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Image: MGM

In November 1998, almost two years after she was arrested in Milan, Patrizia Reggiani – the extravagant former member of the fashion and leather goods-famed Gucci family – was sentenced to prison in connection with her critical role in a murder-for-hire plot aimed at her ex-husband, Maurizio Gucci. The conviction of Ms. Reggiani and a number of accomplices by a jury in Milan, followed from a 5-month murder trial that was closely-watched across Italy and beyond. In what has been likened to “the Italian equivalent of the O.J. Simpson case in the United States,” the prosecution successfully argued that Reggiani had paid upwards of $375,000 to have her former spouse killed. While the former Mrs. Gucci – who 50 years old at the time of her conviction – escaped a life sentence, she was, nonetheless, ordered to spend 29 years behind bars, a sentence that was ultimately reduced by 3 years. 

As documented in countless headlines following her arrest and throughout the months-long trial, Reggiani was “obsessed with the fact” that after 12 years of marriage, Maurizio Gucci left her in 1985 for another – younger – woman, with the Gucci heir telling his wife one day that he was going on a short business trip and then never returning home. In addition to “manic jealousy,” Reggiani was also unhappy with the $650,000 per year sum offered to her in connection with her divorce settlement, and with Mr. Gucci’s decision to sell his stake in the family company to Bahraini PE giant Investcorp in 1993 for $170 million. All the while, she made no secret that she wanted to see her ex-husband dead.

The breakdown of the marriage between the late Gucci and Reggiani, which culminated in divorce in 1991, followed from more than a decade of a glamorous coupleship. Following the “70s Roman Catholic celebrity event” that was their wedding in 1973, as W Magazine recently put it, Mr. and Mrs. Gucci, or “Lady Gucci,” as she was first coined by Italian media outlets, become one of the first “power couples” in Italy, and Reggiani became known as one of the more over-the-top players in the Italian jet set scene. In a testament to her love of a lavish lifestyle, Reggiani – who was swiftly dubbed “Vedova Nera” or “the Black Widow” by newspapers in Milan following her highly-publicized arrest – “was famous for having once said, ‘I would rather weep in a Rolls-Royce than be happy on a bicycle,’” the New York Times reported in late 1998. 

The fall from Gucci grace and the loss of her role as the “Liz Taylor of luxury labels,” another Italian media-created moniker for the former Mrs. Gucci, added to Reggiani’s woes – and seemingly her fury against her ex-husband. “Everything Reggiani was stemmed from being a Gucci,” Giusi Ferrè, a veteran Milan-based fashion writer and cultural critic, told the Guardian in connection with a 2016 profile. “It was her whole identity, even as an ex-wife.”  

“She had openly threatened to kill Gucci after their split,” the British publication wrote. However, “without evidence, the crime went unsolved for nearly two years” That is, until a “tip-off led to her arrest in 1997, along with four others, including the hitman.” 

Lawyers for Reggiani did not deny that their client had inquired about the cost of a hitman and that she “had loudly broadcast her desire to see her ex-husband dead.” And yet, the Times reported that the Italian socialite maintained her innocence – and her counsel pleaded mental instability partly because of a brain tumor operation carried out in 1992 – throughout the trial, which it characterized as “the ultimate real-life soap opera,” bringing together “some of the country’s favorite obsessions: sex, money, designer footwear, and astrology,” with Reggiani’s personal psychic-turned-accomplice serving a blow to her defense ahead of trial by admitting to her role in the paid-for slaying of Mr. Gucci in March 1995. (Reggiani attempted to discredit the testimony of the psychic Guiseppina Auriemma, and blame her former friend, telling the court, ”Never let even a friendly fox into the chicken coop. Sonner or later it could get hungry.”)

The striking story of Mr. Gucci’s demise and the attention-garnering trial that followed parlayed neatly into a page-turning literary account, Sara Gay Forden’s 2001 book, “The House of Gucci,” which has since been adapted for a film of the same name. And just as Tom Rob Smith and Ryan Murphy faced pushback when they brought the story of Gianni Versace’s murder to FX (with the fellow Italian fashion family distancing themselves from the small-screen depiction and formally asserting that it had “neither authorized nor had any involvement whatsoever in” the series) and as the late Pierre Berge took issue with films about partner Yves Saint Laurent, the Ridley Scott-directed Gucci film is eliciting protest among some of the Gucci clan. 

Currently in production in Italy, the film – which stars Lady Gaga, Adam Driver, Al Pacino, and Jared Leto, among others – is slated for release in November, but as paparazzi photos from the film’s sets in Lake Como and Milan continue to emerge with marked frequency, members of the Gucci family have been prompted to “appeal to filmmaker Ridley Scott to respect their family’s legacy in the new film that focuses on a sensational murder,” according to the Associated Press, which reports that some are “worried that the film goes beyond the headline-grabbing true-crime story and pries into the private lives of the Guccio Gucci heirs.” 

“We are truly disappointed. I speak on behalf of the family,” Patrizia Gucci, a second cousin of the late Maurizio Gucci, told the AP this month. Ms. Gucci claims that the makers of the United Artists Releasing-produced film – which is based on the 2001 book written by Sara Gay Forden – “are stealing the identity of a family to make a profit, to increase the income of the Hollywood system,” and asserts that the family “has an identity, privacy” that is being misappropriated by way of the film. 

