Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting were just teenagers (15 and 16 respectively) when they starred in an acclaimed adaptation of Romeo and Juliet released in 1968. While the film was nominated for four Academy Awards and performed well commercially, it drew criticism at the time for a bedroom scene in which the two actors performed while partially nude. Now in their seventies, the pair have filed a lawsuit against Paramount, accusing the studio of sexually exploiting them and distributing nude images of children.
According to their claim, the actors were assured prior to filming that there would be no nudity in the film and that they would be wearing flesh-coloured underwear during the bedroom scene. But during the shoot, director Franco Zeffirelli – who died in 2019 – allegedly changed his mind and pressured them into acting nude, saying that if they refused then “the picture would fail”. Even after this point, the actors allege that they were falsely assured that no nude footage would be used in the film, and misled as to where the camera would be positioned.
According to the complaint, the actors have suffered years of mental anguish as a result of this deception, as well as losing out on career opportunities following the release of the film. They are reportedly seeking damages of up to $500 million. Their attorney, Solomon Gresen, said, “Nude images of minors are unlawful and shouldn’t be exhibited. These were very young naive children in the 60s who had no understanding of what was about to hit them. All of a sudden they were famous at a level they never expected, and in addition they were violated in a way they didn’t know how to deal with.”
The suit came about in part because the state of California suspended the statute of limitations (the period of time for which a crime can be prosecuted) for older claims of child sexual abuse, which led to a flurry of claims against the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts of America, and a number of other institutions.
One of the depressing aspects of this case is that it appears to show that some things in Hollywood never changed. While norms and laws around publishing nude images of minors may have gotten stricter, it’s too common to hear young actors, such as several members of the cast of Euphoria, report feeling exploited on set and pressured into doing things they didn’t feel comfortable with. The entertainment industry still has a long way to go, but addressing this historical wrong might be another small step in the right direction.