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Seven Observations After Watching Franco Zeffirelli’s 'Romeo and Juliet' for the First Time Since Freshman English Class
A new Criterion Blu-ray reveals a film more complex than the teaching aide it's become.
Released 55 years ago, Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet became a zeitgeist-capturing hit. Later generations almost invariably first encountered it in English class, where it would become a supplemental staple to units covering Romeo and Juliet, the first Shakespeare play most people encounter as high school students. That’s where I first watched it and, having not revisited it since, I decided to watch it again after receiving the new Criterion Blu-ray, which the company released on Valentine’s Day. What follows are some thoughts on the film.
1. Has anyone ever had a good experience watching a movie in a classroom? Often they’re crutches for lazy teachers. I remember a history teacher who showed us the entirety of the 3+ hour 1988 miniseries Gore Vidal’s Lincoln (starring Sam Waterston and Mary Tyler Moore as Abe and Mary Todd, respectively). The class was right after lunch. I think I was awake for about 20 minutes. But even when they were appropriate, as with Romeo and Juliet, in my day it was usually a case of 25 students squinting, if they’re paying attention at all, to watch a 20-inch screen. Televisions have gotten better and VHS has been supplanted, but I can’t imagine the experience has been improved that much. I feel like there’s a whole class of movies that have left muddled first impressions because of this. Maybe it’s time to rewatch To Kill a Mockingbird, too.
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2. That said, while I recall liking the film, I certainly misremembered it. Maybe it’s because Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 adaptation, stylized as Romeo + Juliet, is so stylistically audacious that any other take kind of looks staid by comparison, but my memory was of Zeffirelli’s being the safe, traditional take on Shakespeare. And in some respects it is. Zeffirelli stages his Romeo and Juliet in Verona, Italy (though he shot the exteriors in other Italian cities), the setting of the play, and the film’s costumes and set design are contemporaneous with Shakespeare.* The bold interpretive choices can be found elsewhere.
One of the boldest arrives early. An uncredited Laurence Olivier delivers the words of the chorus in a weary voiceover and the action immediately makes pungent the irony of the opening line referencing “Two households, both alike in dignity.” The representatives of said houses behave like delinquent toughs, filling Verona’s streets with violence in the name of some “ancient grudge” never revealed (and perhaps unknown even to those shedding blood in its name). One generation’s conflict will exact a toll on the next.
“In contrast to Shakespeare’s evenhanded apportioning of blame,” Shakespearan scholar Ramona Wray writes in the essay accompanying the disc, “Zeffirelli’s interpretation places the guilt solely on the shoulders of the adults.” That sense pervades the film, in part thanks to Zeffirelli’s decision to hire young actors — in the case of its leads, very young actors — in the parts of youthful characters. Romeo and Juliet’s parents are distant, disconnected, and distracted. The film emphasizes the foolishness of Juliet’s nurse (beautifully played by Pat Heywood), whose romantic notion pushes Juliet into a relationship with tragic consequences she should have foreseen. Friar Lawrence (Milo O’Shea) lauds a cooler sort of love he ought to know the hotblooded Romeo can’t heed. “These violent delights have violent ends.” He’s right about that. But when the violent ends arrive, he flees the scene.
3. Those choices go a long way toward explaining why Romeo and Juliet became a generational touchstone. The young heroes don’t have much in common with, say, The Graduate’s Benjamin Braddock ,but they’re similarly depicted as kids looking for happiness in a world that’s closed off one option after another before they’ve had a chance to choose. Juliet’s parents are trying to marry her off at 14, the same age her mother was married off before her. (There might be a whole Graduate-like story to be told with Lady Capulet (Esmeralda Ruspol) in the Mrs. Robinson role, particularly since Zeffirelli suggests she’s having a quasi-incestuous affair with Tybalt (Michael York), a suggestion Luhrmann would later run with.)
