As a teenager, I was, of course, forced to watch Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet in my English class. I remember it quite well because I had already seen the movie several times and as such, was personally annoyed each time a boy in class snickered. I may have given one of them a lecture on the subject…though of course, I can’t quite*cough* remember.
I first saw the film when I was thirteen. In fact, I’m fairly sure it was around the same time I first watched Titanic – which is fitting considering the stories are quite similar. On a story level, there is no new ground covered in this film. There have been countless Romeo and Juliet adaptations, another notable one being made in 1936 with Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard. Let’s just say, at the ages of 43 and 34, respectively, they weren’t exactly teenagers.
Zeffirelli’s version of the film is an undisputed classic. It tells the story in an artful, beautiful way and a major part of that is because of its young stars: Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting. Olivia was only 15 when she shot the film, which is coincidentally, the age that Juliet is actually supposed to be. Whiting was 17, just a few years older. He also now can’t not be compared to actor Zac Efron. He’s basically the British Zac Efron, at least in look.
Since 1968, the story has been adapted in film several more times. Most recently, there was a film version made in 2013 starring Douglas Booth and Hailee Steinfeld and helmed by Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes. While there was nothing wrong with the adaptation, there was nothing that really set it apart. Conversely, many people fell in love with the 1996 adaptation which starred Leo Dicaprio and Claire Danes. Despite loving its two leads, I was not a fan of Baz Luhrmann’s take on the story; though, I do give him credit for doing something different.
To me, the 1968 version of the film is best classic adaptation. It tells the story very simply, but it’s fresh and fun and accessible. Here are just a few reasons you should watch even if you don’t have an English teacher forcing you to…
I know, I know. I mention music in all my posts. Well, what can I say? Music is a huge part of a movie experience. Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet is no exception. The score by Nino Rota is absolutely beautiful. My favorite song below: “What is a youth?”
So, I’ve already spoken a bit about Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting. They were spectacular in their roles, especially Olivia. She comes off extremely genuine and I think a huge part of that was that she was brand new. Whiting was equally unpolished and real. The film also has some great character actors in supporting roles. The most notable include Michael York’s performance as Tybalt, Juliet’s cousin, Pat Heywood as The Nurse, and John McEnery as Mercutio.
I know this film didn’t create the words. Shakespeare did, but just like Aaron Sorkin, his words were written to be performed and they are performed so well in this film. It just makes me sad…can we please go back to talking this eloquently?
Funny story. So, apparently, many young people were not allowed to see the film due to the one scene of brief nudity – Olivia’s breasts flash on screen for quite literally a second. She apparently wasn’t allowed to go to the premiere either because of it. I mean, I could see how detrimental it would be to see YOUR OWN BREASTS onscreen. Ha. Oh, the drama!
Also, director Franco Zeffirelli had already directed one of Shakespeare’s other plays for the big screen. He made Taming of the Shrew with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor just a year earlier.
Oh, and SUPER RANDOM TIDBIT, Olivia Hussey’s daughter is now an actress as well. Her name is India Eisley. Her most notable role was in ABC Family’s The Secret Life of the American Teenager as Shailene Woodley’s rebellious younger sister. Suffice it to say, India has a lot of her mom’s chutzpah!
IT WAS A CRITICAL AND CULTURAL SUCCESS
The film was well received by both the critics and audiences around the world.
“…it has the passion, the sweat, the violence, the poetry, the love and the tragedy in the most immediate terms I can imagine. It is a deeply moving piece of entertainment, and that is possibly what Shakespeare would have preferred” (Roger Ebert).
But, more than that, the film has stayed alive through new young audiences. Olivia Hussey described this at a 40th anniversary screening of the film where she said she still gets letters from young teenagers who have just seen this film and it’s inspiring.
I was lucky enough to see this movie as a young adolescent and it stayed with me. While I’ve grown up and realized maybe it’s not as romantic as I initially thought (I mean, they both die!), I still love the film and feel that it never gets old.
To all those boys who snickered in my English class: Well first of all, you’re jerks. And secondly, I hope you’ve grown into men who can appreciate this classic film. 😉
Also, how cute are they?
Vintage trailer below: