© 2006 John Murphy
A Pair of Star-Cross’d Lovers
Ah, the Sixties — the tie-dyed era of youth and rebellion. An age when the word was Love, hope sprang eternal, and the world seemed perfectible. Franco Zeffirelli’s lush and energetic adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, released in 1968, touched a deep chord in the audience of its day, becoming a phenomenon nearly on par in scope and influence with 1997’s Titanic, James Cameron’s latter-day spin on the timeworn tale of star-crossed young lovers.
But this 1968 Romeo and Juliet is no quaint artifact from a bygone era, no cringe-inducing embarrassment like the beehive hairdo of a high-school yearbook photograph. In fact, it remains the definitive cinematic version of the play nearly forty years after its release. After the mannered poses of Lord Laurence Olivier’s Shakespeare films, and the widely accepted stage and screen practice of casting adult actors as the doomed teenagers, it must have been a startling revelation to cast a pair of actual teenagers in the titular roles: 17 year-old Leonard Whiting and 15 year-old Olivia Hussey. Zeffirelli’s gamble paid off big-time. The effect was like a shot of adrenaline to a genre stultified by the classicist Olivier and the suspend-your-disbelief casting of geriatric Romeos and Juliets.
“Heightened naturalism” might summarize Zeffirelli’s aesthetic as a whole. The film is a veritable feast for the eyes: the lush photography, rich costumes and stunning set design offer the visual equivalent of a sumptuous five-course Italian meal. Filmed on location in a picturesque Tuscan hill-town, Zeffirelli’s vision of the tragedy is thoroughly Italianate, from the outsized, operatic emotions to the lyrical sense of beauty (not to mention impeccable fashion sense: never have codpieces and jerkins looked better). Nino Rota’s haunting score, anchored by a drippingly gorgeous main theme that captures the beauty and tragedy of love, became something of a phenomenon unto itself in one of the first instances of a film score bleeding over into the world of pop music.
So the movie looks and sounds beautiful, but that’s just icing on the cake. Any adaptation of Romeo and Juliet succeeds or fails on the basis of the lead performances. Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey prove that Zeffirelli’s casting of a pair of teenagers was much more than a marketing gimmick. They are an almost impossibly photogenic couple, sharing a “beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear.” The extended sequence in the Capulet’s house where Romeo and Juliet first meet is a highwire walk of looks, glances, surreptitious smiles, and blooming first love. It is here that the main love theme is introduced on the soundtrack, a lovely melody underscored with aching melancholy. Zeffirelli’s camera floats sensuously, discovering the joy of physical obsession along with Romeo and Juliet through a series of intimate close-ups. It is a bravura bit of filmmaking, and the movie soars just when it needs to.
Leonard Whiting as Romeo was sort of the Orlando Bloom of his day — a pretty boy as deep as any paper plate, whose well-scrubbed features no doubt appeared in plenty of high school girls’ lockers. He’s not entirely at his ease with the language, but Zeffirelli lets lingering close-ups communicate the poetry of Romeo’s passion rather than rely solely on Whiting sometimes shaky hold of the iambic pentameter. He is a natural at conveying his rash and precipitous infatuation with Juliet (it doesn’t hurt that Olivia Hussey is one of the most beautiful women, young or old, to ever grace the silver screen), but he is less convincing as the enraged Romeo, revenging his friend Mercutio’s death. The long, drawn-out duel between Romeo and Tybalt grows wearisome and more and more implausible as the wispy Whiting is supposed to prove a match to the Prince of Cats, played by a dangerous and charismatic Michael York.
Olivia Hussey fares better. Her luminescent performance as the young, blushing bride, Juliet, has held up over time better than her counterpart’s. Her fierce spirit and tempestuous love for Romeo shine through her stunning features. Shakespeare put it best: “O! She doth teach the torches to burn bright!” But Hussey is more than a pretty face. She has an impressive command of the language for someone so young — not only does she know what she’s saying, but she speaks her lines with forceful conviction. She delivers the wearyingly oft-repeated verse of the balcony scene with freshness and grace. When she says, “O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” the audience may have to stifle a snicker at the familiarity of the words, but Hussey doesn’t seem conscious of the weight of tradition; she’s simply a thirteen-year old girl in the throes of first love, thinking aloud about these newly-minted, unfamiliar emotions. It was a truly auspicious debut from an actress who got less work over time than she deserved.
Although both Whiting and Hussey acquit themselves admirably with the notoriously tough poetry of the Bard, their strongest asset is the sheer, unselfconscious energy they display. They throw themselves into the parts with unabashed physicality. Romeo bounds up the tree to Juliet’s balcony with a reckless spirit that creaky oldsters can only reminisce about. When Juliet arrives at the church to marry Romeo, it is everything Friar Laurence can do to keep their hands off each other until after the ceremony. They look and more importantly act like teenagers in love, instead of adults pretending to act like teenagers in love, which is usually just embarrassing.
Whiting and Hussey’s infectiously enthusiastic performances are bolstered by the expertise of well-seasoned supporting players. John McEnery is a feisty Mercutio, a sharp-tongued outsider whose malicious sense of humor seems to hide deep-seated insecurities. Friar Laurence and his foil, Juliet’s Nurse, are played by Milo O’Shea and Pat Heywood, respectively, in a pair of performances full of life and vigor. They are closer to Romeo and Juliet in their energy and excitement than the automaton authoritarians, the heads of the Montague and Capulet houses, who have dried up after years of bitterness and pointless feuding.
But the movie belongs securely to the leads, whose fresh-faced youth and vivacity adds weight to the tragedy. Love is their fatal flaw, and first love’s fatal impetuosity. They have yet to acquire the tragic personality flaws of Shakespeare’s mature heroes: Othello’s jealousy, Hamlet’s indecisiveness, or Macbeth’s ambition. It is their parents, the authority system, and an ancient blood-rivalry that conspires against the young lovers — a fact that must have resonated with the budding flower children circa the late Sixties. Mercutio’s despairing cry, “A plague on both your houses!” could for all intents and purposes be the Elizabethan equivalent of “Fight the Man!”
Romeo and Juliet, however timely it may have appeared in 1968, has proven timeless. I don’t know what it’s like to be the prince of Denmark, a merchant of Venice, or Julius Caesar, but I do know what it’s like to have a teenaged brain addled by an obsessive infatuation with a beautiful girl. Romeo and Juliet speaks to the memory of that young, foolhardy lover in all of us, and bemoans the tragic fate of first love at the mercy of those who have forgotten what it was like to dream aloud, “O that I were a glove upon that hand, that I might touch that cheek!”