A Los Angeles County judge on Thursday said she will dismiss a lawsuit that the stars of 1968’s Romeo and Juliet filed over the film’s nude scene, finding that their depiction could not be considered child pornography and they filed their claim too late.
Superior Court Judge Alison Mackenzie ruled in favour of a motion from defendant Paramount Pictures to dismiss the lawsuit brought by Olivia Hussey, who played Juliet at age 15 and is now 72, and Leonard Whiting, who played Romeo at 16 and is also 72.
Mackenzie determined that the scene was protected by the First Amendment, finding that the actors “have not put forth any authority showing the film here can be deemed to be sufficiently sexually suggestive as a matter of law to be held to be conclusively illegal.”
In her written decision, she also found that the suit didn’t fall within the bounds of a California law that temporarily suspended the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse, and that a February re-release of the film did not change that.
The actors’ attorney denounced the decision and said they plan to file another version of the suit in federal court.
“We firmly believe that the exploitation and sexualization of minors in the film industry must be confronted and legally addressed to protect vulnerable individuals from harm and ensure the enforcement of existing laws,” lawyer Solomon Gresen said in a statement.
Scene filmed without their knowledge, actors allege
The film and its theme song were major hits at the time, and it was played for generations of high school students studying Shakespeare’s tragedy, even as a nude scene briefly shows Whiting’s bare buttocks and Hussey’s bare breasts.
Director Franco Zeffirelli, who died in 2019 at age 96, initially told the two that they would wear flesh-coloured undergarments in the bedroom scene that comes late in the movie and was shot on the final days of filming, the suit alleged.
But on the morning of the shoot, Zeffirelli told Whiting and Hussey that they would wear only body makeup, while still assuring them the camera would be positioned in a way that would not show nudity, according to the suit.
Despite those assurances, they were filmed in the nude without their knowledge, in violation of California and federal laws against indecency and the exploitation of children, the suit alleged.
Zeffirelli told them they must act in the nude “or the picture would fail,” and their careers would be hurt, the suit said.
Plaintiffs ‘cherry-picked’ from state laws: judge
The actors said that the opposite occurred, that neither had the career the film’s success suggested, and that the fraud, sexual abuse and sexual harassment they underwent caused them emotional damage and mental anguish for decades. They had sought more than $500 million US in damages.
The judge, though, found that the plaintiffs “cherry-picked” from the law and failed to provide legal authority for why it should apply to “purported works of artistic merit, such as the award-winning film at issue here.”
She quoted from an appeals court precedent that said child pornography is “particularly repulsive,” but “not all images of nude children are pornographic.”
The ruling relied on California law that is meant to protect the free speech of defendants from being squelched by lawsuits, and is often the first line of defence when lawsuits are filed.
An attorney for Paramount declined to comment about the ruling.
The Associated Press typically does not name people who say they have been sexually abused unless they come forward publicly, which Hussey and Whiting did.