If 1967 was the Summer of Love, then late 1968 through mid-1969 brought the seasons of mass deflowering. This wasn’t due to LSD, flower power, or even the trickling down of the sexual revolution. Rather, it was the perfidious influence of a nearly 400-year-old play that teenagers had previously read and watched with glazed eyes. Franco Zeffirelli’s big-screen version of Romeo and Juliet made underage sex look extremely hot, virtuous, and stick-it-to-the-man rebellious. And because it was rated G (until the Motion Picture Association of America subsequently wised up and gave it a PG) and based on, you know, the Bard, parents couldn’t object.
Foolish adults, so not with it! As sheer incitement to Get Laid Now, this Romeo and Juliet was the worst celluloid influence on America’s impressionable youth since Splendor in the Grass seven years earlier and that was an old-fashioned movie whose mature stars (Natalie Wood, Warren Beatty) were only playing at being teens. Plus, they kept their clothes on.
Not so Zeffirelli discoveries Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey, age 17 and 15, respectively. It took her frenziedly heaving bosom and his famously bare ass (the shot that perhaps heated up gay lib as much as Stonewall) to add new life to hitherto yawnsville poetry, making everyone under the age of consent desperate to be in love, thwarted, secretive, coital, and tragic. That last is, after all, the ultimate teenage fantasy: to die knowing that grown-ups will finally realize that crushing your delicate feelings drove you to it. Oh, now you’re sorry! Enjoy that eternal guilt! (In 1981, Zeffirelli would film the ultimate camp incarnation of this theme, Endless Love.)
Much was made of the principals’ youth, for once close to that of the characters as envisioned by Shakespeare. The most famous prior screen version, MGM’s 1936 extravaganza, had cast thirty- to fiftysomethings in the lead roles. Onstage, various famed thespians practically portrayed the young lovers into senility. Zeffirelli who’d successfully tamed famous couple Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in a robust Taming of the Shrew the year before not only selected young actors but also juiced Romeo and Juliet with a hyperbolic style designed to excite. The film’s color-saturated photography, costumes, and production design make Renaissance-era Veronese life the apex of sensuality. Nino Rota’s score (with a love theme that topped the United States pop charts as a Henry Mancini instrumental) is romantic catnip. Male testosterone including that of Tybalt, as played by Michael York, who’d never seem so flamingly heterosexual again jumps off the screen in splendor, with equally rattling sword fights and projectile codpieces.
The goal was intoxication, and as obvious as some of the above tactics might appear now, Romeo and Juliet remains a heady brew. The mega make-out movie’s principals handled such fantastic early pop culture fortunes with varying success. Hussey carved out a long, diverse adult acting career in projects around the globe. Whiting, an unhappy teen idol ("Oh Romeo, Romeo, why are you so difficult to talk to?" Tiger Beat lamented), tried to earn cred in an eccentric array of projects. But most were poorly received, apart from 1973’s exceptional all-star TV movie Frankenstein: The True Story, in which he played the bad doctor. The next year he retired to engage in other pursuits.
Zeffirelli an opera director before, during, and after his relevancy as a screen auteur revealed himself to be a maestro of overripe kitsch in such films as 1971’s Brother Sun, Sister Moon (a now-unwatchable Jesus People Movementera shampoo-commercial take on St. Francis), 1988’s Young Toscanini (La Liz meets C. Thomas Howell), and 1999’s Cher-starring Fascist Italy soft sell Tea with Mussolini. He’s openly gay, yet a big-time papist (who supports the church’s stance on homosexuality), as well as a member of media magnate and corruption magnet Silvio Berlusconi’s conservative Forza Italia party. One of his greatest legacies may turn out to be inadvertent: Bruce Robinson, who plays Benvolio in Romeo and Juliet, later claimed Zeffirelli’s on-set overtures inspired the genius character of Uncle Monty in Robinson’s immortal 1987 directorial debut, Withnail and I.
Thanks to Marc Huestis’s one-night-only 40th anniversary revival at the Castro Theatre with Hussey in person, interviewed, and no doubt impersonated by local personalities in the preshow Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet will be celebrated as a cultural phenomenon. The cheesy contemporary amp-up that Baz Luhrmann engineered in 1996, with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes doing the heavy breathing, also struck a popular adolescent chord, but its trendy vulgarity has already aged a whole lot worse than Zeffirelli’s version. The latter remains breathless, and is duly classic.
ROMEO AND JULIET
With Olivia Hussey in person
Thurs/14, 7 p.m., $12.50$25
429 Castro, SF