A new lawsuit could spell star-crossed financial times for a number of producers, creatives and studios ... if its compainants meet with success.
Olivia Hussey, 71, and Leonard Whiting, 72, the stars of the phenomenally successful 1968 Romeo and Juliet — which at that time had the biggest box office ever for a Shakespeare work — are suing Paramount for sexual exploitation, and for distributing nude images of themselves as children.
The objectionable bedroom scene takes care to reveal Whiting's butt (he was 16) and Hussey's bare breasts (she was 15).
The two specifically blame director Franco Zeffirelli (it is probably noteworthy that he died in 2019 at 96) for the nudity, claiming he had assured them there would be no nudity on the screen, and telling them they could wear garments to cover up. Then, when the filming came to pass, he allegedly cajoled them into going nude "or the picture would fail."
The actors' business manager, Tony Marinozzi, says, “What they were told and what went on were two different things. They trusted Franco. At 16, as actors, they took his lead that he would not violate that trust they had. Franco was their friend, and frankly, at 16, what do they do? There are no options. There was no #MeToo.”
As recently as October, the plaintiffs appeared at an autograph show in a reunion to celebrate the film, happily signing photos and posters. It would be interesting to hear them articulate whether they are happy with and proud of the film in general and would be satisfied to have the nudity removed (and receive compensation). I bring this up because their suit alleges they have suffered mental anguish for 55 years, which seems odd if they're signing photos from the movie.
The suit, which is seeking half a billion dollars, alleges their acting careers suffered. This is going to be hard to prove. Hussey has had a respectable career, and the extent to which either or both did or did not get great parts can't really be chalked up to brief nudity in a sensationally popular and beloved art film. That part is going to be hard to prove.
Another issue: the actors' attorney states, “Nude images of minors are unlawful and shouldn’t be exhibited." This actually is not true; there are exceptions within existing law that state otherwise, and I'm guessing the laws in the '60s were far less strict than now.
The film's nudity is clearly not child pornography, in spite of the fact that I'm sure a lot of people interested in seeing naked kids seek it out as a "freebie," but I don't think that means it automatically will get a pass; if the suit results in the film being edited or in a monetary settlement, I would think this could open the door for a surprisingly large number of other underage actors who went nude to sue, either because they genuinely feel exploited or simply for the cash.
Brooke Shields has to be on everyone's minds over this.
At the end of December, Shields — speaking on a podcast about her 1980 film The Blue Lagoon — said, "Never again will a movie be make like that. It wouldn't be allowed." She was just 14, and the film is saturated with skin and sexual situations.
Her co-star, Christopher Atkins — who was 18 when the film was shot — replied, “Oh gosh, no. Animals were hurt in the movie. We were spearing fish and all kinds of crazy things. Children are naked running down a beach; couldn’t do that now.” (Shields had a nude body double.)
I don't think anyone could argue that, but I wondered if Shields and Atkins think it's a good thing that the movie couldn't be made again. I'm guessing they have complicated feelings about it. It was directed by Grease director Randal Kleiser, who is now 76.
The Romeo and Juliet lawsuit was filed before a December 31 deadline to complain about child sexual abuse that had previously been subject to a statue of limitations. This relaxation was to allow for Boy Scouts and Catholic Church complaints, but applied to all potential complainants.
As far as we know, no other child actors in older films took advantage of the suspension.
As Variety points out, Hussey, who is the mother of actress India Eisley, in 2018 defended the film's use of her nudity. "Nobody my age had done that before. It was needed for the film," she said. She also told Fox News, “It wasn’t that big of a deal. And Leonard wasn’t shy at all! In the middle of shooting, I just completely forgot I didn’t have clothes on.”
It could very well be that she and Whiting were sincerely traumatized. It could also very well be that they're playing this up for money. But we can't overlook the fact that regardless of their true feelings, the suit brings up valid issues: Is "it was a different time" enough of an excuse? Even if it was a different time, does that mean a work should still be distributed? Is it appropriate to expect kids who felt exploited to "get over it"? Does money heal all these wounds?
A not-unrelated postscript: Romeo and Juliet director Franco Zeffirelli was accused of having molested 22-year-old actor Jonathon Schaech during the filming of 1994's Sparrow.
Saying Zeffirelli had tried to seduce him throughout the shoot, Schaech recalled the director finally said, "He crossed that boundary and I felt as though I left my body. He molested me in my bed. He put his hands in places that I couldn’t even imagine and he did things that I am not proud of. But it’s not my fault. His pants never came off but I can [still] see him fumbling with his belt. He attempted to give me oral sex. I just remember being like, 'God, please no. I’m OK, I’m OK.' I did nothing. I just lay there in bed. It felt like four hours but it was probably like 30 seconds."
Zeffirelli’s son responded to the allegation by saying, “It is alleged that 25 years ago an actor, who was then in his early twenties, was the victim of alleged verbal abuse and alleged attempted sexual abuse by my father during the filming of The Sparrow in Sicily, Italy. [He] would have been 70 at the time. It is also alleged that my father drank alcohol and may have been drunk on set. Mr. Zeffirelli and all our family were living in a villa, whilst actors, production and staff were staying in a hotel in Catania; all these allegations are not credible. At the time Johnathon suffered from a throat type of obstruction which made his speaking difficult. Directors have different styles and some time they could be much more demanding on inexperienced actors. My father is in poor health and not able to understand this attack and to respond to the allegations made by Jonathan Schaech. This would be an attack to a great director, an artist and to a man at the end of his life that he is not able, nor he will be in the future able to respond. This will be an incredible damage to his image and reputation on the basis of allegations which are not credible and cannot be proved.”