“How many lives have movies ruined? Maybe it’s about time they stopped doing their damage.” ~ Bret Easton Ellis
I remember the first time I saw Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. I was 14 (the same age as the play’s star crossed lovers), and my English Literature teacher, Mrs Hayes, had arranged a screening of the film in a no doubt desperate attempt to inspire some interest in Shakespeare amongst her apathetic students. (This approach had previously proved a modest success with a screening of Michael Radford’s haunting adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984, a book too dense for my mind to fully comprehend at the time.) Looking back, I believe the film had a greater impact on me than Mrs Hayes perhaps envisioned.
Firstly, thanks to Olivia Hussey, it was my formal introduction to what I somewhat reluctantly came to understand much later to be My Type - what one might call ‘Roman Catholic’, that is, pretty Southern European brunettes. Her striking beauty aside, the spirited Hussey is captivating in the film, and ably supported by Leonard Whiting, a much more likeable Romeo than Leonardo DiCaprio’s brooding narcissist in Baz Luhrmann’s otherwise spectacular adaptation three decades later. Memorably, Zeffirelli’s film created a mild sensation in our classroom with its brief nudity - a seminal moment for any teenager - although it is notable that the homosexual* Zeffirelli chose to linger over the nude Whiting whilst having Hussey flash her bosom so quickly that if you blinked you’d miss it. (I didn’t blink.)
But more significantly, I blame this film for seducing me with the intoxicating but deadly notion that in order to be truly sublime, love ought to have a tragic dimension. This would later embed itself in my adult imagination through films such as Vertigo and Once Upon a Time in America, until I eventually came to the realisation that, while it might make for great art, in reality it is masochistic self-indulgence not conducive to a healthy love-life (whatever that is). Grazie, Franco!
In a sick twist, Nino Rota’s famous love theme from Romeo and Juliet - arguably a major part of the film's power - became synonymous in the UK with Simon Bates’ execrable Our Tune slot on Radio 1 in the 80s/early 90s, a sentimental ode to tragic love stories featuring letters sent in by listeners to be read out by the sonorous-voiced Bates while Rota's love theme played in the background. Bates later went on to be the smug face of the Video Standards Council infomercials preceding video rentals in the 90s, describing the classification of the movie you were about to watch. As if to prove that romance, as I once understood it, is dead, I couldn’t resist cutting one of these introductions to Rota’s love theme.
(* Zeffirelli preferred this description, considering the term ‘gay’ less elegant. Fun fact: Zeffirelli partly inspired the lecherous Uncle Monty character in Bruce Robinson's Withnail and I, after Robinson had acted in Romeo and Juliet and claimed to be the target of unwanted sexual advances by Zeffirelli during production. Evidently I'm not the only victim of Señor Zeffirelli's charms.)