A lawsuit filed by “Romeo and Juliet” actors Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting, accusing Paramount of sexually exploiting them as teenagers starring in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film, is drawing ire from Italy’s Franco Zeffirelli Foundation.
The foundation’s president, Pippo Zeffirelli, who is the late director’s adoptive son, over the weekend reacted with disdain to the suit filed in a Santa Monica court last week, which claims that Zeffirelli tricked the actors while shooting a bedroom scene that includes images of Whiting’s buttocks and Hussey’s bare breasts. The “Romeo and Juliet” actors at the time were, respectively, 16 and 15 years old. The film was a hit and nominated for four Academy Awards.
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“It is embarrassing to hear that, today, 55 years after filming, two elderly actors who owe their notoriety essentially to this film wake up to declare that they have suffered an abuse that has caused them years of anxiety and emotional discomfort,” Pippo Zeffirelli said in a statement to Italian media outlets, adding that the nude scene in question was “far from pornographic.”
The head of the Florence-based foundation also pointed out that Hussey went on to work with Zeffirelli in his 1977 TV mini-series “Jesus of Nazareth” while Whiting attended the late director’s funeral in 2019 in Florence and subsequently spoke warmly about Zeffirelli in 2020 at a memorial service in London.
The Franco Zeffirelli Foundation includes a museum that houses more than 250 works by the late director, including stage and costume drawings. Zeffirelli is perhaps best known for “Romeo and Juliet,” though his other credits include “The Taming of the Shrew” (1967), starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and “Hamlet” (1990), with Glenn Close and Mel Gibson.
According to the suit — which is against Paramount and does not legally involve the late director’s heirs — Zeffirelli while shooting “Romeo and Juliet” assured both actors that there would be no nudity in the film, and that they would wear flesh-colored undergarments in the bedroom scene. But in the final days of filming, he allegedly implored them to perform in the nude with body makeup, “or the Picture would fail.” Zeffirelli then purportedly showed them where the camera would be positioned, and assured them that no nudity would be photographed or released in the film. The suit alleges that he was dishonest and that Whiting and Hussey were ultimately filmed nude without their knowledge.
According to the complaint, Hussey and Whiting, who are now in their 70s, have suffered mental anguish and emotional distress in the 55 years since the film’s release, and have also lost out on job opportunities. Despite their breakout performances, they only had very limited acting careers after “Romeo and Juliet.”
The actors are seeking damages reported to be in excess of $500 million.
In a 2018 interview with Variety, Hussey defended the nude scene. “Nobody my age had done that before,” she said, adding that Zeffirelli shot it tastefully. “It was needed for the film.”
Paramount has not commented on the lawsuit.
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