, for presenting her in a "false light" and defaming her reputation, much attention was spent debating the impact and intent of using the word “bitch” rather than ”dragon lady,” when used by de Havilland to describe her sister and fellow Oscar-winner Joan Fontaine at a particular time in their stormy relationship.

Unlike most major stars of Hollywood’s “Golden Age,” Havilland never engaged in salacious gossip nor was involved in any romantic scandal. Intelligence and depth of character was her public persona, consistent with the depth, diversity and intelligence of her acting. She was known as “The Queen of Radiant Calm.”

In the miniseries Feud, which centers on the rivalry between screen icons Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, de Havilland’s character frames the piece, in interviews that never occurred, in which she offers sardonic gossip about the Davis-Crawford relationship and Frank Sinatra’s drinking and calls Fontaine her “bitch sister.”

Nothing in de Havilland’s public or private life substantiates this speech, which is a deliberate fabrication posing as reality.

There is a record of de Havilland once referring to Fontaine as “the dragon lady," which Feud’s creators and lawyers now assert is an equivalent to “bitch”… and that "bitch" was a necessary word to use since contemporary audiences weren’t familiar with “dragon lady" and wouldn’t understand the allusion.

However, “bitch” and “dragon lady” aren’t equivalents. “Bitch” is a derogatory pejorative, a direct invective and a vulgarity. “Dragon lady” connotes someone who is exotic, beautiful, glamorous and intelligent, who can also be calculating and intimidating. And coming from de Havilland, that choice description would have a degree of wit. A dragon lady is a complex figure: a bitch is one-dimensional. 

As Warner Bros. head Jack L. Warner said of de Havilland, who fought him over the studio contract system and won, “There is a brain like a computer behind those fawn-like eyes.”

That brain didn’t choose “dragon lady” lightly. One can deduce it also refers to the fact that Fontaine spent much of her formative years in Japan. 

The origin of the name comes from Terry and the Pirates, Milton Caniff’s popular comic strip in which the “Dragon Lady” first appeared. She was a gorgeous Asian woman, mysterious, aggressive and a character one waited for. I remember her entrance in one panel, clothed in a stunning pink silk sheath, challenging and breathtaking. So much more interesting and formidable than the mundane ”bitch.”

Today’s audiences are, in fact, well aware of another current dragon lady, one who is exotic, intelligent, aggressive, beautiful and a cultural phenomenon. She is “Khaleesi, Danerys Targaryen, The Mother of Dragons,” and played by Emilia Clarke, she is arguably the most resilient and important character on Game of Thrones

Justice Anne Egerton, who wrote the 36-page ruling only four days after the oral arguments, cited language that read like a press release for Feud, and which displayed little knowledge or understanding of critical standards regarding acting, film history or de Havilland’s extraordinary career and importance as a figure of integrity in a business where dignity is at a premium.

She accepted the FX description that in Catherine Zeta-Jones performance, de Havilland is portrayed as “beautiful, glamorous, self-assured and considerably ahead of her time in her views on the importance of equality and respect for women in Hollywood.” This is pretentious nonsense, configured to elevate Feud to some higher level of importance rather than what it is — a beautifully produced entertainment about two complicated and often volatile movie legends coming together to create a new genre for aging stars, abetted by one of Hollywood’s boldest directors, Robert Aldrich.

While the respective performances of Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange as Davis and Crawford are rich and nuanced, Aldrich (Alfred Molina) is shamefully misrepresented. A fearless filmmaker (AttackThe Dirty DozenKiss Me Deadly) and a forceful president of the DGA, he achieved landmark contracts for its members, but is falsely depicted as a spineless wimp and studio toady, furthering Feud's pattern of fabrications.

Zeta-Jones is fundamentally miscast as de Havilland — as played by Zeta-Jones, de Havilland is “self-assured” only in conveying gossip and without an iota of the fierce intelligence needed to be concerned about “the inequality of women in Hollywood.” That thematic statement from Feud is an obvious ploy to capitalize on current issues and is given slight attention or insight in the program.

