Screenwriter Beats Defamation Lawsuit by Former Lover

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021

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A judge has dismissed “libel in fiction” claims brought by a screenwriter’s former romantic partner.

In a “libel in fiction” case, the plaintiff contends that he or she is portrayed as a character in an allegedly fictional work, but that the portrayal includes false and defamatory characteristics or events.

The Movie

Custody BattleCarroll Cartwright is the co-writer of the well-reviewed 2013 film What Maisie Knew. The movie starred Julianna Moore and Alexander Skarsgård.

According to IMDB,

What Maisie Knew is a contemporary New York City revisioning of the Henry James novel by the same name. It revolves around unwitting 7-year-old Maisie, caught in the middle of a custody battle between her mother Susanna, an aging rock star, and her father, Beale, a major art dealer.

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The Book

In the 1897 book, James tells the story of Maisie, a young child who shuttles back and forth between her divorced parents, who are depicted as immoral and frivolous. They use their daughter as a weapon against each other, and eventually effectively abandon her.

The Custody Battle

Cartwright said he was inspired to write the film while he was involved in a nasty custody dispute with his former partner, Oscar-nominated actress and singer Ronee Sue Blakley (Nashville). He said that the girl in the script was based on his own daughter.

Blakley and Cartwright were a couple from 1982 to 1987 and their daughter was born in 1988. Their custody battle lasted more than 10 years and Blakley eventually won.

The Lawsuit

Blakley sued Cartwright in 2014, after the movie came out, claiming

Cartwright wrote the screenplay to further his own feelings of hatred for Blakley by maliciously and falsely portraying her as a selfish, uncaring mother, when in fact she was a devoted and loving parent.

Blakley told the court that she and her friends believed that the movie was taken “scene by scene” from her life with Cartwright.

In her complaint, she claimed the following were among the similarities between real life and the characters depicted in the movie:

  • The mother in the movie is called “Susannah” (similar to Ronee Sue) whereas the mother character in the book is named Ida.
  • The mother character in the movie, as portrayed by Moore, is similar to the way Blakley appeared at the time in terms of age, height, hair, and dress.
  • The mother character in the movie, like Blakley, is a musician, singer, songwriter and producer.
  • The parents in the movie, like Blakley and Cartwright, were unmarried.

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The Disclaimer

The movie includes a standard disclaimer:

The persons and events in this motion picture are fictitious.  Any similarity to actual people or events is unintentional.

Blakley contended that this was irrelevant, since Cartwright publicly admitted that the main character was based on his own daughter.

The complaint included the following quote from Rodney Smolla’s The Law of Defamation, giving advice to an author who wants to use a real person as the basis for a fictional character:

First, the author may make little or no attempt to disguise the character, but refrain from any defamatory and false embellishments on the character’s conduct or personality; second, the author may engage in creative embellishments that reflect negatively on the character’s reputation, but make substantial efforts to disguise the character, by changing the name, age, geographic setting, personality, occupation, or other factors sufficiently to avoid identification. When an author takes a middle ground, however, neither adhering perfectly to the real person’s attributes and behavior nor engaging in elaborate disguise, there is a threat of defamation liability.

Blakley contended that Cartwright’s portrayal of Susannah fell into this middle ground.

The Decision

The court granted Cartwright’s motion to dismiss under California’s SLAPP law, which provides for the early dismissal of lawsuits seen as interfering with free speech.

The judge concluded that the alleged similarities between the film script and real life were “either tenuous or common, non-unique occurrences” and that Cartwright’s public statements about his creative process were not an admission that the character of Susannah was based on Blakley.

If you have questions about defamation law, you may wish to consult a tort lawyer who specializes in this field.


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