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Paramount won’t have to face a lawsuit accusing the studio of sexual abuse over a nude scene in the 1968 adaptation of Romeo and Juliet.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Alison Mackenzie signaled on Thursday that she’ll dismiss the suit, finding claims that the movie depicts sexual acts are a “gross mischaracterization” of the scene. She said in a tentative ruling that the claims “arise from protected activity” under the First Amendment.
Actors Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting, 16 and 17 respectively when the film was shot, starred in the movie directed by Franco Zeffirelli. The suit seeking $500 million, which was filed under a California law that suspends the window to file a complaint for childhood sexual assault, revolves around a bedroom scene that briefly shows Whiting’s buttocks and Hussey’s bare breasts. The actors accused Zeffirelli of pressuring them into performing nude scenes despite previously telling them that they would be wearing flesh-colored undergarments in the shot. They were allegedly told by Zeffirelli “that they must act in the nude or the Picture would fail” and that they would “never work again in any profession, let alone Hollywood.” The suit claims Paramount profited off of the alleged sexual exploitation and harassment.
Paramount moved to dismiss the suit under California’s anti-SLAPP statute, which allows for the early dismissal of claims challenging protected speech. In turn, Hussey and Whiting asserted the studio isn’t entitled to First Amendment protections since the bedroom scene from the film amounts to illegal child pornography under federal and California law.
Mackenzie sided with Paramount, finding that the scene isn’t “sufficiently sexually suggestive.” She pointed to case law concluding that not all nude pictures of children are child pornography, only images containing “lascivious exhibition of the genitals or pubic area.”
During the hearing, Solomon Gresen, a lawyer for Hussey and Whiting, argued that he only needs to prove that Paramount knew the actors were minors when the scene was shot.
Mackenzie rejected the assertion. “You’re saying photos of people under the age of 18 is an illegal act?,” she asked.
“Nude images is all that’s needed for the crime,” Solomon responded.
The suit was also dismissed for procedural reasons. In order to file a complaint under the California law giving adults more time to sue over childhood sexual abuse, they must provide a so-called certificate of merit from a licensed mental health practitioner attesting there’s a reasonable basis to believe they were subject to sexual assault when they were younger. They’re also barred from naming themselves in the complaints and must file as “Doe” plaintiffs.
Gressen argued that Paramount can’t raise his failure to file the certificate in an anti-SLAPP motion, but Mackenzie disagreed. She wrote in the tentative ruling that his “interpretation of [the statute] defies common sense.”
Gressen said he’ll appeal the ruling and will file another complaint in California federal court to include allegations that Paramount continues to profit from the movie after rereleasing it in February 2023. He added, “We believe that there’s no constitutional protection for the nude images of minor children in film.”
Hussey and Whiting say they continue to suffer physical and mental pain from the incident. “We waited going on 55 years for justice,” they said in a statement. “I guess we’ll have to wait longer.”
Paramount didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. It was represented by Richard Kendall and Nary Kim of Kendall Brill & Kelly.
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