Romeo and Juliet on Screen

Romeo and Juliet is a perennial fan favorite, adapted time and again for stage and screen. From the silent film era until today, filmmakers have been drawn to the story's outsized emotions, vivid characters, and iconic moments (the masked ball, the balcony scene), to say nothing of the transporting poetry that has entered the vernacular: the "star cross'd lovers" whose beauty "teach the torches to burn bright." And in today's youth-driven culture, the tragic but photogenic young lovers have particular appeal, allowing movie adaptations to serve as showcases for rising stars -- most famously, perhaps, Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes in Baz Luhrmann's Romeo +Juliet.  

Romeo and Juliet (1936)

Appearing a year after Max Reinhardt’s gorgeous adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), this version of Romeo and Juliet from Hollywood’s Golden Age boasts handsome sets and costumes, luscious black-and-white cinematography, and a transporting Tchaikovsky soundtrack. Contemporary audiences will likely find the casting of forty-something Leslie Howard and thirty-something Norma Shearer as the besotted teenagers something of a head-scratcher. But it was common practice at the time, although the suspension-of-disbelief no doubt worked far better on stage. For cinephiles and Bard completists, however, the rewards of this are many, and it is worth noting George Cukor would go on to direct a string of movie classics, including The Philadelphia Story (1940), A Star is Born (1954), and My Fair Lady (1964), for which he won a Best Director Oscar.       

West Side Story (1961)

The Tony-Award winning Broadway musical was adapted for the big screen in 1961, garnering 10 Academy awards, including Best Picture. The setting is transplanted from "Fair Verona" to the Upper West Side in the 1950s, where the warring Capulets and Montagues have become rival street gangs, the Jets and the Sharks. Tony and Maria are the “star cross’d lovers" who defy their families and friends by falling in love. Shakespeare’s poetry translated into the kinetic language of body and voice, with dynamic choreography and classic songs courtesy of composer Leonard Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. As in Romeo and Juliet, the supporting characters steal the show: an athletic Russ Tamblyn played Riff / Mercutio with verve and vitality, while George Chakiris smoldered as Bernardo / Tybalt. Rita Moreno delivered the show-stopping “America” and became the first Latina actor to win an Oscar. A remake directed by Steven Spielberg is slated for a 2021 release. 

Romeo and Juliet (1968)

Franco Zeffirelli’s lush and energetic adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, released in 1968, touched a deep chord in the audience of its day, becoming a pop cultural phenomenon nearly on par with 1997’s Titanic. After the widely accepted stage and screen practice of casting adult actors as the doomed teenagers, it was an inspired choice to cast a pair of actual teenagers: 17 year-old Leonard Whiting and 15 year-old Olivia Hussey. They are an almost impossibly photogenic couple, sharing a “beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear," along with youthful energy and passion. Filmed on location in a picturesque Tuscan hill town, Zeffirelli’s vision of the tragedy is thoroughly Italianate, from the 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 an achingly gorgeous main theme, 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. 

Romeo + Juliet (1996)

In 1996 Australian visionary Baz Luhrmann tapped the emerging star power of Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes to create a visually-striking update full of scuzzy neon brio and neon incandescence. Guns, drugs, gangs, garish colors, hot young stars and a hip soundtrack: this was Romeo and Juliet for the MTV generation. The film’s visceral energy, appealing cast and eye-popping visuals made Shakespeare not just palatable, but passionate. DiCaprio, at the height of his epicene beauty, captured Romeo’s rage and hot-headedness in a star-making turn. Claire Danes, fresh fromMTV’s My So Called Life, lit up the screen as an angelic Juliet. The supporting cast is excellent: John Leguizamo’s Tybalt is a cocksure, gun-wielding dandy; Harold Perrineau is affecting as the cross-dressing, drug-dealing misfit, Mercutio. Pete Posthlewaite as Friar Laurence shows the kids how it’s done with his ease and command of the language(plus a badass crucifix tattoo and a penchant for Hawaiian shirts). A play about teenagers became a movie for teenagers, full of heat, sweat, passion and intensity.  

Shakespeare in Love (1998)

While not a Romeo and Juliet adaptation, per se, this witty and romantic film imagined a “behind the scenes” glimpse into the making of the play, featuring a fetching young Will Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) inspired by forbidden love with his affianced muse, Viola (Gwyneth Paltrow). As they enact a parallel tale of “star-cross’d lovers,” the audience is treated (courtesy of a fleet and clever script co-written by Tom Stoppard) to a host of expertly deployed Shakespearean devices -- pratfalls, wordplay, sword fighting, cross-dressing -- plus plenty of scenes lifted directly from Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare in Love  won a bevy of Oscars in 1998, including Best Picture, and arguably marked “Peak Shakespeare” in the pop culture imaginary.  

Romeo and Juliet (2013)

All the praise and accolades for Downton Abbey must have gone to Julian Fellowes’s head. While a dab hand at writing period-piece melodrama, Fellowes’s misguided attempt to make Romeo and Juliet more “accessible” is painfully inept and insulting. All the wit, poetry, heat, and majesty of Shakespeare’s language is drained and flattened into a script more befitting a daytime soap opera. Strong supporting actors--including Paul Giamatti and Damian Lewis (much better showcased together on Billions)--largely  survive with their dignity intact, but it’s a matter of tossing pearls before swine. The photogenic stars and pretty costumes and scenery almost make this worth watching – as you long as you hit the Mute button. Sadly, this is the brain-damaged version of the play our Idiocratic society arguably deserves.      

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