Romeo & Juliet (1968) dir. Franco Zeffirelli
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Year: 1968 Director: Franco Zeffirelli Cast: Olivia Hussey, Leonard Whiting, Michael York, John McEnery, Milo O’Shea, Pat Heywood Length: 138 min. Color/Mono
Everyone ninth grade or higher has read this play, or seen it in class, or come across the basis of the plot in some way. There is no such thing as a spoiler for Romeo and Juliet
! The play, and the story are that well-known. That much a part of Western culture.
In 1968 I was in 10th grade. Our High School English classes all hopped onto school busses and rode downtown to see this film. I was not expecting what I saw. They made me go, more or less. At least I wasn’t sitting in a classroom. I was prepared to be bored. Really
bored. Instead, I was amazed at the contemporary feel of the movie (for those days) and proud that actual young people were playing Romeo and Juliet! I was won over by the end of the duel in the market, as a matter of fact.
Olivia Hussey had a film and television acting career after this movie. Leonard Whiting didn’t fare so well; or maybe he didn’t want a film and TV career. Michael York was already a well-known actor, but became a star when he appeared as Tybalt. His career continues to this day. Franco Zeffirelli may never have had another international hit of this scope. But he made some later hit movies, such as The Champ
, and some flops such as Endless Love
. Zeffirelli made films of at least four operas and four Shakespeare plays over his career. Whatever happened to the young man who sang “What is Youth?” I don’t know. Is that him in the film? I don’t know.
The film won the 41st Oscar for Achievement in Cinematography. It got three other nominations, including Best Picture.
The acting is not as staid as most Shakespearean acting was up until that point. The notable exception that I was aware of (by word of mouth—I didn’t see it until 2008) was Laurence Olivier’s Richard III
which was said to possess a light-hearted spirit that my teachers liked. Almost all Shakespeare done in the 1960s and before dripped with the same heavy-handedness that science fiction was mistakenly given in that time period: “This. Is. Important.” Not Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet
. The dialogue is treated as if it’s dialogue in any other play or film. When it is appropriate, it is yelled, or whispered. Spoken slowly, or rattled off quickly. I had never seen or heard anyone use Shakespeare’s script as if it was just regular speech before. It was (and is) so cool. I think this film started a trend. Without this film (and Richard III
before it) I doubt that Branagh’s cycle of Shakespeare movies could ever have been done.
You will notice if you read some of the contemporary reviews that the old hand critics didn’t care for the “mumbled” lines spoken by those teenagers in the lead roles. One of them went so far as to say that “Shakespeare does not have to be unintelligible,” but he claims he couldn’t understand what the kids were saying. I had no problem. Neither did my peers. And it is not difficult for me to understand the lines even today with my old-timer ears. The problem, I think, is that Zeffirelli’s cast did not intone with the “This, is very
Important.” diction that the grizzled old critics had grown up believing was “the way to do Shakespeare.”
Following are some points I like and some points I don’t like about this film:
Very young actors in the lead roles. The fact that they seem like real people is only half the fun. They actually seem like teenagers. The parts are supposed to be very young people having a fling that they see as more important than it is, perhaps. With these two playing the parts you can tell just how canny the Bard was when writing the two title characters. He got teenage personalities down cold. And his other teenagers were played by youths who could pass as teens. In 1968, that made it all seem, well—different. And good
. Even today it seems that way, to me.
The sets and costumes. Whether they are totally authentic or not, they seem
to be. So do the swords and other props. At times there do not seem to be enough people in the crowd scenes, but the overall feel is still perfect.
Olivia Hussey’s Juliet. She is perhaps a touch too wise for 13, but she is girlish enough to seem real (she was 15 when she made the film). The delivery Hussey uses for the lines is so very much right on the money. The only more convincing Juliet I’ve ever seen is Claire Danes in the sequel. And I’d rate Danes’ performance only a smidgin above Hussey’s. Hussey’s portrayal of the scene in the tomb after she discovers Romeo lifeless in the floor is just so moving. When she rears back after realizing that her husband’s lips are still warm it just tears me up.
