An Angry Elizabeth Taylor Fights for Her Life—and Against ABC's Plans to Make It a Docudrama

updated 11/08/1982 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/08/1982 01:00AM

When it happened to Marilyn Monroe and Mae West they were already dead and could say nothing. The Royal Family kept a discreet silence this fall when it was done twice (in four days) to Prince Charles and Princess Diana. Jackie Onassis and Gloria Vanderbilt refused to cooperate, but it was done to them anyway. And though the late Princess Grace didn't like the idea a bit, her lawyers told her she could do nothing about it.

But when ABC announced intentions for David Paradine Television Inc. to produce and air an unauthorized "docudrama" of her life, Elizabeth Taylor, still feisty at 50, decided to stand up and fight. Filing suit in New York federal court, Taylor charged that the planned The Elizabeth Taylor Story, or simply Liz, was "deliberately employing manufactured dialogue and invented incidents."

Speaking to reporters at a N.Y. press conference (right), Taylor said, "The film is an outrage. This docudrama technique is simply a fancy new name for old-fashioned invasion of an actor's rights." Taylor, who recently accepted the largest sum ever offered by HBO for TV rights to Private Lives, the play she's doing with ex-husband Richard Burton on Broadway in May, also feels her purse has been invaded along with her privacy. "Someday I may write an autobiography or I may even do a film autobiography, and this is taking away from my income."

The co-defendants had no comment about the suit, which seeks to halt production of the movie and to collect unspecified damages. A report circulated that Cristina Ferrare, wife of busted auto tycoon John De Lorean (see story, page 38), was slated to play Liz. ABC denied responsibility for it, but refused comment on its accuracy.

The case fuels an already hot debate over the legality and morality of docudramas, a peculiar TV hybrid of fact and fiction that has evolved in recent years. Without palace support, ABC has continued with plans to begin filming its next docudrama, with Cheryl Ladd as Princess Grace. Says attorney Allen Snyder of Hogan & Hartson, the Washington law firm representing Taylor, "The networks have a right to report news in a truthful biography or documentary. But simply calling something a docudrama does not allow them to invent incidents, then mislead the public into believing this is the true life story of some celebrity."

L.A. attorney Renee Golden, a specialist in docudrama cases, raises another point. "How dare ABC take Elizabeth Taylor's life story—worth up to $250,000 if she sold it to TV—and appropriate it without paying her for it?" Arthur Miller, Harvard law professor and legal commentator for ABC's Good Morning America, disagrees: "The fact that a famous person can exploit his or her name and likeness doesn't necessarily mean that no one else can write about a person."

Clearly, the outcome of the Taylor case will have repercussions. Planned docudramas on Rita Hayworth and Lana Turner (see previous story) have already been announced. But whatever the court decides, Liz would rather live with her own decision: "It's fictionalized unless these people were under the bed for my 50 years."

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