The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 19.0372  Sunday, 29 June 2008

From:       Hardy M. Cook <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:       Sunday, June 29, 2008
Subject:    This Week's Moviemaker Shakespeare on Film Tribute

With Romeo and Juliet, Franco Zeffirelli interprets the language of young love 
in MM's fifth week of Shakespeare on Film.

by Daniel Rosenthal


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 Cinecitta 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 

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.

[ . . .  ]

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