Olivia Hussey was 15 and Leonard Whiting 16 when they starred in the Oscar-winning film adaptation of William Shakespeare's tragedy.
The actors, now both in their 70s, claim in a suit filed in California last week that a bedroom scene in which buttocks and bare breasts are visible amounts to sexual exploitation by movie studio Paramount, and that the company was guilty of distributing nude pictures of adolescents.
Furthermore, the actors are alleging sexual abuse, sexual harassment and fraud.
Performers have 'suffered mental anguish and emotional distress'
The suit says the film's director, Franco Zeffirelli — who died in 2019 — cajoled the actors into performing the scene, telling them without it "the picture would fail." The filmmaker originally insisted there would be no actual nudity, with both actors instead covered by flesh-colored underwear.
Scene from 'Romeo and Juliet' showing the actors sitting on a horse and Franco Zeffirelli explaining something. Scene from 'Romeo and Juliet' showing the actors sitting on a horse and Franco Zeffirelli explaining something.
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"Defendants were dishonest and secretly filmed the nude or partially nude minor children without their knowledge, in violation of the state and federal laws regulating indecency and exploitation of minors for profit," the suit said. The film, and its theme song, were major hits at the time. The movie has been shown to generations of high school students studying the Shakespeare play since.
The complaint, which claims damages of hundreds of millions of dollars, says the two performers have suffered mental anguish and emotional distress in the more than five decades since the film came out, and that both had only limited professional success in its wake.
Images 'should be removed from the film'
Both Hussey and Whiting won Golden Globes for their performances. Solomon Gresen, representing the actors, told press agency AFP that the years that have elapsed since the film was made did not lessen the damage done, especially as it has been re-released since.
"[Paramount] have images that they know are images of underage nudity that should be removed from the film. That would be the beginning for sure," he said. "Sexually explicit images of children are bad and they shouldn't be tolerated."
Still from 'Romeo and Julia', black and white photo of a couple staring at each other in bed.Still from 'Romeo and Julia', black and white photo of a couple staring at each other in bed.
The lawsuit was filed under a California law temporarily suspending the statute of limitations for child sex abuse, which has led to a host of new lawsuits and the revival of many others that were previously dismissed.
In 2018, Hussey defended the scene
However, only four years ago, in an interview with US entertainment magazine Variety, Hussey still defended the scene: "Nobody my age had done that before,'' she said, adding that Zeffirelli shot it tastefully. "It was needed for the film.''
"Everyone thinks they were so young they probably didn't realize what they were doing," she also said in the interview. "We both came from drama schools and when you work, you take your work very seriously."
In another 2018 interview with Fox News, she said that the scene was “taboo" in America, but that nudity was already common in European films at the time. "It wasn't that big of a deal," she said. "And Leonard wasn't shy at all! In the middle of shooting, I just completely forgot I didn't have clothes on."
kt/eg (AFP, AP)
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