Tuesday, June 18, 2019

How Franco Zeffirelli Taught Us About Love

See below for the 1936 poster

When I think about the late Franco Zeffirelli, the lush romantic music of Nino Rota enters my head, my mind flies back to the year 1968, and I’m once again young and in love. Of course I’m thinking of one of Zeffirelli’s earliest and best films, Romeo and Juliet. Over a long career much of his most acclaimed (not to mention most controversial) work involved opera, Nonetheless I think Zeffirelli’s opulent touch was extraordinarily well suited to the filming (within the walls of medieval Italian towns) of Shakespeare’s great early tragedy. .

When, as a college student, I first watched Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, my reference point was the classic 1936 black-&-white version from MGM. As befit one of Irving Thalberg’s prestige projects, the cast was chockful of stars from the MGM stock company: John Barrymore as Mercutio! Basil Rathbone as Tybalt! Edna May Oliver as Juliet’s nurse! Even Andy Devine in the small comic role of the nurse’s servant! Young Romeo was played by not-so-young Leslie Howard, who at 43 was still a go-to guy for romantic leading roles. His Juliet was 34-year-old Norma Shearer, a demure beauty who just happened to be Mrs. Irving Thalberg. It’s by no means a bad film, but under the direction of George Cukor the actors are formal and a bit stiff, playing at the Bard with a capital B.  There’s no way that anyone of my generation would have connected emotionally with this story of long-in-the-tooth star-crossed lovers. It was something we could watch dutifully, as for an assignment in an English class.

Then in 1968, at a time of high emotion for the youth of America, along came Zeffirelli to transform the time-worn story. Yes, the settings were beautiful and the well-choreographed street brawls unmistakably alive. But what really sold this version was the decision to cast in the leading roles actual teenagers not far removed in age from the lovers in Shakespeare’s tragedy. Leonard Whiting was 18 years old when the film was released, while Olivia Hussey was 15, just two years older than the storied Juliet. Their shaggy hair and youthful impetuousness made them seem like our peers. At a time when we were discovering love, sex, and the fact that our parents weren’t always right, their on-screen passion struck a chord with Baby Boomers. (I’ve since learned that the movie’s morning-after scene, with a nude Whiting artfully stretched out on the coverlet of the bridal bed, came as a delightful shock to certain young men who thereby discovered their own sexual leanings.)

One last example of how Cukor and Zeffirelli’s approach differed: Romeo first espies Juliet as she dances at the Capulet ball. In that instant, his infatuation with a certain Rosaline fades away as he reverently murmurs, “Oh, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!” In the Cukor version, Romeo is watching a formal  dance number in which Juliet, framed by a symmetrical arrangement of handmaidens, sways prettily while (as I recall) holding a floral wreath. Zeffirelli shows us instead a huge circle of Capulets, all shapes and sizes, all happily executing the moves of some period couple-dance. Juliet is not the best dancer of the bunch, and the dance formation doesn’t set her off as a rare object, or a prima donna. But she’s young, she’s lovely, and she’s just the right age . . .  so of course Romeo falls in love on the spot. .

It’s the youthful exuberance of love that Zeffirelli shows us. Perhaps the film may not hold up today, but what youthful love affair does?

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