LOS ANGELES — The two stars of 1968′s “Romeo and Juliet” sued Paramount Pictures for more than $500 million on Tuesday over a nude scene in the film shot when they were teens.
Olivia Hussey, then 15 and now 71, and Leonard Whiting, then 16 now 72, filed the suit in Los Angeles County Superior Court alleging sexual abuse, sexual harassment and fraud.
Director Franco Zeffirelli, who died in 2019, initially told the two that they would wear flesh-colored undergarments in the bedroom scene that comes late in the movie and was shot on the final days of filming, the suit alleges.
But on the morning of the shoot, Zeffirelli told Whiting, who played Romeo, and Hussey, who played Juliet, that they would wear only body makeup, while still assuring them the camera would be positioned in a way that would not show nudity, according to the suit.
Yet they were filmed in the nude without their knowledge, in violation of California and federal laws against indecency and the exploitation of children, the suit says.
Zeffirelli told them they must act in the nude “or the Picture would fail” and their careers would be hurt, the suit said. The actors “believed they had no choice but to act in the nude in body makeup as demanded.”
Whiting’s bare buttocks and Hussey’s bare breasts are briefly shown during the scene.
The film, and its theme song, were major hits at the time, and has been shown to generations of high school students studying the Shakespeare play since.
The court filing says the Hussey and Whiting have suffered emotional damage and mental anguish for decades, and that each had careers that did not reflect the success of the movie.
It says given that suffering and the revenue brought in by the film since its release, the actors are entitled to damages of more than $500 million.
An email seeking comment from representatives of Paramount was not immediately returned.
The lawsuit was filed under a California law temporarily suspending the statute of limitations for child sex abuse, which has led to a host of new lawsuits and the revival of many others that were previously dismissed.
Hussey defended the scene in a 2018 interview with Variety, which first reported the lawsuit, for the film’s 50th anniversary.
“Nobody my age had done that before,” she said, adding that Zeffirelli shot it tastefully. “It was needed for the film.”
The Associated Press does not typically name people who say they have been sexually abused unless they come forward publicly, as Hussey and Whiting have.
Those who pick “no” have no idea what happened. I do and I think I may have been responsible for this suit by speaking out about it on a fan site frequented by Leonard Whiting’s wife.
As a person who loved the movie when I was a elementary school student, I wanted to rewatch it so last year when it was available for a month on Amazon, I watched it over and over again. I thought it really was as good as I remembered. I wanted to know all about the making of it, the history of the participants, what happened to everyone. I started watching interviews, out takes, videos of the training and reading articles and biographies. I joined fan sites to talk about the film and get other opinions. In other words, I went down the R&J rabbit hole.
What I found out about Franco Zeffirelli was pretty horrible. He was a right wing politician, a Catholic apologist who said he was molested by a priest when he was a child and it did him no harm. He was sexist, racist, antisemitic. He was accused by the actor who played Benvolio (Bruce Robinson) of doing a Harvey Weinstein on him. Another male actor on a later film accused him of rape. Toward the end of his life, he came out as a homosexual, adopted the two men who were living with him who took care of him like a father (who they slept with) and they inherited his estate.
All that is not the entire story. These two children (15 and 16) were picked out of a lineup based on looks and groomed to do what he wanted them to do. Whiting’s cockney and Hussey’s South American accents were eradicated. He was given total control of them so he let them smoke, drink and run wild as long as they performed. Hussey was bullied to lose weight and be strapped into a corset so tight she couldn’t breathe. The purpose of the corset was to push up her breasts to make them more camera worthy. Zeffirelli often called her Boobs OMina on the set and said she was going to make the film a money maker.
Zeffirelli picked very handsome young men and put them in tight clothes with prominent codpieces. He had them engage in dangerous stunts like real sword fights on gravel and dirt in slippers. The nude Romeo scene has a very different and exploitative feel, as well as the whole production, when seen through the lens of Zeffirelli’s history.
Finally, vulnerable children don’t know they are being groomed and don’t understand the injury and harm they suffered. Narcissistic abuse is especially hard to understand because of gaslighting.
This is one of those I'm not sure what to think. Were they exploited as underage persons? Yes. Neither was sexually abused - physically touched. The person responsible is dead; Zepherelli (sp) got them to act in the nude after lying to them. So, who pays them. The film was shot in Europe, should the laws there apply? IDK.
Having worked on the sets for film and TV, it is really hard to hide cameras, especially as at the time cameras were pretty darn big. I suspect they were totally aware of beign filmed.
My only doubts come in the part of the story where they were originally told no nudity would be required, but it changed when they actually did the filming.
On NPR, they played early interviews of the actors about the nudity, and at the time they voiced no objections. It could be argued that if they raised objections it would have hurt their careers to be known as "difficult".
I do think however that the 1968 film is still the best film adaptation of Romeo & Juliet, and the nudity doesn't seem to be gratuitous.