Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting were just teens when they wowed audiences in the 1968 version of Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet. The film was a huge hit and was nominated for four Academy Awards, but it also sparked controversy over a bedroom scene that included photos of Whiting’s buttocks and Hussie’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 photos of teenage children.
The suit alleges that Zeffirelli — who died in 2019 — assured the two actors there would be no nudity in the film, and that they would wear flesh-colored underwear in the bedroom scene. But in the final days of filming, the director allegedly implored them to perform nude with body make-up, “otherwise the picture will fail.”
Hussey was 15 years old at the time, Whiting 16. According to the complaint, Zeffirelli showed them where the camera would be located, and assured them that no nudity would be depicted or released on film. The lawsuit alleges he was a fraud and that Whiting and Hussey were photographed nude without their knowledge.
“What they were told and what happened are two different things,” said Tony Marinuzzi, business manager for both actors. “They trusted Franco. At 16, as actors, they took the lead that he wouldn’t violate that trust that they had. Franco was their friend, and frankly, at 16, what do they do? No choices. There was no #MeToo.”
According to the complaint, Hussey and Whiting have suffered mental anguish and emotional turmoil in the 55 years since the film’s release, and have also lost job opportunities. Despite their outstanding performances, Hussey and Whiting had only very limited acting jobs after “Romeo and Juliet”.
They are seeking damages “believed to be in excess of $500 million.”
“Nude photos of minors are illegal and should not be shown,” the actors’ attorney, Solomon Greesen, said in an interview. “These were very naive little kids in the ’60s who had no understanding of what was about to hit them. Suddenly they were popular at a level they hadn’t expected before, plus they were being violated in a way they didn’t know how to deal with.”
The lawsuit builds in part on a California law that temporarily suspended the statute of limitations for older child sexual abuse claims. The courts have seen complaints pour in against the Boy Scouts of America and the Catholic Church, among other organizations, in the days leading up to the December 31 deadline.
Paramount did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In a 2018 interview with diverseHussey defended the nude scene.
“Nobody my age has done that before,” she said, adding that Zeffirelli fired it with flair. “It was essential to the movie.”
In another 2018 interview with Fox Newsshe said that the scene was “taboo” in America, but that such 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 filming, I totally forgot I wasn’t wearing clothes.”