She was only 15 and he just 16 when they played literature’s most famous lovers and in the process became the world’s most talked-about teenagers.
Plucked for stardom by director Franco Zeffirelli in his stunning 1968 film adaptation of Romeo And Juliet, young British actors Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting were hailed as the beautiful faces of a new generation of Swinging Sixties screen talent — especially when they appeared in a controversial nude scene which bared his buttocks and her breasts.
They gave an electrifying performance as the star-crossed lovers that not only seemed to sum up the youthful and rebellious spirit of the age but struck a chord with generations of teenage audiences by highlighting just how young Romeo and Juliet were in Shakespeare’s play.
The film won Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Director, while acclaimed U.S. film critic Roger Ebert described it as ‘the most exciting film of Shakespeare ever made’.
Young British actors Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting gave an electrifying performance as the star-crossed lovers
Their suit alleges that Italian director Franco Zeffirelli, who died in 2019, had assured them there would be no nudity in the film
Yet almost 55 years after its release, Hussey and Whiting — now in their 70s —are suing Paramount Pictures for damages reportedly ‘in excess of $500 million’ (£415 million) for alleged sexual abuse, negligence and, moreover, that precise scene.
In a lawsuit filed in California’s Santa Monica Superior Court last Friday, the pair accuse Paramount of sexually exploiting them and distributing nude images of adolescent children.
Their suit alleges that the Italian director, who died in 2019, had assured them there would be no nudity in the film and that they would wear flesh-coloured undergarments in their wedding-night bedroom scene.
However, in the final days of filming, they say, Zeffirelli pleaded with them to change their minds and perform in the nude with body make-up, convincing them that otherwise ‘the picture would fail’. He allegedly warned them that if they refused, ‘they would never work again in any profession, let alone Hollywood’.
According to the complaint, Zeffirelli indicated where he would position the camera and assured them no nudity would be photographed or shown in the film. The two actors, who say they felt ‘they had no choice’ but to comply, now claim Zeffirelli had been dishonest and they were filmed nude without their permission.
‘What they were told and what went on were two different things,’ said Tony Marinozzi, the business manager for both actors. ‘They trusted Franco. They took his lead that he would not violate that trust they had. Franco was their friend and frankly, at 16, what do they do? There are no options. There was no #MeToo.’ Mr Marinozzi said it had taken ‘great courage’ for them to address their ‘sexploitation’.
The lawsuit contends that Hussey and Whiting suffered and continue to suffer ‘severe mental anguish and emotional distress’
While viewers see just a flash of Hussey’s breasts, Whiting’s buttocks received longer exposure. Intriguingly, that behind could have belonged to Paul McCartney, as Zeffirelli reportedly wanted him as Romeo and he even had a preliminary meeting with Hussey before saying no.
‘These were very young naive children in the Sixties who had no understanding of what was about to hit them,’ said Solomon Gresen, Hussey and Whiting’s lawyer. ‘All of a sudden they were famous at a level they never expected, and were violated in a way they didn’t know how to deal with.’
The lawsuit contends that Hussey and Whiting suffered and continue to suffer ‘severe mental anguish and emotional distress’ and also lost out on job opportunities as a result of the Zeffirelli film. (The $500 million figure has been calculated to match the amount the movie has earned since 1968.)
Whiting’s acting career certainly dried up quickly afterwards. Hussey had more success, but was plagued by personal problems that included alleged rape, crushing agoraphobia and intense shyness — she was so nervous that she says she wet herself on being presented to the Queen at Romeo And Juliet’s Royal Command Performance.
She won the leading role in the 1974 cult horror film Black Christmas, was reunited with Zeffirelli to play Mary in the 1977 TV mini-series Jesus Of Nazareth and appeared alongside Peter Ustinov in the 1978 screen adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Death On The Nile.
None of this, however, matched the immense early promise she showed as Juliet.
She has not appeared on screen since 2015, when she was reunited with Whiting in the low-budget British thriller Social Suicide, loosely based on Romeo And Juliet. In 2021, she revealed that she was ‘broke’, telling the Mail: ‘I’ve had terrible luck . . . I went from being comfortable to being overdrawn.’
The timing of her lawsuit so many decades later is because a temporary suspension of California’s statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse cases ran out on December 31 — and with it any chance of the actors filing a claim against the studio.
Paramount has yet to respond, although others have already spoken up to query the lawsuit, noting that neither Hussey nor Whiting has ever voiced such complaints in the past.
In fact, Hussey had previously said the only thing she didn’t like about the film, an Anglo-Italian production made in Italy, was the publicity demands, which as a ‘wild little thing’ she found ‘exhausting’.
However, she knew that the great director, then in his 40s, became infatuated with her during filming. And in a 2019 autobiography she admitted she resented him calling his precocious young star — buxom even at 15 — his ‘little Boobs O’Mina’. Zeffirelli later admitted she had been the great unrequited love of his life.
As to that nude scene, she explicitly defended it in a 2018 interview with Variety magazine. ‘Nobody my age had done that before,’ she said — she turned 16 during filming. She insisted that Zeffirelli shot it tastefully, adding of the nudity that ‘it was needed for the film’.
