Romeo and Juliet’s Ethical Unethical And Really, REALLY Late Law Suit

It is hard not to be cynical about the news that Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey, the now-aged stars of the Oscar-winning 1968 film “Romeo and Juliet,” are suing Paramount Pictures for sexual abuse over the dreamy, artsy nude scene that was included in Franco Zeffirelli’s hit. When I told my wife about it, her snap reaction was “I guess they need money.”

It’s fair conclusion, especially regarding Whiting, who never had much of a career after the great success of “Romeo and Juliet.” Hussey, at least, worked pretty consistently after her debut, among her credits being a classic horror film, the ahead-of-its-time slasher flick “Black Christmas” which introduced “The calls are coming from inside the house!” to our cultural vernacular.

The first thing I thought of was the California statute of limitations, forgetting that California has temporarily suspended it for child sex abuse, in part because of an emerging Hollywood scandal involving child stars. The suspension has spurred new lawsuits and the revival of others that were previously dismissed.

The actors, both seniors now, claim director Zeffirelli tricked and bullied them into doing a nude scene despite giving them assurances that they would not have to bare themselves on screen. The director reportedly told the two teens (Hussey was 15 at the time; Whiting 16) that without the tasteful nudity the film would lack artistic integrity. Solomon Gresen, who represents the pair, says in explaining the suit,

“Nude images of minors are unlawful and shouldn’t be exhibited.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 actors’ spokespeople now say that the lawsuit comes so late because Hussey and Whiting were afraid that suing earlier would adversely affect their careers (regarding Whiting: What career?) and that no one would believe them. A lot of people won’t believe them now, either: in a 2018 interview, Hussey defended the brief view of her breast. “Nobody my age had done that before,” she said, adding that Zeffirelli shot it tastefully. “It was needed for the film.” In a another interview the same year, Hussey said that the scene “wasn’t that big of a deal. And Leonard wasn’t shy at all! In the middle of shooting, I just completely forgot I didn’t have clothes on!”

So we come to the question that so often must be answered to assess an ethics controversy: “What’s going on here?”

Some answers:

  • Child actors have been abused regularly in Hollywood, sexually and otherwise. Neither Hussey nor Whiting were old enough to consent to nudity on screen. They weren’t alone in such treatment: Drew Barrymore, Brooke Shields and Dakota Fanning were similarly exploited by film-makers as minors. A high profile lawsuit with significant damages could have salutary effects on an industry that is notoriously ruthless and only motivated by cash. Maybe Hussey and Whiting are bringing the suit for altruistic reasons.
  • However, this case smacks of presentism. In 1968, teenage girls were baring their breasts at rock concerts, the Summer of Love was just barely in the rear-view mirror, and the mild nudity in the movie seemed relatively chaste by comparison. One of the reasons there are statutes of limitations is to discourage late attacks like this, and this suit is very late. “Romeo and Juliet” was made at a very different time, in a very different culture.
  • The buzz surrounding the 1968 film was that finally a “Romeo and Juliet” featured performers near the ages of Shakespeare’s tragic lovers. Juliet is supposed to be only 13, but in the previous major studio film version of the play, she was played by 34-year-old Norma Shearer. Zeffrelli was faced with a dilemma: the story is about an intimate relationship, and bowdlerizing the film because of the age of the characters would be hypocritical. At the time, the brief nudity in “Romeo and Juliet” didn’t cause much controversy. High school English classes went to the film as outings. Few parents objected.
  • Speaking of parents: the actors’ parents were  responsible for their children’s safety on the set. Did they consent to the nude scenes? If so, what justification is there for suing Paramount, other than the fact that the parents are dead and the studio has more money?
  • As for Whiting and Hussey, their claims of emotional trauma are hard to take seriously. Whatever careers they had they both owed to the film’s success. Would either of them be better off if they had quit and let some other young actor take their role?
  • This brings us to the matter of damages. The lawsuit asks for $500 million. It really does. (I originally read the sum as $500,000, and published that. And I thought THAT was ridiculous!)
  • The suit is ethical in principle, as it addresses a real film industry problem. It is unethical for these actors to bring it, this late, regarding that film.

