‘Romeo and Juliet’ Stars Claim Nude Scene Was Child Abuse. Do They Have a Case?

Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey rewrote a piece of film history on Dec. 30, when they filed a lawsuit alleging they were sexually exploited in the 1968 film version of “Romeo and Juliet.”

The actors, now 72 and 71, accuse the late director Franco Zeffirelli of coercing them into performing a bedroom scene in the nude, after first promising that they could wear flesh-colored underwear. They also claim that Zeffirelli lied to them when he said that nude images would not be shown.

In fact, the camera lingers on Whiting’s buttocks, and there is a brief glimpse of Hussey’s breasts. She was 16 and he was 17 at the time. (Their complaint misstated their ages as 15 and 16.)

A studio would never film such a scene today with underage actors, several industry experts say, though doing so is not explicitly forbidden by laws or union rules. 

“No studio would touch this with a 10-foot pole,” asserts Anne Henry, co-founder of BizParentz, which advocates for child actors. “No professional actor would touch it either. … I don’t think anyone would put their kid in a skin-colored bodysuit today.”

The most recent controversy about underage actors involved the 2007 film “Hounddog,” in which Dakota Fanning, then 12, appeared in a rape scene. There was no nudity, but Fanning’s face and hand were shown. The film generated intense backlash and grossed just $130,000 in theaters.

Henry says studios would avoid controversy in such situations by hiring an 18-year-old who looks younger or using an adult body double or visual effects.

For less explicit depictions — like, say, kissing scenes — child actors have an array of protections, including parents on set, studio teachers who are licensed as child welfare workers, union rules and intimacy coordinators.

Hussey and Whiting apparently had none of that on the set of “Romeo and Juliet.” But can they apply today’s standards to a movie shoot that took place in Italy in 1967? 

Some experts are skeptical. The actors sued Paramount — which has yet to respond — under a 2020 California law that suspended the statute of limitations for decades-old claims of child sexual abuse, filing just under the wire.

“This is a stretch,” says Mike Arias, an attorney who represented sex abuse plaintiffs in high-profile cases involving gynecologists at USC and UCLA. “I wouldn’t take this case. … That’s not the intent of this statute, in my view.”

But other attorneys aren’t so sure. The law, AB 218, has generally been understood to apply to things like rape and sexual assault. But it also covers employment of a minor for pornography as well as a somewhat vague claim of “annoying or molesting” a child with sexual intent.

Some attorneys say while it might be hard to argue that the film constitutes child pornography, the overall circumstances could fall within the statute’s broad definitions — particularly if Zeffirelli actually tricked the actors into performing nude.

“There’s some ambiguity written into the law on purpose,” says attorney Michael Carney, who has handled numerous sex abuse cases. He says the plaintiffs would at least have a “decent argument.”

Others were even more bullish.

“The answer is yes, they have a case,” says Jeff Anderson, whose firm has filed recent child sex abuse cases against Steven Tyler and Warren Beatty.

Nude images of children that do not meet the legal definition of pornography can still live on the internet forever, and follow actors into adulthood. Those harms have not always been fully appreciated, says Henry, who believes the suit will help make kids safer on sets.

“I really appreciate they came through together with this allegation,” she says. “Whether the lawsuit has any merit or not, we appreciate the conversation. For the good of society, the conversation is what matters here.” 

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