Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, 50th Anniversary


Today, March 4th, 2018, marks the 50th Anniversary of the premiere of Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film”Romeo and Juliet” at London’s Odeon theater.

With a host of talented actors, rich period costumes and lush cinematography, this gorgeous movie is arguably the best ever adaptation of Shakespeare’s play.  Famous critic Roger Ebert included it in his list of ‘Top 100 Films’. Ebert wrote, “I believe Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet is the most exciting film of Shakespeare ever made.”

The movie won a Golden Globe Award for Best English Language Foreign Film.  It won Academy Awards for Best Cinematography (Pasqualino De Santis) and Best Costume Design (Danilo Donati).  It was also nominated for Best Director and Best Picture, making it the last Shakespearean film to be nominated for Best Picture to date. Coincidentally, the anniversary of its London premiere just happens to fall on the same day as this year’s Academy Awards presentation.

This movie is unique in may ways. Director Zeffirelli had the innovative idea of using  teenage actors for the roles of the star-crossed lovers.  This was the first time in the history of the play’s performances that actual teenagers were cast to play the teenage roles. Olivia Hussey played Juliet and Leonard Whiting played Romeo.

Hussey and Whiting both received Golden Globes for ‘Best New Stars of the Year’.

Zeffirelli also chose unique historical locations, adding to the rich authenticity of the movie, which was set in 14th century Renaissance Italy.  These locations included:

The Palazzo Borghese, which was used for the famous ‘balcony scene’. The Palazzo was built by Cardinal Scipione Borghese in the 16th century. It is located in Artena, 20 miles south of Rome.

“But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the East, and Juliet is the sun!”

The interior church scenes (where Romeo and Juliet are wed) were filmed at a Romanesque church named St. Pietro Somaldi in Lucca, Tuscania, 50 miles northwest of Rome.

“For by your leaves you will not stay alone, till Holy Church incorporate two as one.”

The tomb scene (where both lovers commit suicide) was also filmed in Tuscania.

“O happy dagger, this is thy sheath. There rust and let me die.”

The Palazzo Piccolomini, built in 1460 by Pope Pius II, served as Capulet’s magnificent palace. It is located in Pienza, Siena province.

“His name is Romeo, a Montague, the only son of your great enemy.” 

The dueling scenes  were filmed  in the old Umbrian town of Gubbio.

“A plague on both your houses!”

Some fun facts:

  • Paul McCartney was being considered for the role of Romeo, before Zeffirelli plucked Lenoard Whiting from the London stage. Although I love the Beatles, Paul as Romeo would have been a terrible mistake!

  • Anjelica Houston was considered for the role of Juliet, but her father, director John Houston, insisted she work on another film (one of his own) at the time.
  • Olivia Hussey was originally rejected because Zeffirelli thought she was overweight. Upon her second reading, she had apparently lost weight and was accepted.
  • During the Italian filming, Zeffirelli once again became concerned with Olivia’s weight and insisted she not be served any pasta on the set. (I know!  Rude. But he was the director…)

  • Because there were nude scenes in the film, Zeffirelli had to get special permission to film 16 year old Olivia topless. Len Whiting was already 17 and of legal age for nudity.

  • Sir Laurence Olivier, who happened to be in Italy at the time of filming, reportedly showed up on set asking if he could contribute.  He became the narrator, and also dubbed lines for the actor Antonio Pierfederici who played Lord Montague but had a thick Italian accent. Sir Laurence’s contributions are not listed in the credits and he would accept no pay for them, stating he did this out of his ‘great love for Shakespeare’.  What a guy! 🙂
  • In 1977, Olivia Hussey and Laurence Olivier reunited, along with co star Michael York (who played Tybalt) for the production of  Jesus of Nazareth. Hussey played Mary the Mother of Jesus, Olivier played Nicodemus and York played John the Baptist.

  • Produced with a budget of just $850,000, the movie went on to earn nearly $40 million at the box office and later earned another $18 million in re-releases and rentals.
  • Thom Yorke of Rodiohead reports being very moved by Zeffirelli’s film. He later went on to compose music for the 1996 version of Romeo + Juliet, directed by Baz Luhrmann. Yorke said, “I saw the Zeffirelli version when I was 13, and I cried my eyes out, because I couldn’t understand why the morning after they shagged, they didn’t just run away.”

Many readers of R & J have wondered the same thing. Young love can be messy.

If you have not yet seen this phenomenal movie, I suggest you rent or stream it at once!

And finally, in honor of the 1968 London Premiere, here is a youtube compilation where Queen Elizabeth herself greets the young stars. Hope you like it!





30 comments on “Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, 50th Anniversary

  1. Big influence on my life BIG BIG BIG. I was only 8 when it came out but believe me, I wanted to see it! I remember a poster of Romeo & Juliet on my fourth grade class wall! I loved looking at it!

    Also – “Jesus of Nazareth” – also a HUGE influence on my life – when I was 14? 15? I started writing a story about a girl who ran away to follow Jesus & met his mother & Mary Magdalene & was there at his death & resurrection … did a ton of research about life in Roman Palestine at that time, which is how I was introduced to the Goddess …

    Liked by 1 person

    • That is all so cool! I love your story and the idea of a girl running away to follow Jesus. A close read of the Bible and the Gnostic texts shows that women were mentioned a lot as his followers. I think the gospel of Judas also alludes to the Goddess. Great stuff!

      The R & J movie has been a HUGE influence on me as well. I still remember seeing it for the first time. Hence my lifelong obsession with Shakespeare 🙂


  2. Emily says:

    This is the first film version of Romeo and Juliet that I ever saw…and still my favorite. There’s just something so beautiful about this version that makes it stand out above all the others.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. toutparmoi says:

    I often don’t like filmed Shakespeare, but this movie was great. Thanks for the memory.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve read many rave reviews about this film but I’ve yet to see it.

    Your post definitely inspires me to watch it.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. John W. Leys says:

    Romeo and Juliet was never one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, but this film is undeniably great. So much so that when I do think of Romeo and Juliet, its images from this film that I think of.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Doreen says:

    So enjoyed reading the back story comments of this film. I first saw it as a geeky time traveling 13 year old and oh my, what it unleashed in me. I used to show it to my drama students (also with the Buz one so they could compare director choices) and they would go crazy for it.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. This film was a sure fire hit with the classes I taught. Perfect for adolescents and more romantic than the Baz Lurman one, though that perhaps works better with today’s kids. Interesting fact list + your reactions, Christine …

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glad you liked it! The film is superb. When I began to teach Romeo and Juliet, I was told by other teachers the kids would only like the Luhrmann version — for the obvious reason of guns. However, as the years went by, I found that kids responded more to the Zeffirelli version. The Luhrmann version disorients them, because of the Shakespearean speech coupled with the modern costumes, etc. Plus, the boys all fell in love with Olivia Hussy. The Zeffirelli version is an easy sell 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Vicky V says:

    It was so refreshing seeing teenagers play teenage roles! I loved this version and I also adore Baz Luhrmann’s version.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Julie L. Thompson says:

    My fave movie of all time…Saw it 15 times when I was 12. I was wondering if Olivia will be bringing back her beloved Juliet’s cross for sale once again???

    Liked by 1 person

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