Returning to the question of bitch vs. dragon lady, Egerton assumes that de Havilland’s portrayal is “not highly offensive to a reasonable person as a matter of law.” Most people may not be familiar with the “matter of law.” But most people who have seen the most successful film of all time, Gone With the Wind, or viewed The Adventures of Robin Hood countless times or watched many of de Havilland's 49 movies, from Hold Back the Dawn and Dodge City to her Oscar-winning To Each Our Own and The Heiress, would indeed find it highly offensive and unreasonable to believe this distinguished, acclaimed actress would use profanity in any public forum, let alone in discussing her sister. 

The effect on the minds of her many thousands of fans and admirers would be devastating. If she actually called Fontaine a “bitch,” as opposed to the multi-layered “dragon lady,” a respected bond would be shattered.

I have had brief encounters with both sisters and worked for months with Bette Davis while producing her last film, The Whales of August, and she would have exploded over how her friend, Olivia, and her director are depicted in Feud.

During my first job after college graduation as editorial associate and film critic for The Independent Film Journal, a bi-weekly trade publication supported by the Independent Theater Owners Association, whose editor Mort Sunshine produced high-end charity events, I watched as Fontaine arrived at the Americana Hotel in New York for one such event. The star of Rebecca and Suspicion appeared in a stunning, strapless red gown and ascended the escalator to applause — elegant, glamorous and totally in control — to be greeted at the top by a very pleased Mort, ready to escort her in. It was a perfectly staged and executed entrance. 

Two years, one avenue and four blocks later, the entire advertising and publicity department were seated in the conference room of the MGM Building with de Havilland, who had recently arrived from Paris. She had called the meeting to learn of everything that had been arranged for the Atlanta premiere of a technically enhanced, remastered Gone With the Wind. As the last surviving major figure of the beloved film, she wore the mantle of its importance with grace and significance. I was the MGM publicist responsible for print and broadcast publicity, and she wanted to know about every aspect of the film’s presentation, details that straddled arrivals, attendees, premiere timing, post-premiere party, size of the various locations and her wardrobe. When she was satisfied all was well, we rose in unison as she made her exit. It was a precise, professional and perfectly executed meeting. 

An hour later, we ran into each other on Sixth Avenue. Knowing she had nothing planned on her schedule that afternoon, I asked if she wanted to join my friend and me for lunch. “Thank you, you’re very kind,” she said, “but I’m having lunch with my sister.”

Aside from their career achievements, whatever squabbles, disagreements and estrangements the sisters engaged in during their lives, they were bonded by blood in how they appeared and conducted themselves. They were both circumspect and specific. In a 2016 interview in reference to her sister, de Havilland said, “'Dragon Lady,' as I eventually decided to call her, was a brilliant, multi-talented person but with an astigmatism in her perception of people and events, which often caused her to act in an unfair and even injurious way.”

The media’s coverage of the “bitch-dragon lady” debate has clouded the case’s main issue — the necessity of maintaining ethical concerns for the truth while exercising First Amendment rights.

Murphy, Feud’s talented creator, said he didn’t want “to intrude” on de Havilland before making the miniseries. Perhaps the insults and misrepresentation to her character could have been avoided if they had had personal contact. Instead, the honor and reputation of a national treasure has been impugned by not according her the same amount of concern given the program’s principals — Davis and Crawford — and that makes her portrayal all the more disheartening and offensive. 

The court of appeals decision did not end the controversy, with de Havilland’s attorneys now petitioning to have it reviewed. As Fontaine once warned, her sister doesn’t give up without a fight. Referring to de Havilland’s successful court cast against Warners in 1943, Fontaine once said of their family’s dynamic, “We don’t knuckle under. We fight for what is right.”

Mike Kaplan ID has worn various hats as a producer, documentary director, indie distributor and marketing strategist, working closely with Stanley Kubrick, Robert Altman, Hal Ashby, Lindsay Anderson, Mike Hodges and Alan Rudolph. His film poster exhibit, The Art of the Movie Poster: Highlights From the Mike Kaplan Collection, is currently on view at LACMA through July 1.