Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 adaptation of Romeo and Juliet sits at the center of a lawsuit from the film’s leading actors. Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting have sued Paramount Pictures for sexual exploitation and child abuse over the use of nude footage in the movie, which was captured when they were 15 and 16, respectively. They are seeking damages amounting to more than $500 million, according to Variety.
In the film, Romeo and Juliet are briefly depicted partially naked on their wedding night. In the suit, Hussey and Whiting, now 71 and 72, claim that their consent was violated by Zeffirelli, who died in 2019.
The complaint alleges that the director decided at the last minute to scrap the flesh-colored coverups the actors were told they could wear while filming the bedroom scene. Claiming the “picture would fail” if the pair did not perform in the nude, Zeffirelli allegedly encouraged them to use body makeup instead. Whiting was shot from behind, while Hussey was included in front-facing footage with her breasts exposed.
Additionally, Hussey and Whiting claim Zeffirelli showed them where the camera would be placed while filming the scene to assure them they wouldn’t actually be filmed naked. But Zeffirelli allegedly misled the pair, who said they were filmed naked without their knowledge.
“What they were told and what went on were two different things,” Tony Marinozzi, who serves as a business manager for both Hussey and Whiting, shared in a statement to Variety. “They trusted Franco. At 16, as actors, they took his lead that he would not violate the trust they had. Franco was their friend, and frankly, at 16, what do they do? There are no options. There was no #MeToo.”
In a separate interview, Solomon Gresen, an attorney for Hussey and Whiting, stated: “These were very young naive children in the ’60s who had no understanding of what was about to hit them. All of a sudden they were famous at a level they never expected, and in addition they were violated in a way they didn’t know how to deal with.”
Reps for Paramount did not immediately return Rolling Stone‘s request for comment.
The suit claims the two actors have suffered extensive emotional distress and mental anguish in connection to the film; they also claim it led to them both missing opportunities to further their acting careers, despite the film’s success. Zeffirelli’s take on the classic Shakespeare play was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, while he also earned a nod for Best Director. The film ultimately won two Oscars, one for Best Cinematography and another for Best Costume Design.
Although the nude scenes garnered controversy upon the film’s release, Hussey herself brushed it off in a 2018 interview with Variety celebrating Romeo and Juliet‘s 50th anniversary. “Nobody my age had done that before. It was needed for the film,” she said at the time.
Around the same time, she echoed the point Fox News. “Leonard wasn’t shy at all,” she said. “In the middle of shooting, I just completely forgot I didn’t have clothes on.”
In January 2020, the statute of limitations for childhood sexual assault civil claims in California was suspended for three calendar years. The Romeo and Juliet suit against Paramount was filed just ahead of the December 31, 2022 cut-off for survivors of childhood sexual assault to file a civil complaint for abuse regardless of their age.
Now that the statute of limitations has resumed, survivors must file their complaint before they turn 40-years-old, or within five years of the date they discover — or should have discovered within reason — damage caused by the alleged childhood sexual assault.