×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Franco Zeffirelli: An Artist and a Paradox

When popular artists pass on, it can often be a surprise to learn just how old they were. But the news of Franco Zeffirelli’s death, at 96, inspired a major double take. The extravagant Italian maestro of theater, opera and film lived to a vibrant old age. Yet for many of us, the name Zeffirelli will always conjure the spirit of youth. That’s because of what he brought to the Hollywood party in 1968. In “Romeo and Juliet,” he became the first film artist to make the counterculture swoon.

In a move that was at once audacious and indelible, Zeffirelli cast Shakespeare’s romantic tragedy with actors who were shockingly young and, at the same time, ridiculously gorgeous. Leonard Whiting, at 17, and Olivia Hussey, at 16, were closer to the stated age of Shakespeare’s protagonists than most of the actors who had played them. But, of course, it wasn’t just fealty to the text that inspired Zeffirelli’s gambit. It was the tribal erotic youth dance of the ’60s, which “Romeo and Juliet” became a part of. The movie was a hip rhapsody of desire, and it seemed to baptize the entire culture in the fatal beauty of youth.

If you watch the film now, Whiting calls to mind a more delicate Zac Efron, and Hussey, with her crystalline features and thousand-yard stare of rapture, is like a princess genie. But here was the beauty part: They could both act! The result is one of the most living, breathing Shakespeare films ever made. It fashioned a new youthquake out of giving yourself up for love, though there was another message as well: As long as the world still spun around this sort of breathless duet of aristocratic cheekbones, the new spirit of left-wing egalitarianism was probably going to have its limits.

There was a paradox to Zeffirelli, and it may account for why his film career then caved in instead of flourishing. He was an openly gay artist whose opera productions were inevitably evoked by words like “baroque,” “opulent,” “extravagant” and “decadent.” As a stage director, he truly was the Baz Luhrmann of his day. Mounting eye-catching versions of “La Bohème” or “Falstaff” or “Tosca” in the late ’50s and early ’60s, he was obsessed with the hypnotic, sensory-overload possibilities of set design, and in many ways anticipated the reigning Broadway aesthetic of jaw-dropping spectacle-for-its-own-sake.

Yet Zeffirelli was also a devout Roman Catholic who underwent a profound conversion after he was in a car accident in 1969. He aligned himself with the Vatican, opposing gay and abortion rights, and it’s tempting to say that in his yin-and-yang of luscious flamboyance and stern conservatism, he was playing out some conflict within himself. He was plagued by allegations of sexual harassment and assault, going all the way back to the set of “Romeo and Juliet,” where the actor-director Bruce Robinson later claimed that Zeffirelli had assaulted him. Robinson said that he based the predatory character of Uncle Monty, in his film “Withnail and I,” on Zeffirelli.

Zeffirelli tried to stage a comeback, of sorts, directing the 1979 Jon Voight remake of “The Champ” (a glossy weeper without much personality), and in 1981 he was given the plum assignment of adapting “Endless Love,” Scott Spencer’s brilliant novel of teenage romantic fixation. But the movie, which starred Brooke Shields, just showed how much Hollywood had changed since the late ’60s. This was a youth film at once cautious and pandering; Zeffirelli followed the outline of Spencer’s novel but couldn’t channel its inner fire.

Yet he remained a genuine religious artist. His one screen work of true power, apart from “Romeo and Juliet,” is the 1977 TV miniseries “Jesus of Nazareth,” arguably the best middle-of-the-road dramatization of the Gospels. It lacks the radical intensity of the Christ films of Martin Scorsese or Pier Paolo Pasolini, yet with its ardent performance by Robert Powell, it’s a work of passionate purity that has remained a touchstone. You could almost say that in Zeffirelli’s work, Romeo and Juliet and Jesus became a holy trinity. Call it “What They Did for Love.”

Popular on Variety

More Film

  • Hustlers Box Office

    Box Office: Why 'Hustlers' Soared While 'The Goldfinch' Flopped

    Though STX’s “Hustlers” and Warner Bros.’ “The Goldfinch” couldn’t be more different in terms of genre or style, the two new releases prove the divergent paths that mid-budget movies can take at the box office. Both films arrived last weekend in an environment that has been increasingly hostile to anything that’s not of the superhero [...]

  • The Irishman

    Martin Scorsese's 'The Irishman' Set for Centerpiece Screening at Rome Festival

    Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” will be among highlights of the upcoming Rome Film Festival, following its European launch as the closing film at the BFI London Film Festival. As with the Oct. 13 London premiere, key cast members of the hotly anticipated Netflix film are expected to attend the screening in Rome, as is Scorsese. [...]

  • 'Cheer Up, Mr. Lee' to be

    Korean Comedy 'Cheer Up, Mr. Lee' to be Remade in French

    Currently on-release South Korean comedy drama, “Cheer Up, Mr. Lee” is to be remade in French. “Mr. Lee” is the story of a mentally-challenged man who learns that he has a sick daughter, and embarks on a voyage of discovery with his new family member. A remake deal was struck between Yong Film, part of [...]

  • The Bad Guys: Reign of Chaos

    Korea: 'The Bad Guys: Reign of Chaos’ Rules Chuseok Holiday Box Office

    Local films dominated cinemagoing in South Korea over the 4-day Chuseok holiday weekend, traditionally one of the year’s busiest periods. The winner was “The Bad Guys: Reign of Chaos.” Opening on Wednesday, the CJ Entertainment release earned $20.2 million from 1.97 million admissions over five days. A film adaptation of CJ E&M’s 2014 hit TV [...]

  • Disco

    New Europe Sells Toronto and San Sebastian Film 'Disco' to Several Territories (EXCLUSIVE)

    Jan Naszewski’s New Europe Film Sales has signed several distribution deals on “Disco,” which had its world premiere in Toronto Film Festival’s Discovery section and makes its European premiere in San Sebastian’s New Directors competition. The film has been picked up by Palace for Australia and New Zealand, Artcam for Czech Republic and Slovakia, Kino [...]

  • "Jade Dynasty" in front at the

    China Box Office: 'Jade Dynasty' in Front Ahead of Mixed Competition

    With “Jade Dynasty” out front, Chinese action and Asian animation films led the way at the China box office over the past weekend, while the few American titles in play have failed to attract many moviegoers. Chinese action fantasy “Jade Dynasty” led the weekend box office in its debut with $38.1 million, figures from consultancy [...]

  • The Painted Bird

    Venice Competition Film 'The Painted Bird' Is Czech Entry in Oscar Race

    Václav Marhoul’s “The Painted Bird,” which world premiered at the Venice Film Festival in the main competition and also played at the Toronto Film Festival in Special Presentations, has been selected as the Czech Republic’s entry for the 92nd Academy Awards in the international feature film category. The pic follows the journey of an unnamed [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content