Re-Imagining Madoff

People, people, people...  Yes, putting real people into your play can stir up a world of trouble.  Case in point...

You'd expect someone teaching theater studies at Yale to know a little more than a thing or two about plays.  But apparently Associate Professor Deborah Margolin didn't know when she wrote the original version of her drama about convicted ponzi scheme artist Bernard Madoff, Imagining Madoff, that one of the people depicted in her play would threaten legal action.  And guess what?  The threatening party wasn't Mr. Madoff.  It was Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, who, with his wife, lost his life savings to Mr. Madoff's scheme.

Mr. Wiesel was depicted as a major character in Ms. Margolin's original version of the play.  According to reports, Mr. Wiesel was not pleased with the depiction, calling the play "obscene" and "defamatory."

Threats of potential litigation caused Theater J in Washington, D.C., to pull the plug last year on its originally scheduled premiere of the play.  But now it's back at Theater J, opening yesterday -- only this time Ms. Margolin has done a bit of re-imagining, having taken Mr. Wiesel out of the play and substituted a fictitious Holocaust survivor and Madoff victim named Solomon Galkin.  An electronic publicity material I received regarding the production made certain to note that, due to legal issues, the play had been rewritten to take Mr. Wiesel out of it.

My understanding is that, although the character's name has been changed, much of his dialogue hasn't.  That leaves open the possibility that Ms. Margolin might not be completely out of the woods legally if Mr. Wiesel were to believe the Galkin character is just a thinly disguised version of himself.  Defamation laws can extend even to "fictionalizations" where everyone knows who the mysterious "Mr. X" really is.

The Cost for King

This Sunday will mark the official dedication of the new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C.  It's the culmination of a long-time effort to bring such a memorial to the nation's capital.  For many who hold Dr. King in great reverence for his leadership in the civil rights movement, this will be a momentous occasion.

One would assume it will also be a proud moment for King's surviving family.  However, pride is one thing, and business is business.  It has been reported that the King family charged the foundation responsible for the memorial an estimated $800,000 for the use of Dr. King?s words and image in its fund-raising materials.

There are laws that govern the commercial use of a person's likeness even after death.  The King family has been known to be protective of Dr. King's image and words, and it has sued over unauthorized uses in the past.

Reportedly, the family didn't charge for the use of Dr. King's likeness as carved into the monument.

Twelve Reasonably Doubtful Men

This week, yours truly got himself cast in a production of the drama, Twelve Angry Men.  (Acting is something I do when I'm not practicing law to satisfy the artistic spirit in me.)  The stage play by Sherman L. Sergel, as adapted from the teleplay by Reginald Rose, is perhaps one of the best known plays about our judicial system.  Twelve jurors must decide whether a 19-year-old is guilty of murder.  If you haven't seen the play or the movie version, you've probably at least seen one of the many parodies that have appeared on various TV shows in which one lone juror voting "not guilty" faces off against eleven others who are eager to convict.

Unlike many crime dramas that focus on having the protagonist solve the crime, Twelve Angry Men focuses not on the issue of determining who the real guilty party is but, rather, on the issue of "reasonable doubt."  That's the standard by which criminal cases are decided in the United States.  To convict, the jury must determine guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.  That's the real issue of the play.  The lone juror's argument isn't that he believes the defendant to be innocent; it's that he believes there's a reasonable doubt about whether he's guilty.

Knowing that I'm a lawyer, a fellow cast member asked me at rehearsal last night whether a jury would be instructed as to what constitutes reasonable doubt.  Jury's are given instructions before they retire to deliberate.  But distinguishing a reasonable doubt from an unreasonable one isn't an exact science.  It's impossible to say where each individual would choose to draw that line.  Hence, the drama -- in the courtroom as well as on stage.

Cantinflas at 100

Friday, August 12th, 2011, marks the 100th birthday of Mexico's most famous comic actor -- Mario Moreno, known to many millions of fans as Cantinflas.  The actor died at the age of 81 in 1993, but his legacy as the baggy pants everyman who could comically talk his way out of jams lives on in the 50 or so movies he acted in over the course of his illustrious career.

What also lived on beyond Mr. Moreno's lifetime were legal issues over the ownership of his films.

First, there was a family dispute over whether a son or nephew was the legal owner.  Eventually, after extended litigation and appeal, the son emerged victorious on that one.  But then there was another legal battle between the son and Columbia Pictures, which claimed it owned the rights to 34 Cantinflas movies.  That lawsuit went Columbia's way.  However, then the son re-opened the case by claiming the judgment didn't apply to the films' rights in Mexico.  On appeal, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Columbia's favor.

Is It Really Marilyn?

An Argentine collector claims to have a 1940s porno film that features Marilyn Monroe before she became the famous Hollywood sex symbol.  But the protectors of Ms. Monroe's estate say the claim is hogwash.

Collector Mikel Barsa tried to auction off the film at a starting price of almost a half-million dollars, but he got no bids.  So he's still seeking a buyer.

Meanwhile the debate goes on over whether the actress in the film is really the famous Ms. Monroe, and the company that licenses her image says any sale of the film that includes an assertion that Ms. Monroe is in the movie could invite a lawsuit.