Remembering Franco Zeffirelli

 

I was saddened yesterday to hear about the death of one of my favorite film directors, Franco Zeffirelli. He was ninety six.

I owe a lot to this man. If you are a regular reader of this blog, you probably know about my Shakespeare obsession. However, I probably would never have had that obsession if it had not been for Zeffirelli, who really made Shakespeare accessible to American audiences through his awesome films.

Zeffirelli was the director The Taming of the Shrew, Romeo and Juliet, Othello and Hamlet. He also directed Brother Sun, Sister Moon (about the life of Saint Francis of Assisi), Jesus of Nazareth, Tea With Mussolini, Jane Eyre, Callas Forever, and several operas, including La Boheme and La Traviata with Placido Domingo.

Of course, in my opinion, his biggest masterpiece was his 1968 version of Romeo and Juliet. Zeffirelli’s genius in this film was that he decided to use teenage actors Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey to play the roles of actual teenage characters Romeo and Juliet. Zeffirelli’s production was the first ever to use teenagers in the roles, as Shakespeare had intended.

The movie was a massive hit. The iconic film critic Roger Ebert called the movie “the most exciting film of Shakespeare ever made.” (That was a pretty great compliment, because if you remember Roger Ebert, he was sort of a discriminating snob! But he knew his movies.)

I have always loved Romeo and Juliet,  it is my all time favorite film. Luckily, Zeffirelli lived long enough to be part of its 50 year anniversary last year, in 2018.  I wrote a tribute to the movie, which can be read HERE.

Gian Franco Corsi Zeffirelli was born on February 12, 1923 in Florence, Tuscany. He was an illegitimate child, the product of an affair between fashion designer Florentine Garosi, and Ottorino Corsi, a wool dealer. Interestingly, the name “Zeffirelli” was totally made up by his mother. It was taken from Mozart’s opera Idomenco, which Florentine was fond of. The actual word was “Zeffiretto” which apparently means “zephyr” or “gentle breeze” in English. However, the name was misspelled on Franco’s birth certificate, and was ever after recorded as “Zeffirelli”.

It was a strange beginning for a man who would become such an important figure in the art world. However, there is a bit of poetic justice, as Zeffirelli’s name was taken from an opera, and he became a director of operas.

As far as being a “gentle breeze” I would say Zeffirelli was not only a breath of fresh air in the film world, but a force to be reckoned with.

FUN FACTS

  • Zeffirelli’s father was a wool dealer. Shakespeare’s father was also a wool dealer (an illegal one! John Shakespeare got in a lot of trouble and went bankrupt in later years for his criminal activity.) However, it is ironic that the man who would help immortalize Shakespeare had this unique connection.
  • Shakespeare was an Englishman who spent his entire life being obsessed with Italy. Zeffirelli was an Italian who spent his entire life being obsessed with England. That is why they fit together so well 🙂

  • When young Franco was six years old, his mother died. As an orphan, he went to live with is Aunt Line. Through his aunt, he met and was largely cared for by a group of upper-class, rather eccentric English women, expatriates living in Italy. These women were known as the “Scorpioni” — so named for their stinging, scorpion-like outspokenness.
  • Young Franco was given English lessons and came to love English culture.
  • The Scorpioni were arrested during WWII under the dictatorship of Benito Mussolini.
  • Zeffirelli wrote and directed the 1999 movie Tea With Mussolini (starring Cher, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith) which was based on his own experiences with the Scorpioni.

  • Zeffirelli’s Taming of the Shrew (1967) starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Burton and Taylor wanted to be in the film so badly, they paid for part of the production and gave up their own salaries. (Both were mega-stars at the time. They could well afford it!)

  • Although Zeffirelli considered himself a conservative Roman Catholic, he received criticism from religious groups for his so-called “blasphemous” portrayals of biblical figures in Brother Sun, Sister Moon and Jesus of Nazareth.

  • Zeffirelli served in the British Army during WWII.
  • In 2004, he was given an honorary knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II.

Franco Zeffirelli, thank you for making me love Shakespeare.

Rest in Peace, sweet knight!

 

 

 

Advertisements

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!