Pippo Zeffirelli, son of Romeo and Juliet director Franco Zeffirelli, is criticizing the lawsuit brought by that film’s stars, Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting.
The actors are alleging sexual exploitation and child abuse in a lawsuit against Paramount Pictures over a famous nude scene in the 1968 Zeffirelli film adaptation of William Shakespeare’s play.
Hussey and Whiting, now 71 and 72, earlier this week filed suit against Paramount. They alleged that Franco Zeffirelli violated their consent by filming them nude without their knowledge. Hussey and Whiting were 15 and 16 years old at the time of filming. Zeffirelli died in 2019.
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“What they were told and what went on were two different things,” Tony Marinozzi, who serves as a business manager for both Hussey and Whiting, said in a statement. “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.”
Countering those allegations was a statement released Friday by Pippo Zeffirelli. He said the scene mentioned was “far from pornographic.”
“It is embarrassing to hear that today, 55 years after filming, two elderly actors who owe their notoriety essentially to this film wake up to declare that they have suffered an abuse that has caused them years of anxiety and emotional discomfort,” Pippo Zeffirelli said in a statement (via The Guardian).
“It appears to me that in all these years, they have always maintained a relationship of deep gratitude and friendship towards Zeffirelli, releasing hundreds of interviews about the happy memory of their very fortunate experience, which was crowned with worldwide success.”
Pippo Zeffirelli noted both actors praised the film as recently as thre years ago. He also noted that Hussey again collaborated with Franco Zeffirelli for the 1977 miniseries Jesus of Nazareth, while Whiting attended his father’s funeral in Italy in 2019.
“Zeffirelli himself was accused of being reactionary precisely because, over and over again, he spoke out against pornography,” Pippo added. “The nude images in the film express the beauty, the transfer, I would even say the candor of mutual giving and do not contain any morbid feeling.”
In January 2020, the statute of limitations for childhood sexual assault civil claims in California was suspended for three calendar years. The Romeo and Juliet suit was filed just ahead of the December 31, 2022 cut-off for survivors of childhood sexual assault to file a civil complaint for abuse regardless of their age. The lawsuit asks $500 million in damages.
The statute of limitations has now resumed in California.
In the complaint, it was contended that “Defendants were dishonest and secretly filmed the nude or partially nude minor children without their knowledge, in violation of the state and federal laws regulating said child sexual abuse and exploitation. Plaintiffs have suffered and will continue to suffer physical pain and mental pain along with extreme and severe mental anguish and emotional distress,” the suit (read it here) over the Best Picture Oscar-nominated movie based on William Shakespeare’s classic doomed lovers tale goes on to say.
Encino CA-based attorney Solomon Gresen is handling the case.
The filing further alleges, “At the time of filming, Mr. Whiting (Romeo) was a minor child aged 16 years and Ms. Hussey was also a minor child aged 15 years. Plaintiffs were told by Mr. Zeffirelli that there would be no nudity filmed or exhibited and that Plaintiffs would be wearing flesh colored undergarments during the bedroom/love scene. However, on the morning of the shoot of the bedroom scene in the second week of December 1968, the very last days of photography the minor children Plaintiffs were given body make-up and were told by Mr. Zeffirelli that they must act in the nude or the Picture would fail. Millions were invested. They would never work again in any profession, let alone Hollywood. Zeffirelli showed them were the cameras would be set so that no nudity would be filmed or photographed for use in Romeo & Juliet or anywhere else. Plaintiffs believed they had no choice to act in the nude with body make-up as demanded on the last days of filming.
Paramount did not respond to request for comment from Deadline on the seven-claim suit.
Dominic Patten contributed to this report.
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