Romeo and Juliet (1968)
directed by Franco Zeffirelli
Franco Zeffirelli sowed the seeds of this box office triumph in 1960, when the Italian director-designer made his Shakespeare stage debut with Romeo and Juliet at London’s Old Vic. In 1967, he set out to replicate that Old Vic passion on film, immediately after his success with The Taming of the Shrew. He was confident of attracting a large international audience and, believing that “the kids in the story are like teenagers today,” took a gamble by casting actors almost as young as their characters: Leonard Whiting was 17, Olivia Hussey, chosen ahead of 350 other hopefuls, just 15.
Emulating Renato Castellani’s 1954 precedent, Zeffirelli spent much of the three-month shoot at Italian locations: Small towns in Tuscany and Umbria, with some interiors recreated at Cinecittà Studios in Rome. Shakespeare’s action unfolds in medieval churches, sun-drenched piazzas and shady side streets filled with handsome, athletic boys in color-coded tights and codpieces (garish red and yellow for Capulets, discreet blue for Montagues).
From the opening, frenzied brawl to the final procession of Capulet and Montague mourners, the whole film, as Richard Burton said to Zeffirelli after seeing some early footage, “looks sensational.” Yet Burton also cautioned: “You’ve got problems with the verse,” and Whiting and Hussey were the chief culprits.
Their youth makes the lovers’ infatuation more credible than in George Cukor; their beauty is beyond question (the nudity in the wedding night scene caused a minor stir), and every intimate moment is underscored by Nino Rota’s soaring love theme (later to become a hit record). Yet their struggle to convey the meaning of the language is painful to behold, even though Zeffirelli had cut more than half the text. Hussey fares marginally better of the two, her face conveying memorable dread as the story spirals towards her suicide. Whiting’s London-accented Romeo remains more love-struck wimp than desperate, fate-driven hero, an impression reinforced because Zeffirelli (unlike Cukor and Castellani) does not jeopardize audience sympathy by showing Romeo killing Paris.
The film opened to mixed reviews in the U.K. and the U.S.: The New Statesman felt Zeffirelli “might just as well have jettisoned the Bard altogether”; Time hailed “one of the handful of classic Shakespeare films.” The visual splendor brought Academy Awards for cinematographer Pasqualino De Santis and costume designer Danilo Donati, with unsuccessful nominations for Best Picture and Best Director (Oliver! won both). At box offices Zeffirelli’s casting gamble and populist instincts paid off spectacularly; a worldwide gross of $48 million made this the biggest Shakespeare hit of all time.
Extracted from 100 Shakespeare Films by Daniel Rosenthal, BFI Publishing, 2007. Reprinted by kind permission of BFI Publishing/Palgrave Macmillan. To order a copy of100 Shakespeare Films and other books from the BFI Screen Guides series, visit their website at www.palgrave-usa.com.