Thursday, July 07, 2016


Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Verona, where we lay our scene… well, you probably know the rest. Shakespeare's classic tale of star-crossed love is brought quite magnificently to life by director Franco Zeffirelli. This is renowned as being the first screen version to have age-appropriate actors (teenagers) in the lead roles—unless you count the musical WEST SIDE STORY with leads in their early 20s). The only other film version I've seen is the 1936 movie with Norma Shearer (in her 30s as the 13-year old Juliet) and the over-40 Leslie Howard as her lover Romeo. Shearer and Howard are fine, but with actors of that age, the impact of the story is different. The tragedy of young people in the blush of first love, stymied by their elders and their social structure, is blunted with full-fledged adults as the central figures. Here, youth fairly glistens on the skin of Olivia Hussey (at 15 playing Juliet) and Leonard Whiting (17 playing Romeo), and it certainly doesn't hurt that both are quite beautiful. Considering they were unknowns at the time with few screen credits, they are remarkably good both at filling out their characters and at handling the Shakespearean speech rhythms. The rest of the cast is not exactly star-filled—aside from Michael York as Tybalt, Robert Stephens as the prince, and Milo O'Shea as the friar (all three very good), I was not familiar with anyone else, though Pat Heywood does a very nice job balancing comedy and drama as Juliet's nurse. York plays against type as a villain with his face made up so much—mostly with eyeliner, I think—that I didn't recognize him at first.

For all the differences in casting, this plays out very much like the 1936 version, and even the sets look similar. The Montagues and the Capulets are feuding families in Verona; when the young bucks go traipsing through town and meet up with each other, fights ensue, even though the Prince has decreed they must end their public enmity. Restless Romeo, a Montague who tends to keep to himself, sees Juliet from afar at the Capulets' ball and is immediately smitten. So is she, and the famous balcony scene cements their attraction. But Juliet is getting on in years—she is described as being a fortnight away from 14—so she is promised in marriage to Paris. Instead, she and Romeo sneak away and get married by the sympathetic Friar Laurence. Unfortunately, there is further strife in the streets between the families and during a brawl, Romeo's buddy Mercutio is killed by the hot-headed Capulet Tybalt; Romeo kills Tybalt, then flees. With Romeo being hunted down and Juliet about to marry Paris, a happy ending is not in store for our young lovers.

The movie, well done as it is, is aided immeasurably by a great score by Nino Rota who later did a similarly great score for THE GODFATHER. The main theme became a pop hit in an instrumental arrangement by Henry Mancini under the title "A Time for Us" and was also sung by Andy Williams with lyrics that turned it into a West Side Story-type song ("A time for us/Someday there'll be/When chains are torn/By courage born/Of a love that’s free"). In the movie, it's heard instrumentally throughout, but is sung at the ball where Romeo and Juliet first meet by Italian pop singer Bruno Filippini (pictured at left) as "What is a Youth" with lyrics that resonate more strongly with the theme of youth and age: "What is a youth?/Impetuous fire/What is a maid?/Ice and desire/The world wags on/A rose will bloom/It then will fade/So does a youth." I found this scene quite effective: the lyrics, the handsomeness and glowing youth of the singer, and of course, the shy flirting of Romeo and Juliet during the dance. Though I've been told I should see the Leonardo DiCaprio version, I can't imagine anyone else getting this as right as Zeffirelli and his cast did. [DVD]

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