I would like to see Hussey and Whiting win the lawsuit, and be awarded one dollar each. Then they could each give their lawyers thirty three cents.

20 thoughts on “Romeo and Juliet’s Ethical Unethical And Really, REALLY Late Law Suit

  1. ” In 1968, teenage girls were baring their breasts at rock concerts, the Summer of Love was just barely in the rear-view mirror, and the mild nudity in the movie seemed relatively chaste by comparison. ”

    In other words, there are worse things? This is my gently-intended inquiry as intent is often hard to discern when reading words on a screen. The baring of breasts at rock concerts and the Summer of Love were certainly events that happened at that time but not by everybody. Plenty of young women and men wouldn’t have been caught dead exposing themselves in public.

    And was the skin exposure absolutely necessary to depict the young lovers?

    • Not “there were worse things” but rather “the import of actions varies with the culture and the times.” I very much doubt that Ms> Hussey was awash with shame over the appearance of her breast for a nanosecond, then or now. As for Whiting’s butt…seriously? It was a good butt. And a butt’s just a butt.

      As to the last: I can see Zeffrelli’s argument. Artistic views vary: with that story, there’s a valid case that nudity isn’t required. The standard isn’t “absolutely necessary” but rather, “Does it significantly enhance the impact of the film and its story”?

  2. My high school English class went to see that movie. We had to ride 20 miles one-way in a bus to get there, too.

    My opinion is that this suit is garbage and should be dismissed. Unfortunately, I am not confident in the California legal system not to be even more stupid than the lawsuit.

  3. I remember Olivia Hussey as Rebecca in the 1982 TV version of Ivanhoe and that’s about it. Frankly I can’t imagine what Ivanhoe saw in her when Lysette Anthony’s Rowena was much hotter.

  4. “As for Whiting and Hussey, their claims of emotional trauma are hard to take seriously. Whatever careers they had they both owed to the film’s success. Would either of them be better off if they had quit and let some other young actor take their role?”

    Isn’t this just moral luck?

    Hussey defended the brief view of her breast. “Nobody my age had done that before,” she said, adding that Zeffirelli shot it tastefully. “It was needed for the film.” In a another interview the same year, Hussey said that the scene “wasn’t that big of a deal. And Leonard wasn’t shy at all! In the middle of shooting, I just completely forgot I didn’t have clothes on!”

    This is why I think it should loose and why a lot of the Metoo movement bothers me. It was only okay to them while they were benefiting from it. I’m going to go as far as say if it was wrong, it was always wrong, but that doesn’t seem to be the case with a lot of the Metoo people. For a lot of them it was only wrong once the culture shifted to dogpiling on it or they could no longer benefit from it. There doesn’t seem to be any principle here.

  5. Jack wrote, “The first thing I thought of was the California statute of limitations, forgetting that California has temporarily suspended it for child sex abuse, in part because of an emerging Hollywood scandal involving child stars. “

    A question about that…

    Isn’t the Statute of Limitations part of the California Constitution? Wouldn’t suspending any part of the predefined Statute of Limitations violate the the rights, whether enumerated or implied, of an individual that’s set forth in those predefined limitations making any suspension unconstitutional?

    California effectively changed the rules in the middle of the game.

  6. This lawsuit was instigated by lawyers solely for the purpose of enriching themselves. They know this litigation will go nowhere but hope Paramount will choose to settle rather than endure the publicity.
    Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey are mere pawns being exploited by these lawyers.
    In any event, based on Hussy’s past dismissive comments regarding this very brief bit of nudity, but now claiming sexual abuse reminds one of the proverbial “morning after regret” syndrome.

  7. I always loved the name “Olivia Hussey.” Shouldn’t she sue her management for not having her change her name/find a better one? Did she get it at the Department of Funny Names?

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