Last week, Jerry West announced through his legal team that he was seeking a retraction, an apology, and possibly damages over his portrayal in HBO’s series Winning Time.
In the show, West is portrayed as, well, an alcoholic dick, which owes a lot more to the showrunners and screenwriters than to Jason Clarke’s performance. He’s doing what’s on the page. A lot of high-profile voices have come out in support of West, refuting the events as depicted on the screen.
That alone is probably not enough to win a potential defamation lawsuit, though. The legal bar for that is very high, especially for a public figure like West. But according to this piece from Winston Cho in the Hollywood Reporter, there are a few things about Winning Time that could make things a little more worrying for the show. Ironically it might be one of the show’s trademark Adam McKay touches that could be one of the biggest issues:
Particularly troubling on this point in Winning Time is a scene featuring Buss in which he breaks the fourth wall in typical McKay fashion to tell viewers, “Jerry West, Head Coach of the Lakers, considered a true gentleman of the sport to everyone who does not know him.” Miller argues that the scene implies that the series depicts the “real” West.
Alexander Rufus-Isaacs, a defamation attorney who represents Gaprindashvili in her lawsuit against Netflix, said the scene should trouble the show’s producers because it vouches for their portrayal of West.
“That would be a massive hurdle for the producers to overcome,” Rufus-Isaacs says. “When the screenwriter is being deposed, he’s going to have a very hard time denying that he meant for the audience to believe that he’s showing the real Jerry West. That’s a very good fact for West’s side and very bad for the producers.”
The odds of this ever getting to court still seem slim, though. Some kind of resolution being worked out feels much more likely, because that’s almost always what happens. Plus it really would be a tough and expensive hurdle for West to try and clear. Still, it’s a fascinating example of the sorts of issues that can come up when making fictionalized material about real, very much living people. Considering that’s a trend not likely to end soon, it’s possible stories like this continue to pop up.
West seems like an extreme example, though, given the depiction of the man on screen vs. who he seems to be in reality by just about all accounts. That’s why this could have more staying power.
[The Hollywood Reporter/image via HBO]