She pointed out that both of them were already working actors when they were cast, saying: ‘Everyone thinks they were so young, they probably didn’t realise what they were doing.
‘But we were very aware. We both came from drama schools and when you work, you take your work very seriously.’
In fact, both were more worried about covering up their accents — Whiting’s was Cockney, while Hussey had a lilt from her early years in Argentina, where she was born — than hiding their modesty, and they worked hard with voice trainers, she said.
In a separate interview the same year, she told Fox News the scene was filmed ‘very tastefully’, shot on a ‘closed set’ with a whittled-down crew. ‘It wasn’t that big a deal. And Leonard wasn’t shy at all! In the middle of shooting, I just completely forgot I didn’t have clothes on,’ she recalled.
It may have helped matters that she and Whiting were genuinely attracted to each other. ‘I had never been with anyone before we shot the film,’ said Hussey years later. ‘But Leonard and I held hands, kissed . . . I guess we sort of saw each other as boyfriend and girlfriend.’ She added, however, that they never slept together except on screen, and the on-set romance soon died out as Whiting dated myriad Italian girls and she spent her nights dancing and getting drunk in Rome discos.
Zeffirelli had spotted Hussey —the daughter of an Argentine opera singer, Andres Osuna, and Joy Hussey, an English legal secretary — when she appeared alongside Vanessa Redgrave in a West End production of The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie.
She had moved to England with her mother after her parents separated, and was desperate to act from an early age.
Much to her surprise, she beat 500 actresses to the part of Juliet.
Zeffirelli said he chose her because ‘she was the only choice mature enough with experience and natural beauty to play Juliet while still looking 14’.
Overnight fame, however, led to her putting on weight, which the film studio couldn’t tolerate.
Her mother angrily flushed the diet pills studio bosses gave Hussey down the lavatory and rejected demands that she see a specialist for her ‘plumpness’. But ‘a seed had been planted’ said the actress, and a girl who had always been curvaceous rather than skinny ‘began to hate my body’.
Her early success also went to her head. The huge attention she received after being cast as Juliet turned a shy, sweet teenager into a petulant and cocksure brat, she later admitted.
Both she and Whiting won Golden Globe awards for ‘most promising newcomers’ but Hussey didn’t take another acting role for nearly two years, turning down several plum parts — including the title role in the award-winning historical drama Anne Of The Thousand Days and co-starring with John Wayne in the classic western True Grit — that she should have snatched. She later blamed her arrogance for refusing to act with Wayne.
Shyness and nerves also held her back. ‘Years later, I would be diagnosed with a severe form of agoraphobia: large crowds, open spaces and uncontrollable social situations fill me with dread,’ Hussey revealed in her autobiography. A disastrous relationship with a young pin-up, American actor Christopher Jones, when she was 17 hardly helped settle her fragile nerves.
Jones claimed to have been having an affair with actress Sharon Tate — wife of director Roman Polanski — when she was murdered by followers of cult leader Charles Manson in 1969.
Her death sent him into a steep decline and Hussey became the victim of his violent mood swings, which included him one night punching her hard in the stomach as they lay in bed.
She ended the relationship but met him again and, by now in Los Angeles, bizarrely moved into the house where Tate and others had just been slaughtered.
The house was owned by Jones’s manager, who had allowed the troubled actor to stay in a cottage at the back of the property — on the proviso he left Hussey alone.
However, she claims that one night he came into her bedroom and raped her, beating and punching her for an hour and ‘all the while grinding his teeth and snarling, his spittle spraying me’.
She later discovered she was pregnant and, despite Jones’s last-minute plea at her hospital bedside that she keep the baby, she had a termination.
Hussey had a short-lived affair with Terry Melcher, the record producer son of Doris Day, and later married Dino Martin, son of Dean Martin. They married in Las Vegas in 1971 on her 20th birthday and had a child, Alexander, but divorced in 1978 after Martin started cheating on her and was arrested for having an illegal gun collection.
By then, her film career was sliding. Hussey’s personal life, meanwhile, became a damaging cycle of binge-eating, heavy alcohol consumption, sleeping pills and panic attacks, although she credited meeting Swami Muktananda, a controversial yoga guru, with addressing much of her self-destructiveness.
In 1980 she married a Japanese singer, Akira Fuse, and they, too, had a son, Max, together before separating in 1989. Since 1991 Hussey has been married to actor and rock musician David Glen Eisley. Their daughter, India, has followed her mother into acting.
Hussey, now a grandmother, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008 and chose to have a double mastectomy. In 2018, she learned the cancer had returned and said radiation and chemotherapy had saved her life.
The avid animal lover and rescue-dog owner said she’d been swindled by her business manager and his wife when she announced she’d gone broke last year.
‘I’ve had terrible luck. I had a pension plan and a beautiful home that I owned completely and I had to sell due to debts,’ she said. ‘I just think people can take advantage if you have a good heart.’
She never stopped being friends with Leonard Whiting, a former child singer who was born in London, and they text each other ‘at least once every ten days’.
His life, too, has been struck by tragedy — of the two daughters he had by two women, one died of cervical cancer in 2014.
Now, Shakespeare’s doomed lovers are reunited in another attempt to find happiness together, albeit financial rather than romantic.
Source” Content adapted from dailymail