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 caused controversy over a bedroom scene that included images of Whiting’s buttocks and smiling bare breasts.
Now in their 70s, Hussey and Whiting filed a lawsuit Friday in Santa Monica Superior Court, accusing Paramount of sexually exploiting them and distributing nude images of teenagers.
The lawsuit 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 underwear in the bedroom scenes. But in the last days of filming, the director requested them to perform naked with body makeup, “otherwise the film will fail.”
Hussey was 15 at the time and Whiting was 16. According to the complaint, Zeffirelli showed them where the camera would be and assured them that no nudity would be filmed or released. The lawsuit alleges that he was dishonest and that Whiting and Hussey were actually photographed nude without their knowledge.
“What they said and what happened were two different things,” said Tony Marinozzi, who is both actors’ business managers. “They trusted Franco. At the age of 16, as an actor, they took his lead that he would not violate their trust. Franco was their friend, and honestly, at the age of 16, what do they do? There is no alternative. There was no #MeToo.”
According to the complaint, Hussey and Whiting have suffered emotional and mental pain and loss of employment in the 55 years since the film’s release. Despite their breakout performances, Hussey and Whiting had 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 illegal and should not be shown,” the actors’ attorney, Solomon Graysen, said in an interview. “These were very young innocent children in the 60s who didn’t understand what was about to hit them. All of a sudden they were famous on a level they never expected, and furthermore they were violated in a way they didn’t know how to deal with.”
The case hinges in part on a California law that temporarily suspends the statute of limitations for older claims of child sexual abuse. Courts have seen an influx of complaints against the Boy Scouts of America and the Catholic Church, among other organizations, before the Dec. 31 deadline.
Paramount did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In a 2018 interview with diversityLaughter protects the naked scene.
“No one my age has done this before,” he said, adding that Zeffirelli shot it down with relish. “It was needed for the film.”
In another 2018 interview with Fox News, he said the scene was “taboo” in America, but that nudity was already prevalent in European films at the time.
“It wasn’t that big of a deal,” he said. “And Leonard was not shy at all! In the middle of the shoot, I completely forgot that I had no clothes on.”