Romeo and Juliet – 1968 – dir. Franco Zeffirelli

Prior to Franco Zeffirelli’s groundbreaking Romeo and Juliet, the lead characters, both in movies and on stage, were played by older, more experienced (in some cases, “ancient”) actors and actresses. Established stars such as Norma Shearer, Leslie Howard, Lionel Barrymore, Dame Peggy Ashcroft and Sir Laurence Olivier went lumbering, even creaking about, portraying the teenage lovers, and nobody blinked an eye for it was felt that only mature, developed adults possessed the abilities and feelings needed to convey the deep passions of the star-crossed lovers.

Zeffirelli had a new idea — how about we use real teenagers in the roles?  Simple, you say, and yet no director had ever thought of it before!

Following a worldwide search, the famed Italian director cast two unknowns: a 17 year old English boy, Leonard Whiting as Romeo, and a 15 year old girl from Argentina, Olivia Hussey as Juliet.

Excitement grew.  It was also reported that one entire scene would have the young principals totally in the nude.  The film industry, as well as the public, reeled: nudity in movies was virtually unheard of in 1968. Audiences and critics broke off into two camps: church groups and decency leagues gave a great, big “Boo! Hiss!” to the decadence and “pornography”. (Some theaters even banned the film.)  Most people came in waves to see what all the fuss was about — a prolonged shot of Whiting naked from behind, and Hussey’s then-scandalous flash of nipple and breast. By today’s standards, these shots seem so innocent, tame even, but back then, they sent shock waves through the theater and sent impressionable adolescents home giggling and giddy with lusty goosebumps. We had never seen anything like it in a theater!  Or anywhere else for that matter!

But many viewers and movie critics were offended by the casting of actual minors, failing to remind themselves that Shakespeare’s Romeo was thought to be somewhere between 15 and 17, and his Juliet, 13.

The film became one of the biggest hits of 1968, drawing lines and lines that stretched outside the doors and around the corners of theaters. (Only two other movies come to mind from those years that produced the same monster crowds: 1967’s Wait Until Dark with Audrey Hepburn, and Arthur Hiller’s Love Story (1970) starring Ali McGraw and Ryan O’Neal.

Romeo and Juliet made overnight, international stars of the nubile Hussey and the very handsome Whiting. They could not have been more perfectly paired and together, they bring a fresh-faced exuberance to an old story. The two nail the pathos and the tragedy of young, doomed love. Because they ARE young, they “get it”. They also handle the difficulties of Shakespeare’s language masterfully and are, at times, so caught up in the language, it seems to be their own, and not the playwright’s.  And because the actors are such a tender age, their heartbreak is all the more touching and real. We are watching, after all, children dying. They play their love scenes like old pros, and Whiting, who, in private life, had a mad crush on Hussey, has said, “I wasn’t acting at all during the romantic takes. Those were real.”

The duo’s supporting cast ably encircle and enrich their stars with wit, force and magic: the legendary Irish stage player, Milo O’Shea, shines as Friar Laurence, bringing just the right combination of mirth and urgency to a role that must find the balance between both. And Pat Heywood is bold and bawdy, yet full of love for her young charge, Juliet. Though she comes dangerously close to overplaying her scenes, Heywood manages at the last minute of each one to pull herself back from the edge so skillfully that she creates the definitive Nurse, arguably unrivalled by any other actress who has tackled the role.

You will see a young and very dashing Michael York in the unenviable role of Tybalt, in one of his first movie ventures, a star-making turn, and it is easy to see why, following this, he became a huge star of the ’70s.  British stage and screen veterans, Robert Stephens, as The Prince, and Natasha Parry, as Lady Capulet, nicely round out the fine troupe. And you will not soon forget John McEnery’s turn as Mercutio. It comes close to stealing the whole movie, so deftly and deeply does the actor plunge into its complexities. McEnery will break your heart.

But the film belongs ultimately to Zeffirelli and his direction of Whiting and Hussey, and the movie garnered Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography and Best Costumes. Nino Rota’s score is a wonder, evocative and modern, producing the Top 40 hit theme song, “What Is a Youth?”. It is a shame that the two leads were not acknowledged for their daring performances; at first swan-skinned and gentle, then adolescent and wild, their passion turns unbridled like animals let loose from their stalls after dark.

Shot in lush, stunning colors, and a-bloom with the wildflowers of the Italian countryside and Danilo Danati’s really beautiful costumes, the movie is proof of why Zeffirelli became one of the most acclaimed directors of his time, continuing on from here to make many other accomplished films as well as operas. (Indeed, the composition of “Romeo and Juliet” has an operatic sweep and feel to it that would presage Zeffirelli’s forays into that ornate art form).

Sadly, Leonard Whiting, who became a pop idol pin-up Ken doll for ’60s pre-pubescent girls, and whose face was seen on posters and in fan magazines all over the world, was never able to keep the motor of his career boat going. Deflated when Hussey spurned him for a much older man, and done in by several poor film choices, he sank beneath the movie radar, finally disappearing from the scene. Hussey has fared better, went on to make a steady success of herself in many film and television roles, most notably as Mary in Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth (1977). She is still, as of this writing, a working actress.

Romeo and Juliet remains as alive and as full of life and fire as it was when it was first conceived. And its two leads are burned into the minds of a generation as the only Romeo and Juliet we will ever accept or need. Forty-three years later, it still provides us with splendid entertainment. What more can you ask from a film?

Leo Racicot Written by:

One Comment

  1. Carol Lizotte Smart
    August 18, 2011

    This took me back to when I was a kid and stood
    in lines for an hour to see this. I had a wicked crush on
    Leonard Whiting for months after. I enjoyed this review so
    much! Thank you, Leo Racicot and Brattle!

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