All the while, there have been reports that Reggiani, 72, who was released early from prison in October 2016 on the basis of good behavior, has also displeased with the film. (Reggiani was reportedly offered the opportunity for a day-release beginning in 2011 (on the condition that she work during those out-of-prison hours), but declined, saying that she had “never worked in my life and am certainly not going to start now.”). Speaking about the impending film last month, Reggiani stated, “I am rather annoyed at the fact that Lady Gaga is playing me in the new Ridley Scott film without having had the consideration and sensibility to come and meet me.”  

Could They Sue?

As of now, the Gucci family says that it is not taking action to attempt to block the release of the film, but has not ruled out potential legal action after the fact. The AP states that “Ms. Gucci said her family will decide what further action they might take after seeing the film,” largely as a result of “the lack of current contact with Scott’s production company and inaccuracies they see in the book on which the film is based.” (As for the Gucci brand, itself, a read between the lines may suggest a lack of protest: Salma Hayek, the wife of François-Henri Pinault, who is the chairman and CEO of Gucci-owner Kering, appears in the film as psychic Guiseppina Auriemma. And in fact, success of the film could actually spur sales for the brand). 

In terms of what exactly the Gucci family could theoretically take issue with in court (in the U.S.), it would almost certainly not be right of publicity-centric claims. While the right of publicity provides individuals with a cause of action in connection with the unauthorized exploitation of their names, likenesses, and recognizable personality traits, that exploitation must take place in a commercial capacity. That would be an issue for any unamused Gucci spawn, as unlike the unauthorized use of their likenesses on a product, for instance, which could give rise to a successful right of publicity action, movies are an expressive medium, and it is well established that “the public interest in preserving such expression outweighs the private interests of individuals in the commercial value of their publicity rights.” 

Having said that, the Gucci family may not be entirely without recourse if the film does, in fact, include “inaccuracies” that result of a defamatory portrayal of individual members, as Ms. Gucci says the book does. The use of defamation claims in the context of film is not without existing examples. According to Weintraub Tobin attorney Scott Hervey, “There has been a significant number of libel claims that are all based on an unfavorable portrayal of a real person in a work of fiction – television program or motion picture – that is based on real life events.” Although, they have not necessarily been fruitful for the filing parties. 

Hervey points to the case that Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca & Co. and partners Jürgen Mossack and Ramón Fonseca filed against Netflix based on their portrayal in the 2019 Steven Soderbergh-directed, Netflix-released film, “The Laundromat.” The plaintiffs claimed in their October 2019 trademark infringement and libel complaint that Netflix “defames and portrays [them] as ruthless uncaring lawyers who are involved in money laundering, tax evasion, bribery and/or other criminal conduct,” and dilutes the firm’s trademark in the process by using the law firm’s logo in the Panama Papers movie without authorization.

Siding with Netflix in December 2020, a California federal court tossed out the plaintiffs’ libel claims on the basis that “no reasonable viewer of the film would interpret [it] as conveying ‘assertions of objective fact,’ particularly given the statement at the beginning of the Film ‘Based on Actual Secrets’ which sets the stage and the disclaimer at the end of the film that states the film is fictionalized for dramatization and is not intended to reflect any actual person or history.” And even if “a reasonable viewer would view the film as statements of actual fact,” Judge Consuelo Marshall of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California held that the movie “does not portray Plaintiffs as directly involved in the murders, drug cartels, and other criminal activity committed by their clients as referenced in the complaint.” 

Not a total win for Netflix, the court order left the plaintiffs’ trademark dilution and false advertising claims on the table, as they fell outside of the scope of Netflix’s anti-SLAPP motion. (The viability of trademark claims would, of course, not help the Gucci family members, as the Gucci brand is the owner of such rights). 

In a separate but similar suit, Andrew Greene – who was the head of the corporate finance department at Jordan Belfort’s Stratton Oakmont between 1993 and 1996 – filed suit against Paramount Pictures and the producers of the Wolf of Wall Street film in 2014 for allegedly including a character based on him – Nicky Koskoff – and defaming him in the process by having that character engage in “unsavory and illegal behavior.” 

Paramount prevailed in the case, with a New York federal court dismissing the $25 million-plus lawsuit on summary judgment. In her December 2018 order, Judge Joanna Seybert of the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of New York held that “based on the fictionalized nature of the movie; the undisputed facts that the Koskoff character is a composite of three people and has a different name, nickname, employment history, personal history, and criminal history than [Greene]; [and] the movie’s disclaimer,” among other things, Greene “cannot carry his burden of demonstrating actual malice with clear and convincing evidence,” and thus, “his libel claim fails.”

As for other claims from the Gucci clan, media reports have documented the family’s alleged distaste with the “horrible, horrible” and “ugly” casting. Speaking out on this topic, Ms. Gucci told the press that, among other things, Al Pacino’s portrayal of Aldo Gucci is less than flattering. “My grandfather was a very handsome man, like all the Guccis, and very tall, blue eyes and very elegant. He is being played by Al Pacino, who is not very tall already, and photo[s] show him as fat, short, with sideburns, really ugly. Shameful, because he doesn’t resemble him at all.” These assertions would, for course, not standup in court.