Cultural Conversations by Daniel Blackaby January 5, 2023
Former Teen Stars Sue Movie Studio for Child Abuse over Underage Nudity in 1968’s Romeo and Juliet
Perspective is an important theme in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Now, an adaptation of that classic story is also providing perspective on a hot-button topic in culture. There has been much recent discussion about Hollywood’s sexual exploitation of children. While it has become a contemporary conversation, it’s clearly far from a modern phenomenon.
As reported by Variety, the former teen stars of Romeo and Juliet (1968) have filed a lawsuit against Paramount Studios seeking damages of $500 million for mental anguish and emotional distress experienced as a result of filming the movie. The Academy Award-nominated film was widely acclaimed but highly controversial due to a nude love scene between teen actors Leonard Whiting (16) and Olivia Hussey (15), which includes Whiting’s bare buttock and Hussey’s exposed breasts.
According to the complaint, director Franco Zeffirelli (who died in 2019) pressured the two stars to perform the scene nude, contrary to previous agreements, and made false promises about what would be included in the final edit of the film.
The lawsuit reflects a change in attitude toward the movie, as actress Olivia Hussey has previously defended the nudity as being “needed for the film” and asserted that both actors were “very aware” of their acting choices. Yet, in the aftermath of #MeToo, she and Whiting have reevaluated their experiences.
While the inclusion of teenage nudity in a mainstream film remains shocking, perhaps even more surprising was the general acceptance of it. Renowned film critic Roger Ebert’s review offers a startling time capsule of the views of the era:
“A lot of fuss has been made about the brief, beautiful nude love scene. I doubt whether anyone could see it and disapprove of it, but apparently someone has. The Chicago Board of Education I am informed, objects to the nudity and will not approve the film for educational use after its commercial run. This is stupidity.”
Hollywood and sexuality have always been linked. Whatever the legal ramifications of this lawsuit, it represents another example of reevaluating that relationship, particularly in relation to children, and demonstrates progress, even if much work remains.