Judge to dismiss $100 million ‘Romeo & Juliet’ sex abuse lawsuit
Back in December of 2022, Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting, stars of 1968’s Romeo and Juliet, filed a lawsuit against Paramount over allegations of sexual abuse. The film – an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s most famous play – has become one of the most famous versions of the source material, becoming part of the curriculum in several high schools nationwide.
The adaptation is also known, however, for a scene in which Hussey and Whiting appear naked in the film. The suit held that the actors were coerced into these scenes, a violation of their consent and right to bodily autonomy, due to actions committed by director Franco Zeffirelli. Hussey and Whiting contended that they were owed damages of $100 million as a result of sexual exploitation, which included the distribution of underage, nude images of both Hussey and Whiting.
Deadline reports that the Los Angeles judge in charge of the case, Judge Alison Mackenzie, put out a tentative ruling to throw the case out of court. Mackenzie reportedly cited the First Amendment, calling Hussey and Whiting’s descriptions of the scenes in question a “gross mischaracterization” of what occurred. Paramount, the defendant in the matter, reportedly successfully lobbied to clear the charges by using California’s anti-SLAPP laws, a way for defendants to quickly throw out frivolous lawsuits.
Despite being only 15 and 16 years of age during filming, respectively, Hussey and Whiting contended that Zeffirelli pressured the two of them into appearing totally naked on film during an intimate scene. Allegedly, the two actors had been told that any and all nudity would be simulated, with body suits being used, only for Zeffirelli to pressure the two into doing away with this stipulation on the day of filming. Reportedly, the two state that the director cited concerns about the film’s performance should the pair not do as he said.
As part of the ruling, Mackenzie found that the scenes cannot be considered child sexual abuse material because they do not meet the requirements of being “sufficiently sexually suggestive”. The scenes were therefore found to contain artistic merit – a defense that many speculated Paramount would adopt.
Zeffirelli passed away in 2019, though his son Pippo Zeffirelli has publicly criticized the allegations. Franco Zeffirelli had previously been accused of sexual misconduct, with actor Bruce Robinson, who portrayed Benvolio in Romeo and Juliet, having claimed that the director gave him unwanted and inappropriate romantic attention during filming.
Representatives for Paramount have yet to comment on the matter. Representatives for Hussey and Whiting have also not given a statement as yet. It is speculated that Hussey and Whiting’s legal representative, Solomon Gresen, may file an appeal on the matter.