The first time I ever saw a nude love scene on screen, that is. And for a lot of baby boomers my age, they had the same experience watching Franco Zeffirelli’s glorious 1968 adaptation of Shakespeare’s romantic tragedy Romeo and Juliet, starring two of the most stunning then-teenagers to ever grace the screen: Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting.
The film was rated PG and is very tame by today’s standards, including the scene in which they consummate their marriage. The poster, which was shot by Princess Margaret’s husband Lord Snowden, features the two deliciously naked, but covered by a sheet and her long hair, so not to upset parents of young girls eager to see the film.
I remember seeing Romeo and Juliet the first Friday evening in January, 1969 at the Millbrae Theater in Millbrae, CA with two of my classmates from Notre Dame High School. The place was packed to the rafters. The girls would all sigh in unison whenever Whiting was on screen. Hussey and Whiting were our equivalent to Twilight’s Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattison, who mesmerized modern teens.
We all sat there taking it all in, as “the scene” unfolded on screen. More sighs. And when the two die at the end, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
Walking out my one friend said, “No more Disney movies for me.” The same held true for me. It wasn’t until I was in college that I went to see another Disney movie. Nothing was the same after Romeo and Juliet.
The Aero Theatre is making a bit of history on Tuesday, December 6, 2016, when Hussey, 65, and Whiting, 66, will reunite for a Q&A at a screening of the newly restored Romeo and Juliet, presented as part of the Shakespeare Lives Global Programme, supported by the Great Britain campaign. The "Now and Then 16-minute Interview with Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting" from 1967 will play prior to the feature.
The 4K digital restoration of the film, which earned Oscars for its sumptuous costume design and lush cinematography, as well as nominations for best film and director, was made possible through funding by the British Council and the British Film Institute. The restoration was made from the scan of the original 35mm film negative.
“The response worldwide was amazing,” said Hussey, in a recent phone conversation from her home in the L.A. area. “It had such an impact. Even to this day when I go out, a few people will come up and if they say hello to me, I know immediately the film really affected them.”
It certainly affected me. I still have the soundtrack album of the lush Nino Rota score and dialogue from the film. I listened to it so much as a teenager I can still recite a lot of the balcony love scene. I also have the sheet music and even a 1969 edition of a short-lived magazine called Eye, with the two on the cover.
Another reason why Romeo and Juliet, which also featured Michael York and John McEnery, captured the imagination of moviegoers worldwide, is that Zeffirelli made the daring choice of casting age-appropriate actors for his leads. For its lavish 1936 version of Romeo and Juliet, 43-year-old Leslie Howard played Romeo, 34-year-old Norma Shearer was Juliet and 54-year-old John Barrymore was a rather bloated Mercutio.
There was a 1954 British adaptation with Laurence Harvey and and an actress named Susan Shentall, who was 20 when the film was released. “When we found out we had the roles, we watched the others,” said Hussey. “You know after that experience, [Shentall] stopped acting and I think married a green grocer.”
Both actors were working on stage when they were cast as Romeo and Juliet. In an e-mail interview, Whiting recalled he had to audition with 600 lads his age for the role.
“I was working with Sir Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre as the youngest member of the company,” said Whiting. A designer recommended him to the director.
“I had just finished playing the Artful Dodger in the West End and had been offered [the role] in the film [adaptation] - sadly, in the end, both films were shot at the same time so I could not do Oliver!."
Hussey was appearing in the West End in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and initially met the filmmaker briefly at the Savoy Hotel. “I didn’t make much of an impression, I think,” noted Hussey, adding that Zeffirelli looked at some 800 young actresses in both London in the U.S.
“I was very shy and quiet. Then when I went to audition they had one dress for the girl and one jacketed top for the boys. Zeffirelli was down in a cubicle and we’d go down one at a time and be paired off with one of the Romeos.
Hussey and Whiting were paired off from the beginning. “Later when I had the role and Franco and I got very close he said, "The moment you walked in, I said, this is my Juliet. Now let’s see if she can act."
The two tested for months. “It was like a test after another test,” she said. “It was first the balcony scene. I was having a very hard time with the balcony scene and it was the most difficult scene to shoot as well… Leonard climbing the tree and all of these different emotions that we had to go through.“
The two bonded quickly “on and off the set,” said Whiting. “It was love at first glance for me.”
Before filming began, they both were given lessons to improve their accents. “I came from a Cockney family and could not speak proper English, let alone Shakespeare,’ said Whiting. “I was sent to live with a famous English actor, Anthony Nicholls, and his family, to learn to talk ‘proper.”
Hussey, who was born in Argentina of a British mother and Argentine father, still had an Argentine accent. She did six hours of diction a day for several months. And because she had knocked knees when she walked, “Franco had this Italian countess come over to the villa in Italy. She’d put books on my head to teach me how to walk. You know, I was only 16. I think Leonard was 16 when we started.”
The famous nude scene was difficult for both of them, ‘We were a little shy,” noted Whiting. “Olivia more than me.”
“It was shot tastefully,” added Hussey, “Thank god for Zeffirelli.”
And the veterans in the cast including Milo O’Shea and Robert Stephens were “very respectful and very nice because Leonard and I were so young. We really were back then. I mean now 15-year-olds act more like 20-year-olds.”
Because they were teenagers, maneuvering the incredible amount of publicity the film generated was hard. “We understood how to promote it,” said Whiting, “We were the icons of a new generation, but in those days, no one looked out for us as they do for young actors today.”
Hussey has continued to work, but not as much of late because, she lamented there aren’t many roles for women her age. And Whiting has concentrated mainly on a theatrical career in England.
Whiting and Hussey remained close over the years. In fact, the actors reunited last year to play husband and wife in a cameo in the independent film Social Suicide, which stars Hussey's daughter India Eisley. The film is very loosely based on Rome and Juliet.
"I called Leonard and said, ‘Will you do this with me? It’s just one little scene and we can play husband and wife.’ He said, ‘Why not? I don’t know what happened to the film, but we had fun.”
Veteran journalist Susan King wrote about entertainment at the Los Angeles Times for 26 years (January 1990 - March 2016), specializing in classic Hollywood stories. She also wrote about independent, foreign and studio movies and occasionally TV and theater stories. She received her master's degree in film history and criticism at USC. After working 10 years at the L.A. Herald Examiner, she moved to the Los Angeles Times.