The Zeffirelli Centennial

Born 100 years ago today, Italian designer, director and politician Franco Zeffirelli (1923-2019).

When Zeffirelli passed, only four years ago, it dawned on me that his hit 1968 screen adaptation of Romeo and Juliet was my first introduction to Shakespeare. I think this is true of a lot of people. We even had the soundtrack album to that movie in our house — the theme song became a #1 hit in the U.S. Time and subsequent adaptations have swallowed it up a bit, but it’s always seemed to me the definitive screen version. It was the first to use actual young people in the lead roles — traditionally the stars were played by hilariously, inappropriately old people and audiences just accepted it. I think Zeffirelli’s version was very influential. A film like Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers (1973) owes something to it, I think. It was in the news again as recently as last month. Its two stars Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting (15 and 16 at the time) have filed a lawsuit alleging exploitation and sexual abuse. With Zeffirelli dead, I guess they are suing his estate. I won’t stir the pot by commenting on that one way or the other. There’s more on a similar theme below.

Now, younger people, when they hear “Romeo and Juliet movie”, may immediately think of Baz Luhrmann, and I’ve got to imagine that Zeffirelli was a major influence on Luhrman, too, because Luhrman, like Zeffirelli, is a respected opera director. I didn’t know until recently that directing operas for stage and screen was actually Zeffirelli’s main jam. He did far more of that than anything else over his long and productive career. He’s known for his productions of La Boheme, La Traviatta, Pagliacci, Tosca, Otello, etc. A blood relative of Leonard Da Vinci, he studied art and architecture at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Firenze and was originally a scenic designer (and of course, always remained one). Early in his career the native Florentine worked under great directors like Visconti, de Sica and Rossellini.

His first film The Taming of the Shrew (1967) was originally to have starred Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren, and I can’t help thinking that that would have been way, way, way better. I hope no one will be too insulted if I say that maybe the only way to tell this highly problematic tale nowadays is with an Italian cast, and in the Italian language even better? Not because of the violence, per se, but because of a passion that would help “justify” a story we moderns don’t have much stomach for. Zeffirelli was a conservative director stylistically; his version would have benefitted from a zesty, electric cast. As it happened, the middle aged, Welsh and Anglo, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor ended up playing the parts, and the result seemed gimmicky and more about the stars than about Shakespeare. (They also partially funded the production).

Zeffirelli had the instincts of a populist showman. Following a bio-pic of St. Francis of Assisi, Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972), probably his most obscure movie, he directed the all-star American TV mini series Jesus of Nazareth (1977), a huge deal at the time, and which I wrote about here. Zeffirelli liked the challenge of taking on the best-known stories, trying to tell them in the most effective way possible without the aid of any kind of “new spin”, which most directors and producers nowadays would regard as a necessity. It took cajones, and he was never to repeat the success he had with his approach in subsequent attempts, which included a remake of the one of the greatest of all Hollywood classics The Champ (1979), the umpteenth version of Hamlet (1990) starring a miscast Mel Gibson, and quite a good all-star version of Jane Eyre (1996, which is nonetheless hard to remember because Jane Eyre has a remarkable cinematic track record, i.e. there are half a dozen quite good screen versions of the novel). Endless Love (1981), was a major hit upon release, as it was Brooke Shields’ follow up to Blue Lagoon, and has a lot in common with Romeo and Juliet, i.e. lots of teenagers having sex). There were two musical bio-pics: Young Toscanini (1988) starring C. Thomas Howell, and Callas Forever (2002) starring Fanny Ardant as the great opera singer Maria Callas, whom Zeffirelli had directed many times and who was his close friend. In between came the semi-autobiographical costume picture Tea with Mussolini (1999) with Cher, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright, and Lily Tomlin. Having been raised among a group of expatriate English women, it makes sense that Zeffirelli would have greater success than most Italian directors in working with English speaking actors, and entertaining English speaking audiences

Zeffirelli was a member of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, and served as a Senator from 1994 to 2001. He had not a little in common with his Hamlet star — a conservative Catholic given to anti-Semitic remarks and rabid opposition to abortion. He was also controversial for his acceptance of child sexual abuse (including his own) by Catholic priests. There were and are several allegations of unwanted sexual advances made by Zeffirelli towards his young male actors. But I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. A lot of downright awful people make art. It’s up to each person to decide whether the art is enough to redeem them