January 31, 2023

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Was ‘Romeo and Juliet’ a nude scene of child abuse?

3 min read

Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey reclaimed a piece of film history on Dec. 30, when they filed a lawsuit alleging sexual exploitation in the 1968 film version of “Romeo and Juliet.”

The actors, now 72 and 71, accused the late director Franco Zeffirelli of forcing them to perform bedroom scenes in the nude, after first promising they could wear flesh-colored underwear. They also claim that Zeffirelli lied to them when he said that nude photos would not be shown.

In fact, the camera lingers on Whiting’s hips and a brief glimpse of Laughing’s breasts is caught. He was 16 and she was 17 at the time. (Their complaint incorrectly stated their ages as 15 and 16.)

A studio today wouldn’t film such a scene with underage actors, several industry experts said, even though it’s not expressly forbidden to do so by law or union rules.

“No studio would touch that with a 10-foot pole,” said Anne Henry, co-founder of BizParentz, which advocates for child actors. “No professional actor would touch that. … I don’t think anybody would put their kid in a leather-colored bodysuit today.”

The most recent controversy surrounding underage actors involved the 2007 film “Hounddog,” in which Dakota Fanning, then 12, appeared in a rape scene. There was no nudity, but Fanning’s face and hands were shown. The film drew critical acclaim and grossed only $130,000 in theaters.

Henry says studios can avoid controversy in such situations by hiring an 18-year-old or using adult body doubles or visual effects.

For less obvious scenes — like, say, kissing scenes — child actors have many protections, including parents on set, studio teachers who are licensed as child welfare workers, union rules and intimacy coordinators.

Laughter and Whiting apparently were having none of it on the set of “Romeo and Juliet.” But can they apply today’s standards to a movie set in Italy in 1967?

Some experts are skeptical. The actors sued Paramount — which has yet to respond — under a 2020 California law that suspended the statute of limitations for decades-old child sex abuse claims filed under the wire.

“It’s a stretch,” said Mike Arias, an attorney who has represented sexual assault plaintiffs in high-profile cases involving gynecologists at USC and UCLA. “I will not take this case. … That, in my view, is not the purpose of this Act.”

But other attorneys aren’t so sure. The law, AB 218, is generally understood to apply to matters such as rape and sexual assault But it also covers recruiting a minor for pornography, as well as the somewhat vague claim of “harassing or molesting” a child with sexual intent.

Some attorneys say that while it may be difficult to argue that the film constitutes child pornography, the overall situation could fall within the law’s broad definition — especially if Zeffirelli actually tricked the actors into acting nude.

“There’s some ambiguity written into the law on intent,” said attorney Michael Carney, who has handled numerous sexual assault cases. He said the plaintiffs would at least have a “decent argument.”

Others were more bullish.

“The answer is yes, they have a case,” said Jeff Anderson, whose firm filed the recent child sexual abuse lawsuits against Steven Tyler and Warren Beatty.

Nude images of children that do not meet the legal definition of pornography can still live forever on the Internet and follow the actors into adulthood. Those pitfalls aren’t always fully appreciated, says Henry, who believes the suit will help make kids safer on set.

“I really appreciate that they came together with this complaint,” she says. “Whether or not the lawsuit has merit, we appreciate the conversation. For the good of society, dialogue is important here.”

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