Santa Monica, California, Olivia Hussey and Leonard Withing, the British actors who as teenagers were the stars of Franco Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet”, are suing the giant Paramount for the famous nude scene in the bedroom.
Now grandparents and over seventy, the two protagonists of the famous movie Romeo and Juliet have turned to Santa Monica Superior Court claiming they were sexually exploited as teenagers.
For the Zeffirelli Foundation, the nude images in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ are not pornography: “They express the beauty and candor of reciprocal self-giving and do not contain any morbid feelings”. Pippo Zeffirelli, president of the Foundation named after the Florentine director, reacts indignantly to the legal action filed in California against Paramount in which actors Olivia Hussey and Leonard Withing, then teenagers, accuse the director of having forced them to undress in front of the camera.
The lawsuit has reopened the controversy over the nudity of minors in films: “From Romeo and Juliet to ‘Pretty Baby’, it has so far been justified for artistic reasons but the allegations of Hussey and Withing could change things,” wrote the critic of the ‘Daily Telegraph’ Robbie Collin. The lawsuit is possible thanks to a California law that temporarily suspended the statute of limitations for sex crimes.
To the modern eye the scene in the third act, when the young lovers wake up after their secret wedding night, may seem innocent, but the fact that Olivia and Leonard were minors “re-opens the issue of informed consent”, comments the ‘ Guardian’ recalling Zeffirelli’s infatuation with the young actor Bruce Robinson who played Benvolio in the film.
And the ‘Guardian’ always mentions other famous cases: such as when Bernardo Bertolucci, accomplice Marlon Brando, did not inform Maria Schneider of what would happen in the famous ‘butter scene’. At 11 Kirsten Dunst was forced to kiss Brad Pitt in “Interview with the Vampire” and it left a bad taste in her mouth.
Olivia and Leonard are asking for half a billion in damages, between “emotional trauma” and retroactive percentages on the proceeds, but the legal action is not said to be successful. Spencer Elden knows something about it, portrayed naked as a child on the cover of the Nirvana ‘Nevermind’ album, whose lawsuit was dismissed last September in the third appeal.
Zeffirelli died in 2019 and the centenary of his birth will be celebrated on February 12th. His foundation is not involved in the action which sees only Paramount in the dock.
“The love scene is as far away from pornography as you can imagine. Zeffirelli himself was accused of being reactionary precisely because he repeatedly spoke out against pornography”, said Pippo Zeffirelli, also convinced that the two producers of the film, John Brabourne and Anthony Haveclock-Allan, had obtained a release from the parents of the two actors before to shoot the scene”.
The legal action comes 55 years after the film: “It is embarrassing that two elderly actors who essentially owe their fame to this film wake up to declare that they have suffered abuse”, added Pippo Zeffirelli recalling the relationship of gratitude and friendship of Olivia and Leonard towards the director: she then worked with him in Jesus of Nazareth, he came to Florence for the funeral and then spoke in 2020 in the memorial that remembered him in London.