The two teen stars of Franco Zeffirelli’s classic 1968 Romeo of Juliet, now in their 70s, have filed suit under a California law that temporarily suspended the statute of limitations for older allegations of child sexual abuse, Variety reports.
Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting filed their lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court last Friday, accusing Paramount Pictures of “sexually exploiting them and distributing nude images of adolescent children.”
Filmed when Hussey was 15 and Whiting was 16, Zeffirelli’s film became a smash hit, nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, and winning for cinematography and costume design. Hussey and Whiting each won Golden Globes for Most Promising Newcomer (male and female) while Michael York’s Tybalt put him on the map.
But for all the lauding the picture received, it included a bedroom scene that showed Hussey’s bare breasts and Whiting’s naked buttocks.
According to the suit, Zeffirelli assured his young actors that the film would contain no nudity and that, in the bedroom scene, they would preserve their modesty with flesh-colored garments. But when it came time to film, the director begged them to take their clothes off, covered by nothing but body makeup. Nudity was necessary, said Zeffirelli, who died in 2019, “or the Picture would fail.”
While the actors were nude, according to the complaint, Zeffirelli took the time to show them the positioning of the camera, assuring them that nudity would not be photographed or “released” in the film. Because of this, Whiting and Hussey’s suit alleges that the director was not truthful and that the two teenage actors were filmed nude without their knowledge.
Hussey and Whiting cite mental and emotional distress in the 55 years since the film’s release, saying they have missed out on job opportunities. Indeed, despite the movie’s massive success and its status as the film version Romeo and Juliet, the actors had only minor careers following its release.
They are seeking damages “believed to be in excess of $500 million.”
“Nude images of minors are unlawful and shouldn’t be exhibited,” the actors’ attorney, Solomon Gresen, said in an interview. “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.”
In a 2018 interview with Fox News, Variety notes, Hussey said, “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.”
As film critic Roger Ebert—who visited the Romeo and Juliet set in Tuscany—put it in his Great Movies entry in 2000, “Hussey and Whiting were so good because they didn’t know any better. Another year or two of experience, perhaps, and they would have been too intimidated to play the roles.”
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