In 1968, Shakespeare’s tragedy, “Romeo and Juliet,” was turned into a lush, epic film by Italian director Franco Ziffirelli.
The film maestro employed teenagers to portray the star-crossed lovers. Their names were Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting, unknowns at the time. The former was, at the time of filming, 15 years old; the latter, 16. Ziffirelli made a groundbreaking decision during production: he shot it in such a way as to suggest they were naked as they lay in bed.
When the finished product hit theater screens, the bed scene included a shot of Romeo’s exposed butt. Juliet, who’d been laying chest down while conversing with her lover, momentarily lifts herself up and exposes her breasts. Before Ziffirelli’s version was released, at least nine international movies had been made of Romeo and Juliet. The 1968 picture was the first to portray the teenagers as actual carnal lovers, cavorting in the nude, no less.
I did not see Ziffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet” until many years later, at the Parkway Theater, a repertory (or revival) house on Broadway near Diversey on Chicago’s north side. I don’t remember much of it, even the bedroom scene. Had I seen the movie when it first came out (and I was 12 years old), my head might have exploded.
Then again, my preferred reading material at the time was the Sears quarterly catalogue. The lingerie and women’s swimsuit sections, specifically. So, basically, anything that even hinted at female skin would have caused my head to explode.
In any case, that bedroom scene caused quite a stir in 1968. The general reaction to it was split: some people thought it was a sure sign that civilization was coming to an end; others welcomed it as yet another example of America throwing off the repressive chains of its past.
If I recall correctly, Playboy magazine included a still from the bedroom scene in its annual Sex in Cinema feature covering that year. (More on Playboy later.)
An Italian/British production made for $850,000, “Romeo and Juliet” grossed more than $38 million, worldwide. It was, to be sure, a smashing financial success.
Cut to the last week of the year 2022. The two stars, Hussey and Whiting, filed a lawsuit against Paramount Pictures, the studio that made Ziffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet,” claiming sexual harassment, negligence, fraud, emotional distress, unfair business practices, and child sexual abuse. Ziffirelli died three years ago. The suit, acc’d’g to reports, seeks up to a half billion dollars in damages.
Hussey, born April 17, 1951 in Buenos Aires, is now 71 years old. Whiting, born June 30, 1950 in London, is now 72. Hussey and Whiting were hailed as Hollywood’s next big things 54 years ago. Hussey would go on to appear in some 50 movies and TV shows, most of them eminently forgettable. She did re-emerge from Hollywood anonymity in 1977 when she portrayed the Virgin Mary in the made-for-television production, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Her last appearance on the screen was in 2015, when she was 64 years old.
For his part, Whiting had an even less remarkable Hollywood career, appearing in a total of 15 movies and TV shows. He went from 1975 through 1990 without a paid screen gig, according to his IMDb page.
Both Hussey and Whiting claim in their lawsuit that the nude scene adversely affected their careers and lives. The two claim to have suffered mental anguish and emotional distress because of it. Ziffirelli, they say, exerted a heavy hand, essentially forcing them to do the bedroom scene in the nude. He’d hired them on the promise that they wouldn’t have to play in the nude, they say, and their careers would suffer if they didn’t do it.
This is not 1968. The people who railed against the nude scene back then were viewed as prudes. Now, producers of a film that even suggests underaged sex are liable to be charged in criminal court. Heavy-handed producers have been exposed as molesters and rapists far too often.
Yet, for years neither Hussey nor Whiting expressed any misgivings about appearing in the movie and performing in the bedroom scene. In fact, during production, Hussey was interviewed and said the nude scene “improved” the movie “because it doesn’t look dirty.” In a 2018 interview on Fox News, Hussey said:
It was done very tastefully. And in Europe, it was very different. In American, it was very taboo. But in Europe, a lot of the films had nudity. Nobody really thought much of it. But it was just the fact that I was 16 that got a lot of publicity…. The large crew we worked with was whittled down to only the very basic people, a handful of people. It was done later in the day when it wasn’t busy. It was a closed set. It wasn’t that big of a deal. And Leonard wasn’t shy at all! In the middle of the shooting, I just completely forgot I didn’t have clothes on.
This seems to be one of those cases where it’s hard to gin up much sympathy for either the complainant or the defendant.
I mentioned Playboy magazine above. Like many kids in the ’60s, I viewed any found copy of the magazine much the same as Pizarro looking out over the Pacific Ocean. One of my brothers-in-law at the time had a towering pile of issues in his bedroom. I don’t know how I did it but every chance I could I sneaked upstairs to thumb through a copy or two. After indelibly imprinting the images of, say, November 1968 Playmate of the Month Paige Young in my memory for later recollection at a more propitious moment, I’d skim the articles. I learned much about Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Lenny Bruce, politics, free speech, the war in Vietnam, and of course Corvettes and elaborate stereo systems.
Playboy founder and publisher Hugh Hefner liked to think of himself as a sophisticated intellectual. He appeared in 1969 on the Dick Cavett show. Cavett brought on two women’s liberation representatives and an exchange ensued. It was fascinating theater. Here it is: