I have said before that I like William Shakespeare...and I really do. The most popular Shakespeare adaptation is probably Olivier’s Hamlet, which is good but alas could not make it into my top 100. My favourite Shakespeare adaptation though is the swell reviewed Romeo & Juliet directed by Franco Zeffirelli. Released in 1968 this was one of the few Shakespeare films that are really easy to find. In fact I saw this film before my fascination with Shakespeare began.
The story of Romeo and Juliet is so celebrated I think it would be an insult to give the details of the plot. So I will not. Instead let me examine why this is such a good film...or at least a film worthy of your time [in case you have not seen it before].
Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting play the main characters and their performances are close to perfection. Both were Golden Globe nominated winning the award for Most Promising New Comer. And to examine this film only they really seemed to have had promising. Unfortunately nothing they have done since then has lived up to that promise. But in this film they were outstanding. I can’t be sure that Romeo & Juliet was as pervasive during the sixties; but it must have been difficult being casted as these legendary characters. Olivia Hussey is the epitome of girlish innocence as Juliet. With her simple beauty and her wide eyed surprise she is the perfect Juliet. Her short journey into womanhood is believable and oh, so poignant. And her chemistry not only with her Romeo but particularly with her Nurse is especially impressive.
Leonard Whiting is no joke either. It’s really surprising that he did not become a star in the superficial Hollywood of the 60s. With their love for attractive young men [James Dean, Robert Redford, Warren Beatty] I suppose Whiting along with the underappreciated Richard Beymer were two too many. This doesn’t diminish his debut here though. His chemistry with Whiting really is something. Theatrically the role of Romeo has become something of a joke but Whiting is realistic, believable and most of all earnest in his acting. We don’t see a young man playing Romeo. We see Romeo. I think that both Whiting and Hussey were not undeserving of Oscar nominations. But they did not do it without help.
The film is littered with notable supporting turns. At the top of the list for me is John McEnry as the scene stealing Mercutio. Mercutio has always been a look at me role, and perhaps that explains the ostensible impressiveness of his performance. But I hate to trivialise his work. He dies half way through the movies, but I can still say without uncertainty that I felt him to be the perfect Mercutio. Michael Crawford as the angry Tybalt is also good. You might probably recognise Crawford from Hello, Dolly! And Cabaret or if you’re older as the original Phantom from The Phantom of the Opera. Tybalt is a thankless role, but Crawford pulls it off with that English candour.
The adults are not to be ignored though. What I remember most about Natasha Perry as Lady Capulet was her startling resemblance to Olivia Hussey. Her Lady Capulet may have been a tad too overdone, but playing Shakespeare that’s always a possibility. Her husband played by Paul Hardwick is a wonderful Capulet. Capulet is a good role and it offers much to the actor and Hardwick does well. Not as good as could have been done I suppose, but good nevertheless. And the famous confrontation scene with Juliet works well with him. But oh, Pat Heywood as the Nurse attempts to steal all the scenes she is in. With a downright lewdness and frankness she is hilarious as the Nurse – the main source of comedy in this tragicomedy play. Her first meeting with Romeo plays for all the silliness, and we know that all does not end well but we cannot help being taken in by her nonsense. She plays well to Olivia Hussey and although towards the end [as the character becomes less verbose] she loses some of her sparkle, the performance still is a good one.
VOTE KATHARINE HEPBURN AWARDS