Celebrating 50 years of Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare Magazine Editor Pat Reid writes about growing up and growing old with a Shakespearean cinematic masterpiece – and its eternally youthful stars, Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey.

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“But you sound just like Leonard!” exclaims the voice at the end of the telephone. “Exactly like him, it’s uncanny!”The voice that’s saying this is Olivia Hussey’s. The voice that she’s saying it about is mine. Fifty years ago, when she was just 15, Olivia starred as Juliet in Franco Zeffirelli’s film of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The Leonard to whom she refers is Leonard Whiting, then 17, her co-star who played Romeo. It’s all documented in her recent book The Girl on the Balcony. To have my voice compared to Leonard’s is a major compliment. I want to respond with a witty quip like “I bet you say that to all the Romeos…” – but there’s an interview to do.

I first saw Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet when I was around the age Olivia was when she starred in it. My relationship with the film, and with the play it’s based on (and with the characters in it) has certainly evolved over the passing decades. The first time I saw it, in a mid-’80s classroom of an all-boys school, it was the sword fights that excited me most, to be honest. Having said that, Olivia’s radiant vivacity as Juliet, and the emotional rush of her love affair with Leonard’s sensitive-yet-athletic Romeo, must have seemed a kind of dream version of what life would surely hold in store.

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When I saw it again in my mid-twenties I was taken aback by how deliriously romantic it all was. The film is both opulent and gritty, a bacchanalian feast of the screen. I was now much older than Olivia’s Juliet, but still far too young to understand what was really going on in the film.​In my early forties I became both a father for the first time, and a born again Shakespearean. This is when Romeo and Juliet becomes every parent’s worst nightmare. You do everything you can to bring your kids up right, and they go and fall madly in love – and end up dead. Yes, it’s funny when I put it like that, but really it’s terrifying.

Watching the film in middle age, I also noticed for the first time how Shakespeare’s words were bursting with an overwhelming beauty that was matched note for note by Nino Rota’s musical score – one of the all-time great movie soundtracks.

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I noticed other things too. How Lady Capulet (played by Natasha Parry) was not in fact an evil old bag, but a dignified, concerned and rather beautiful young mother. At this point I could hardly fail to see how Romeo and Juliet was absolutely crammed with performances that in any other film would have been breakouts. From Pat Heywood as Juliet’s Nurse, to Michael York as an imperious, flashing-eyed Tybalt – not forgetting the demented swagger of John McEnery’s Mercutio, and Robert Stephens embodying authority as the Prince – it’s an embarrassment of riches.Finally I watched it again this year, 2018, the year that the film and myself both turn 50. Everything I’ve written above is still true, but watching the film after reading Olivia’s book puts a different light on things. Indeed, her book shines a light into all the nooks and crannies of the film.

My most recent viewing of the film took place after reading her book, but actually speaking to Olivia was a precious experience. She is a custodian of the memory of Romeo and Juliet, and the keeper of its secrets. “I’ve never told anyone that before,” she said, after sharing a detail about her famously gruelling audition process for the film, “I only just remembered it now”.

Indeed, Zeffirelli’s casting process would probably be impossible – or illegal – today, but its result was perfection. In 1960s London there were a lot of beautiful, talented young men and women. But Romeo and Juliet had to be beautiful together in the right way, a complementary beauty that made them both shine more brightly, not a situation where one cancelled the other out.

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There have been other Romeo and Juliet films before and since, of course. The 1954 version with Laurence Harvey is almost forgotten now, forever eclipsed by Zeffirelli’s ’60s supernova. The 1936 production is seen as a historical curio, with Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer, aged 43 and 33, far too old for the roles.Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 update, styled Romeo + Juliet, succeeded because it made itself as different as possible from Franco Zeffirelli’s. But while I’ve met countless women who fell in love with Leonardo DiCaprio’s Romeo, I’ve yet to meet a man who fell in love with Claire Danes as Juliet. We admire her as an actress – she’s one of the few in Hollywood who can actually move her face – but we don’t want to die for her.

And a 2013 film of Romeo and Juliet cast Douglas Booth and Hailee Steinfeld in the lead roles. They looked every bit like a Renaissance painting, but alas the chemistry was lacking – the pair seemed more like amused, conspiratorial siblings than Shakespeare’s tragic, star cross’d lovers.

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And that’s why Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet is not just one of the greatest Shakespeare films ever made, it’s one of the greatest films of any kind ever made.Yes, he took liberties with Shakespeare, but you can tell it’s a film made by someone who’s in love with Shakespeare, in love with Romeo and Juliet, in love with life, and in love with love. Watch it today, or soon, to celebrate its 50th anniversary – and be sure to raise a glass to Franco, to Leonard and to Olivia. Their Romeo and Juliet is, and will always be, an intoxicating experience.

All images courtesy of Paramount. Watch out for a full interview with Olivia Hussey in the next issue of Shakespeare Magazine.

Comments

  1. I have the hots for Britt Ekland says:

    I love Olivia Hussey

  2. VICTORIA LARSON says:

    I saw Romeo and Juliet when it was first released – I was a freshman in high school – and what an experience it was! I was dazzled by this film as it wasn’t like anything I’d seen before; the whole production from set design to costumes to the incredibly lovely film score and the marvelous performances forever cemented in my mind what a great movie should be. The brilliance of Mr. Zeffirelli’s casting of young people has been noted many times over the years and as one who was just a tad younger than the principle characters in the film made it easy to relate to and as such, all the more moving.
    I had the great good fortune to meet Ms. Hussey in Los Angeles at her book signing in August and found her to be charming in every way; it was very much a dream come true for this fan and something that I will never forget. Her book is quite interesting and revealed things that I did not expect, believing as I did that one so beautiful and talented would never be touched by the ugliness of pain and betrayal. Yet despite the many challenges that befell her, she endured them with courage, humor and pragmatism.
    Today, she is an outspoken advocate for the humane treatment of animals which is yet another facet to her that makes her so very likable.
    My memory of seeing Romeo and Juliet as a young girl is a sweet one indeed and for which I am very grateful.
    Many thanks, Olivia.

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