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Pippo Zeffirelli, the son of the late Italian director Franco Zeffirelli, has publicly criticized the two lead actors of his father’s 1968 Shakespeare adaptation Romeo and Juliet for their decision to sue the film’s producer, Paramount Pictures, for child abuse over a nude scene in the movie.
Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting, who were 15 and 16, respectively, when they shot the film, allege that Zeffirelli coerced them into doing a bedroom scene in the nude after they had originally agreed to wear flesh-colored body suits. The scene, which included images of Whiting’s buttocks and Hussey’s bare breasts, was highly controversial at the time.
Hussey and Whiting, both now in their 70s, recently filed a lawsuit in Santa Monica Superior Court, accusing Paramount of sexually exploiting them and distributing nude images of adolescent children. They claim the director, who died in 2019, warned them that “the film would fail” if they didn’t perform the scene nude.
In a statement sent to The Hollywood Reporter, Pippo Zeffirelli, who is also the president of the Franco Zeffirelli Foundation, said the love scene was “far from pornographic” and questioned Hussey and Whiting’s claims of mental anguish and emotional distress.
“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,” Zeffirelli writes.
He added that he believed the film’s two producers, John Brabourne and Anthony Havelock-Allan, acquired consent forms from the actors’ parents before the shoot. Zeffirelli noted that in the decades since making the film, the two actors “always maintained a relationship of deep gratitude and friendship towards Zeffirelli, releasing hundreds of interviews about the happy memory of their very fortunate experience, which was crowned with worldwide success.”
Romeo and Juliet won two Oscars, and both Hussey and Whiting won Golden Globes for their performances. Zeffirelli noted that Hussey went on to work in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1977 miniseries Jesus of Nazareth, and that Whiting attended his funeral.
You can read the full statement below.
The love scene in Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet is as far from pornography as you can imagine. Zeffirelli himself was accused of being reactionary precisely because he repeatedly spoke out against pornography. The nude images in the film express the beauty, the transport, I would even say the candor of mutual giving and do not contain any morbid feeling. I also believe that the two producers of the film, John Brabourne and Anthony Haveclock-Allan, will have had a release from their parents before shooting the scene in question.
It is embarrassing to hear that today, fifty-five 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 distress. It appears to me that in all these years they have always maintained a relationship of profound gratitude and friendship towards Zeffirelli, releasing hundreds of interviews in the happy memory of their very fortunate experience, crowned with worldwide success. Olivia Hussey later worked again with Zeffirelli, admirably portraying Mary in Jesus of Nazareth; and Leonard Whiting even came to Florence for the Maestro’s funeral, and brought his testimony to the Memorial held in London in February 2020.
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