Director Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 version of Romeo And Juliet is generally regarded as one of the best Shakespeare adaptations ever made, having earned several Oscar nominations (including Best Picture and Best Director) plus wins for Best Cinematography and Best Costume Design. It also, for reasons that have only grown more inexplicable in the decades since, features a nude scene with stars Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting—both of whom were under 18 at the time.
The decision to cast age-appropriate stars who were unknowns at the time was seen as one of the movie’s strengths, but… you know, you can tell the Romeo And Juliet story without showing a 15-year-old girl naked. It has been done, both before and since. Anyway, Hussey and Whiting (who are now in their 70s) have now filed a lawsuit against original distributor Paramount, accusing the studio of—as Variety puts it—“sexually exploiting them and distributing nude images of adolescent children.”
Prompted by a new California law that temporarily suspended the statute of limitations on sexual abuse claims, the suit says that Zeffirelli (who has since died) told Hussey and Whiting that the film would have no actual nudity and that they would both wear “flesh-colored undergarments” for the scene in question, but during filming the director allegedly told them they would need to do the scene nude “or the picture would fail.”
The suit claims that Hussey and Whiting “suffered mental anguish and emotional distress” over the nude scene, saying they “lost out on job opportunities” because of it as well (Variety notes that neither of them did much acting after Romeo And Juliet). The lawsuit also accuses Zeffirelli of lying about whether or not they would be filmed nude, with a manager for the actors adding, “At 16, as actors, they took his lead that he would not violate that trust they had,” adding, “Franco was their friend, and frankly, at 16, what do they do? There are no options. There was no #MeToo.”
Variety points out that Hussey has historically defended the inclusion of the nude scene, saying in interviews that she believed it had been done tastefully and that it wasn’t treated as a big deal while it was happening. The suit tries to account for that, with the duo’s attorney saying that they were “very young naive children in the ‘60s who had no understanding of what was about to hit them,” explaining that they became famous “at a level they never expected” after the movie came out and that they were “violated in a way they didn’t know how to deal with.” Hussey and Whiting are looking for damages “believed to be in excess of $500 million.”