April 22, 2014
What Maisie Knew screenwriter sued for libel in fiction
by Nick Davies
Henry James’s novel What Maisie Knew, about a young girl shuttled between her divorced and dysfunctional parents, was published more than a century ago, in 1897. But, Eriq Gardner writes for the Hollywood Reporter, a recent film adaptation of the book has become the topic of a defamation lawsuit between parents who had their own custody battle in the 1980s.
Ronee Sue Blakley, an Oscar-nominated actress for her role in Robert Altman’s Nashville, has sued Carroll Cartwright, with whom she has a daughter, Sarah. The two dated in the 80s, and the fight over custody between them lasted more than a decade. Now, Blakley alleges that Cartwright’s screenplay adaptation of What Maisie Knew—released in 2012 and starring Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan as the feuding parents—is a thinly veiled attack on her as a parent.
The $3 million lawsuit falls under a category of defamation law called “libel in fiction,” which holds that “if readers can recognize what they see as referring to someone real, then statements made about this person can be actionable.” Filed with the Los Angeles Superior Court, the suit claims that Cartwright “has admitted that [the screenplay] is closely based on his own first hand personal experience of a lengthy and acrimonious battle for the custody of his daughter, Sarah.”
Cartwright couldn’t be reached for comment, but in this 2013 interview with the Writers Guild of America West, he does acknowledge that he started working on the script eighteen years ago, which somewhat narrows the gap between the custody battle and the film’s release. He also changed the name of the character to Susanna (from Ida in the book), a choice Blakley says deliberately drew a parallel with her own first name, Ronee Sue.
It’s not clear to me whether the criteria for libel in fiction would hinge on Cartwright’s intent or his characters being recognizable to an audience as real-life figures. If it’s the former, it’s possible that Blakley has a case. If it’s the latter, though — it’s asking quite a lot of audiences in 2013-2014 to, first, know/recall anything about Blakley and Cartwright’s relationship, and then arrive the conclusion that a film based on a major novel by a famous 19th-century writer is, in fact, about a custody battle from some thirty years ago.
Nick Davies is a publicist at Melville House.