The other choice that undoubtedly resonated with younger viewers was the casting of Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey—who were seventeen and sixteen, respectively, when they made the film—in the leads. Neither had much experience and Zeffirelli would later say he cast them for looks first, believing he could mold the performances later. The casting of age-appropriate leads was a big selling point for the film and one that didn’t go over well in all quarters. (John Russell Taylor in the London Times: “Of course we all know what the trouble is with Romeo and Juliet in any production. It is half covered by the old crack about no actress being ready to play Juliet until she is too old for the role.”)
Whiting and Hussey’s guileless performances are much of the reason the movie works. These are inexperienced characters finding their way through overwhelming emotions for the first time. The lack of experience is a plus here. It turns the film into a mirror for those in the grips of the same feelings and unsure what to do about it. (Plus, in a foreshadowing of soundtrack synergy to come, Henry Mancini scored a chart-topping hit with his rendition of Nino Rota’s love theme.)
4. It’s a mirror for those who’ve aged out of teen passions, too. Zeffirelli lays the blame at the feet of the older generation but, in any form, Romeo and Juliet remains a work that plays differently at different ages. Zeffirelli cuts short Friar Laurence’s role and turns him into a coward in the process, but his speech on loving moderately, however antithetical to a teenager’s interpretation of what love means, still rings true. But I also think those words resonate on a frequency that you can’t hear at Romeo and Juliet’s age.
5. About the nudity (which I think my freshman English teacher fast-forwarded past): Romeo and Juliet has been in the news lately because of a lawsuit brought by Whiting and Hussey alleging they were taken advantage of by Zeffirelli. I won’t venture an opinion on that. (It’s at least worth reading San Francisco Chronicle’s Mick LaSalle on the curious details of the suit.) But the charge that, in the suit’s words, the film is “essentially pornography” doesn’t ring true. It also feels appropriate to this version of Romeo and Juliet, accentuating the youth of these characters who’ve made some very adult choices. (That said, Zeffirelli was a problematic character and more than one actor he worked with has alleged sexually inappropriate behavior.)
6. The central duel is appropriately brutal. I don’t know to what degree Zeffirelli was influenced by West Side Story but the depiction of the Capulet’s and Montague’s followers as glorified street gangs is of a piece with that musical, particularly in the long, upsetting sequence in which Mercutio (John McEnery) dies at Tybalt’s hands and Romeo slays Tybalt. The play hinges on the moment, which tips the love story of the first half toward the tragedy of the second. Zeffirelli lets the violence escalate slowly. A duel that begins with two opponents trying to humiliate, but not really hurt, each other just keeps intensifying until it reaches the point of no return. It’s scary, and skillfully played by York and McEnery. Again: Violent delights. Violent ends.
7. Is this romantic? Again, this might be an effect of watching the film at my age rather than as a teenager, but the sadness of the film overwhelmed the romance for me on this viewing. Even the masked ball where Juliet and Romeo first meet has an air of menace to it. Like a less sexually explicit version of Eyes Wide Shut’s orgy scene, it depicts a hero drawn by erotic curiosity to a place where he should not be. (Tom Cruise gets off easy by comparison.) And, in some ways, the most poignant moment isn’t between Romeo and Juliet but between Romeo and Tybalt, whose corpse lies next to Juliet’s presumed-dead body. In the text, Romeo addresses a few lines to the body of the man he’s killed, saying “O, what more favor can I do to thee / Than with that hand that cut thy youth in twain / To sunder his that was thine enemy?” On the page it can be read as an aside. Zeffirelli draws the moment out as Romeo interrupts his reverie with his beloved and mourns the loss of a boy his own age. He may have taken Tybalt’s life, but in the moment he recognizes them as shared victims of circumstance brought to ruin by a world aligned against them and their youthful passions. He comes early to the conclusion Verona’s Prince will reach in the film’s final scene: All are punished.
* And Zeffirelli even took it on the chin for that choice in some corners. In The Guardian, critic Richard Roud complained about the choice to shoot on location in Italian cities, writing, “You simply cannot mix your conventions: Realistic filmmaking demands realistic dialogue.”