Two former child movie stars are seeking closure and not “vengeance” in a $500,000 lawsuit for nude scenes they say they were forced to perform by celebrated director Franco Zeffirelli, their manager has claimed.
Olivia Hussey, was just 15, and Leonard Whiting 16, back in 1968 when they featured in Romeo and Juliet, directed by the late Italian filmmaker, and distributed by Paramount Pictures.
In a lawsuit alleging they were the unknowing victims of sexual abuse, sexual harassment and fraud, the British pair claim Zeffirelli told them they would wear flesh-colored undergarments in scenes set in a bedroom.
But on the morning of filming, the young actors were told they would be protected only by flesh-coloured make up, though the film would be shot from such an angle as not to reveal their nudity.
“Defendants were dishonest and secretly filmed the nude or partially nude minor children without their knowledge, in violation of the state and federal laws regulating indecency and exploitation of minors for profit described,” says the lawsuit, filed more than after the 1968 movie was released.
“Plaintiffs have suffered and will continue to suffer physical and mental pain, along with extreme and severe mental anguish and emotional distress.”
It added: “Plaintiffs have incurred and will continue to incur medical expenses for treatment by psychotherapists and other health professionals, as well as for other incidental expenses.”
Tony Marinozzi, a business manager for both actors, told The Independent that they were not seeking vengeance with their lawsuit. Rather, they were seeking some sort of closure.
“It’s not something anybody wanted to do,” he said. “It’s really closure, and it’s really letting it go, because it’s going to be something you struggle with.”
He said Hussey, now aged 71, and Whiting, 72, were now at an age when they reflected on their lives, and wanted to feel at ease when they looked in the mirror.
He said the lawsuit, was coming several years after the MeToo movement triggered an examination of the way many industries – but particularly the entertainment industry – pressured actors or other individuals in ways that were often criminal.
“It’s about letting go and holding those people accountable,” he said, pointing out that Paramount could have taken the decision not to distribute a movie that contained scenes of Whiting’s bare backside, and Hussey’s bare chest.
Solomon Gresen, the actors’ attorney, said they were seeking punitive damages of $100m, but were possibly entitled to damages of more than $500m to match the amount the film has earned since 1968.
The movie, which tells the story of a William Shakespeare play, won two Oscars.
Variety said the lawsuit relied in part on a California law that temporarily suspended the statute of limitations for older claims of child sexual abuse. It said the courts had seen an influx of complaints against the Boy Scouts of America and the Catholic Church.
Paramount did not respond to questions from The Independent.
Zeffirelli, whose other films included Taming of the Shrew and Jesus of Nazareth, died in 2019 at the age of 96.
Media reports say the The Franco Zeffirelli Foundation, a non-profit organisation in Italy focussed on the director’s legacy, has not responded to the news.
“The time for this must be up. The knowing and repeated use of sexual images of minor children minors is the worst of behaviors in our society and must be eradicated,” says the lawsuit.
“By reason thereof, Plaintiffs are therefore entitled to punitive or exemplary damages which Plaintiffs are informed and believe exceed $100,000.”