The actors at the centre of the 1968 film adaptation of Romeo and Juliet are suing the studio behind it for child abuse.
Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey played Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet respectively in the movie of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy of doomed lovers, which was directed by Franco Zeffirelli. Now both in their 70s, the actors were teenagers at the time of the making of the film, which proved a hit with audiences and picked up four Academy Award nominations, winning two, but also met with controversy over a bedroom scene that included nudity.
Hussey and Whiting filed a lawsuit in Santa Monica Superior Court on Friday (December 30) that sues Paramount for sexual exploitation and for distributing nude images of children, per Variety. In the scene in question, Whiting’s buttocks and Hussey’s bare breasts can be scene. The pair allege that Zeffirelli, who died in 2019 at the age of 96, had assured them that no nudity would be featured in the film, and that flesh-coloured undergarments could be worn while shooting the scene.
However, according to the suit, the director then pressured them into performing nude with body makeup, claiming that “the Picture would fail” if they did not. At the time of the shooting, Hussey was 15, and Whiting 16. They allege that Zeffirelli was dishonest in the reassurances he offered them about the positioning of the camera and the absence of nudity in the film. “What they were told and what went on were two different things,” said Tony Marinozzi, a business manager for both.
“They trusted Franco,” he went on. “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.”
Despite the success of Romeo and Juliet, the film failed to act as a springboard for Hussey and Whiting, both of whom enjoyed limited success in the acting profession in the decades since. The suit details lost job opportunities, as well as mental anguish and emotional distress suffered by the actors. They are seeking damages “believed to be in excess of $500 million.”
“Nude images of minors are unlawful and shouldn’t be exhibited,” said the actors’ attorney, Solomon Gresen. “These were very young naive children in the ’60s who had no understanding of what was about to hit them. All of a sudden they were famous at a level they never expected, and in addition they were violated in a way they didn’t know how to deal with.”
The suit was one of a flurry to be filed before the December 31 deadline that marked the end of a temporary suspension California’s statutes of limitations for childhood sexual abuse cases. Paramount has yet to respond to the claim.