Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting who starred as teenagers in 1968’s Romeo and Juliet adaptation are suing Paramount Pictures for sexual exploitation over one of its most controversial scenes.

The adaptation is often deemed to be the definitive film version of the story, with Franco Zeffirelli’s version only really challenged by Baz Luhrmann’s version some thirty years later. However fifty years later, his version is now the subject of an impending lawsuit over child sexual exploitation.

Hussey and Whiting played the titular couple in the film, and appear nude in the film despite being just 15 and 16 years-old respectively despite reassurances from Zeffirelli. The duo are claiming the director said there’d be no nudity and they’d wear flesh-colored clothing in the bedroom scene, only for him to then insist it was vital for the film. The suit alleges Zeffirelli told them the picture would fail without the nudity of two teenage actors.

On Dec. 30 2022, Hussey and Whiting filed their lawsuit against distributor and studio Paramount for sexually exploiting them and distributing nude images of adolescent children. According to Variety, the duo now in their 70s are seeking damages in excess of $500 million.

Hussey and Whiting’s manager Tony Marinozzi cites the position of power Zeffirelli had over the minors and breaking promises to the young actors who filmed Romeo and Juliet in a foreign country.

“What they were told and what went on were two different things. 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.”

The duo allege the director told them no nudity would be required and no photography of them naked would be distributed. Hussey and Whiting are seeking a fee for emotional damage in what would be a landmark case.

The likely defense for Paramount will be based in artistic depiction and potentially resurfacing old contracts signed which may have stipulated that nudity would be involved. Somewhat similar cases have been continuously filed by Spencer Elden who was the baby on the cover of Nirvana’s seminal album Nevermind but all of his have been routinely rejected.

Zeffirelli died in 2019, but has been subject to other allegations of misconduct during his career. Bruce Robinson spoke in 1995 of his apparent lecherous behavior when filming Romeo and Juliet, saying Zeffirelli gave unwanted amorous attention to him. Similarly, Johnathon Schaech accused the director of sexual assault during the filming of 1993’s Sparrow, going public with the allegations a year before Zeffirelli died.

Hussey and Whiting’s suit was able to be filed due to a temporary suspension of the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse by the state of California.

If you know someone suffering from sexual violence, contact RAINN or the National Sexual Abuse Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673. 

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