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Romeo and Juliet actors sue studio for exploitation

The actors, now in their 70s, claim emotional distress and economic loss

Franco Zeffirelli, left, with Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting in Paris on Sept. 25, 1968 Associated Press/Photo by Eustache Cardenas, file

<em>Romeo and Juliet</em> actors sue studio for exploitation

Editor’s note: This story includes content that might not be suitable for young readers.

The lead actors of the iconic 1968 film adaptation of Romeo and Juliet filed a $500 million suit against Paramount Studios last month over the film’s controversial nude scene. Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey, who filmed the scene when they were 16 and 15, accuse the studios of sexually exploiting and distributing nude images of minors.

The suit details how the late director Franco Zeffirelli assured the pair that neither would appear nude in the film, with intimate scenes shot while wearing flesh-colored undergarments. Court documents allege that later on set, Zeffirelli urged the actors to shoot the scene in the nude “or the picture would fail.” The suit claims Zeffirelli still maintained neither actor would appear naked on screen and showed the pair where the cameras were and how they would be angled. Despite the director’s promises, the final film still showcased Whiting’s buttocks and Hussey’s breasts.

Attorney Solomon Gresen represents the pair, asserting that despite the 55-year time lapse, the actors deserve compensation for emotional distress and economic damages. “Nude images of minors are unlawful and shouldn’t be exhibited,” said Gresen. “These were very young, naive children in the ’60s who had no understanding of what was about to hit them. All of a sudden they were famous at a level they never expected, and in addition, they were violated in a way they didn’t know how to deal with.”

The 2020 California Child Victims Act temporarily lifted the traditional three-year statute of limitations when pressing charges for sexual abuse. It allowed the actors to sue in the Los Angeles County Superior Court decades after the film’s release.

Hussey and Whiting are not the first child stars to file suit against entertainment companies for inappropriate filming of minors. Spencer Elden, better known as the naked baby on the cover of Nirvana’s 1991 album Nevermind, sued Krist Novoselic, Dave Grohl, Kurt Cobain’s estate, photographer Kirk Weddle, and four separate music labels for $150,000 each in damages for distributing child pornography. The suit, dismissed in 2022, came years after Elden seemingly endorsed the image’s use by re-creating the photo 25 years later.

With the recent suits, many wonder if former supermodel Brooke Shields will press charges for movies such as Blue Lagoon and for photo shoots of her when she was underage.

The suit only lists Paramount Studios as the defendant, omitting the late Zeffirelli and his estate. Zeffirelli’s son Giuseppe released a statement defending his father, saying “It is embarrassing to hear that today, 55 years after filming, two elderly actors who owe their notoriety essentially to this film wake up to declare they have suffered an abuse that has caused them years of anxiety and emotional distress.” Giuseppe then explained how Whiting and Hussey maintained good friendships with the director, noting that Hussey even opted to work under Zeffirelli again while filming the miniseries Jesus of Nazareth in 1977.

Hussey has previously defended the nude scene. During a 2018 Variety interview, she described the scene as tastefully executed. “Nobody my age had done that before. … It was needed for the film,” Hussey said. She also told Fox News that shooting the nude scene “wasn’t that big of a deal.”

However, in her 2018 memoir, she described having a “small panic attack” before filming it, which prompted Zeffirelli to again assure the young actress she would not be naked in the scene. Hussey recounted that the director then added, “Although should things, you know, flow in another direction, I want you to be ready.”

Christina Grube

Christina Grube is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute.


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