Leonard Whiting’s portrayal of Romeo. At first he’s too soft-spoken. But he becomes rather strong-voiced when he chases Tybalt through the streets of Verona to avenge the death of Mercutio. It always tears at my heart when he delivers the turning-point line for the character, ”Oh, I am Fortune’s fool
!” Of course it didn’t affect me emotionally at all when I heard the line as a 16-year old audience member. But since then, it tears at me. Whiting is the most convincing and believable Romeo I have ever seen either on stage or on the screen. Bar none.
Zeffirelli’s technical achievement in taking the play on location, indoors, outdoors, all over Italy. A long time ago I saw one of those ”Spotlight” short features oabout the making of the film. Too bad it isn’t on the DVD I bought. But because of the location shooting, the light always seems real (because it is) and the buildings seem real (because they are). Although I must confess, I think I read somewhere that these were sets? Help me out, here. When the Prince comes riding up on his steed with attendants in tow, the power of his office is evident. He’s mounted on a real horse, and has actually galloped into the square!
The casting. Watching this film is the closest thing you will ever experience to a Botticelli painting coming to life. The faces are fabulous. Everyone is either handsome, beautiful or distinguished-looking. Once you get them into the costumes and in those classical settings, the effect is fabulous. It is mythical Verona come to life. And the camera can be up close to the beautiful faces, so it isn’t an effect that is lost, the way it would be on stage. And the delivery of lines in nearly every case is so natural, and un-stagy that it’s almost like a documentary about people who speak oddly in metered verse as a normal part of their lives. And watch for the hint of a smile on Milo O’Shea’s face as Friar Lawrence contemplates Juliet’s ruse at her ”funeral.”
The way I feel after I watch this movie. My head is full of pleasant memories and the lines the actors recite rattle around in my head. It sticks with me beyond the time when I rise from whatever chair I sit in while I watch it. When I saw it in the theater I had dreams about it for several nights in a row. Actually, it shares this effect with the 1996 version. After watching both on the same day, I have them joyously battling for my attention as I write the material for the Rematch thread.
The ”depth” of the production. Sure, I’ve probably seen a dozen different live-performance or film productions of the play, if you include West Side Story as a variation. I’ve watched the Zeffirelli film either 5 or 6 times over the years, and it gets better with each viewing. That’s because of Shakespeare’s original play in part, but it is also due to Zeffirelli’s direction and the performances he got from his cast. As I add layers of experience to my life, whenever I watch the movie again, I find something else that must
have been there all along, but I never noticed it before.
I Don’t Like:
The faint vestiges of stagy haughtiness in the delivery of the Bard’s lines. What I thought when I saw the film the second time was, “This is a new day, buddy. Quit being so self-important! Peace, love, dove, man. You know?” I think it was the guy playing the Prince that I railed against in my own mind. Some of the actors, the older ones, just didn’t seem to get it. But on my most recent viewing for this thread, I didn’t notice as much of it as I did three years ago. In fact, it mostly seemed to vanish into the various parts. Am I getting old?
I Don’t Like:
Having to have someone sing at the masked ball. For all I know this was done even in the first performance of the play at the Globe Theater. Luhrmann has two different singers at his masked ball! But it sort of slows things down for me, here. The song is good, though. And this time I paid much more attention to the goings on with Romeo and Juliet behind the curtains as they talk about saints and sins and the like. Plus, I had read the lyric for the song on the ‘Net before watching, so I could finally understand the words.
I Don’t Like:
One of Zeffirelli's cuts is the apothecary scene (Luhrmann retains this scene because it gives his MTV version a drug scene!). Romeo simply shows up in the Capulet tomb with poison in pocket. Why was the apothecary scene cut out? Does this kid go around mythical Verona with deadly poison in his pocket all the time? Hmm. Must be even more depressed than he seemed to be in Act One.
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