*. One of the things I come back to a lot while writing these notes is how movies date. What also dates is the way we talk about them.
*. At the time, Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet was seen as being a part of the counterculture. The young leads (Leonard Whiting was 17 and Olivia Hussey 15) were a part of this, but more than that, as Roger Ebert writes, “The movie opened in the tumultuous year of 1968, a time of political upheaval around the world, and somehow the story of the star-crossed lovers caught the mood of rebellious young people who had wearied of their elders’ wars.” And so when, in her contemporary review, Pauline Kael describes John McEnery “as a freaked-out Mercutio,” this is where she’s coming from. Do we still describe people as freaked-out today?
*. I begin with all this because I doubt many people view this movie with any historical perspective. The Summer of Love and Swinging London are so far behind us now that the ’60s zeitgeist no longer means anything to most of us. And so we just see the youths of Verona as typical young men hanging about downtown when there’s nothing better to do. In much the same way, even Baz Luhrmann’s MTV-style Romeo + Juliet is probably unidentifiable as such to younger audiences today, who can’t remember (as the saying goes) when there was music on MTV. I suspect Luhrmann may be incomprehensible twenty years from now.
*. When Zeffirelli died in 2019 his obits highlighted this film as his signature work, what Ebert called “the magical high point of his career.” Less was said about his directing the Richard Burton-Elizabeth Taylor Taming of the Shrew just the year before, or the Mel Gibson Hamlet a couple of decades later. But I’m not sure this is better than either of those movies.
*. One of the things Zeffirelli claimed he learned from making The Taming of the Shrew was that, when it came to Shakespeare’s lines, less would be more. I’ve heard that only about 35% of Romeo and Juliet is included here. Which is fine. You pretty much have to cut a lot out of Shakespeare to bring him to screen (though Kenneth Branagh would prove that even a full-text Hamlet is possible). What I have more trouble with in the process of adaptation is the rearrangement of scenes (which Zeffirelli went crazy with in Hamlet) and lines (as he does here).
*. The balcony scene offers a good example. It begins with Romeo first catching sight of Juliet and declaring “But soft, what light from yonder window breaks? / It is the east and Juliet is the sun!” I would have thought this was easily comprehensible, especially in 1968. Plus it’s a famous line and you’d expect a good part of the audience to know it. But here the second line jumps us ahead in the text to the flaccid “It is my lady, O it is my love!” This sounds awful.
*. But as with any decent production you’re also reminded at times of lines that never stood out to you before. I like Juliet’s look of shock when Romeo asks if she’ll leave him on the balcony unsatisfied. “What satisfaction canst thou have tonight?” she asks. I’d never thought about what “satisfaction” might mean in that way before, but I guess it’s obvious. Also, Capulet’s ill-tempered shushing of the Nurse — “Utter your gravity o’er a gossip’s bowl” — had never registered with me before. But it’s a great put-down
*. Unfortunately, those are among the few highlights of what’s left of the text. This is where the film really breaks down. I like the location shooting, the laced codpieces, all the running about (though not the swordfights). I also think, with the exception of Pat Heywood’s nurse, that the cast are a good collection of Renaissance faces (Heywood gives a fine performance, but she looks out of place). And while Whiting and Hussey are young, they at least look the part. Hussey in particular has a moist earnestness. But then they open their mouths.
*. Kael: “Heard in isolated fragments, the lines just seem a funny way of talking that is hard to understand.” True, and also true: “The lines are unintelligible because the actors’ faces and bodies aren’t in tune with the words.”
*. The problem here, or so I’ve heard, is that because of the noise of the camera being used the dialogue was all recorded post. It looks and sounds dubbed because it was. Well, you may say, that’s the way a lot of movies are made. Welles’s Othello, for example, was all dubbed. To which I can only respond by saying that Welles’s Othello didn’t make me feel like I was watching a cheap giallo.
*. Still, it could have been worse. If you were of my generation this movie may have been among your first introductions to Shakespeare, as they used it a lot in high school. And it’s not a bad introduction in some ways. It’s boisterous and full of action. The idea of having kids playing kids was the hook, and we were kids watching kids playing kids. So for that reason alone it will probably always have a place in my memory. Maybe not a magical one, but stuck in my head now for the duration.