Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting were just teenagers when they electrified audiences in the 1968 version of “Romeo and Juliet,” directed by Franco Zeffirelli. The film was a hit and was nominated for four Academy Awards, but it also stirred controversy over a bedroom scene which included images of Whiting’s buttocks and Hussey’s bare breasts.
Now in their 70s, Hussey and Whiting filed a lawsuit in Santa Monica Superior Court on Friday, accusing Paramount of sexually exploiting them and distributing nude images of adolescent children.
The suit alleges that Zeffirelli — who died in 2019 — assured both actors that there would be no nudity in the film, and that they would wear flesh-colored undergarments in the bedroom scene. But in the final days of filming, the director allegedly implored them to perform in the nude with body makeup, “or the Picture would fail.”
Hussey was 15 at the time and Whiting was 16. According to the complaint, Zeffirelli showed them where the camera would be positioned, and assured them that no nudity would be photographed or released in the film. The suit alleges that he was being dishonest and that Whiting and Hussey were in fact filmed nude without their knowledge.
“What they were told and what went on were two different things,” said Tony Marinozzi, who is a business manager for both actors. “They trusted Franco. At 16, as actors, they took his lead that he would not violate that trust they had. Franco was their friend, and frankly, at 16, what do they do? There are no options. There was no #MeToo.”
According to the complaint, Hussey and Whiting have suffered mental anguish and emotional distress in the 55 years since the film’s release, and have also lost out on job opportunities. Despite their breakout performances, Hussey and Whiting had only very limited acting careers after “Romeo and Juliet.”
They are seeking damages “believed to be in excess of $500 million.”
“Nude images of minors are unlawful and shouldn’t be exhibited,” said the actors’ attorney, Solomon Gresen, in an interview. “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 lawsuit relies in part on a California law that temporarily suspended the statute of limitations for older claims of child sexual abuse. The courts saw an influx of complaints against the Boy Scouts of America and the Catholic Church, among other organizations, in the days leading up to the Dec. 31 deadline.
Paramount did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In a 2018 interview with Variety, Hussey defended the nude scene.
“Nobody my age had done that before,” she said, adding that Zeffirelli shot it tastefully. “It was needed for the film.”
In another 2018 interview with Fox News, she said that the scene was “taboo” in America, but that nudity was already common in European films at the time.
“It wasn’t that big of a deal,” she said. “And Leonard wasn’t shy at all! In the middle of shooting, I just completely forgot I didn’t have clothes on.”