By Jonathon Van Maren
The stars of the 1968 blockbuster Romeo and Juliet, which earned director Franco Zeffirelli an Academy Award nomination for best director, are suing Paramount Pictures for damages “believed to be in excess of $500 million.”
According to Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting — now aged 71 and 72, respectively — Zeffirelli’s actions on set constituted sexual harassment, fraud, abuse, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The lawsuit has been filed in Santa Monica Superior Court.
Hussey and Whiting were just 15 and 16 years old when they were told, on the very last day of filming, that the movie they’d been hired to star in “would fail” if they refused to perform a nude scene — after being promised by the director that no such scenes would be required.
When pushed, however, they assumed they had no choice in the matter. Still, the actors allege that the director assured them that the camera would be placed strategically and that no actual nudity would be recorded or released. Hussey and Whiting are claiming they were recorded without their knowledge.
“What they were told and what went on were two different things,” the actors’ business manager Tony Marinozzi noted in a statement. “They trusted Franco. At 16, as actors, they took his lead that he would not violate the trust they had. Franco was their friend, and frankly, at 16, what do they do? There are no options. There was no #MeToo.”
Solomon Gresen, the actors’ attorney, concurred: “[They] were very young naïve children in the ‘60s who had no understanding of what was about to hit them. All of a sudden they were famous at a level they never expected, and in addition they were violated in a way they didn’t know how to deal with.”
Zeffirelli died in 2019 at the age of 96, but the actors are taking advantage of the fact that a California law recently — temporarily — suspended the statue of limitations for cases dealing with the sexual abuse of children. The non-consensual filming, they allege, caused them both physical and emotional pain. $500 million is what the critically acclaimed film has earned since its release.
This lawsuit, it must be noted, is only the most recent example of actors and (more often) actresses revealing what actually goes on behind the scenes during the production of movies. When famed director Bernardo Bertolucci died in 2018, it reignited a discussion around his 1972 film Last Tango in Paris, in which Marlon Brando’s character forcibly sodomizes the character of Maria Schneider, using a stick of butter as lubricant. Brando was 48 at the time. Schneider was 19. The scene wasn’t initially in the script, and Schneider hadn’t agreed to it — Bertolucci and Brando only told her about it just before the scene was shot.