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"Romeo and Juliet" (1968): Why Is Zeffirelli's Film So Beloved?

Andrea Lawrence has a master's in creative writing. She studied fiction, poetry, playwriting, and screenwriting.

Juliet's balcony in Verona, Italy.

Juliet's balcony in Verona, Italy.

A Window Into Late 1960s Values

William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet has been reproduced countless times and adapted to multiple mediums: ballets, paintings, movies, TV shows, and operas. Arguably, the most enduring film version comes from 1968 and was directed by Franco Zeffirelli. Many have called it the best cinematic adaptation of Romeo and Juliet because it's the closest to the actual play.

The film has certain qualities typical of '60s and '70s cinema: soft lighting, romantic music, long and beautiful hair, camera pans and tilts, and odd homoerotic hints—the pants the teenage boys wear in this movie are outrageous! The movie is as much a window into the late '60s as it is Shakespeare's time.

The Most Successful Romeo and Juliet of the Modern Era

The 1968 version of Romeo and Juliet was nominated for four Oscars, winning two.

  • Pasqualino De Santis won for best cinematography.
  • Danilo Donati won for best costume design.
  • It was nominated for best picture but lost to Oliver!
  • Zeffirelli was nominated for best director but lost to Carol Reed, who directed Oliver!

It was the most financially successful Shakespeare film of its time. No Shakespeare adaptation since has been nominated for Best Picture.

6 Reasons Zeffirelli Filmed the Definitive Adaptation of Romeo and Juliet

  1. It's an old play adapted for modern audiences, making it easy to understand.
  2. A saintly Romeo comes off as a heartthrob.
  3. Emotions were prioritized over lengthy lines. Young people can relate to emotions more than iambic pentameter.
  4. Filming on location helped viewers envision the settings in the play.
  5. The use of colors makes it easy to follow the Montagues and Capulets.
  6. Nino Rota's enchanting score matches the director's focus on sentimentality.

1. A Romeo and Juliet for Modern Audiences

The 1968 Romeo and Juliet spoke to the teenagers of its time. In fact, this was the first film version to feature characters close to the age of the characters from the play:

  • Olivia Hussey was 15 years old when she played Juliet. The character is 13 going on 14 in the play.
  • Leonard Whiting was 17 years old when he played Romeo. The character is around 16 or 17 years old in the play.

When you watch the movie, you'll notice both actors are perfectly in command of their scenes. Hussey and Whiting have noticeable chemistry. Hussey is so adorable in the balcony scene that it can bring a tear to your eye when you know how things are going to end.

Young viewers in the 1960s could connect to Shakespeare because of this movie. It was relatable to their lives and fantasies.

2. A Saintly Romeo for 1968

Franco Zeffirelli's interpretation of the play is different from mine. He focuses more on the sensitive, gentle qualities of Romeo. He sees him as a kind-hearted and innocent character.

Shakespeare described Romeo as a well-governed youth. I see Romeo as an idiosyncratic character who is impulsive, love-sick, easily tempted, and haphazard. I love Romeo because his idealism is beautiful, but I see him as more crude than innocent. He is on the cusp of manhood, and he is flirting with patriarchal concepts, including bawdy humor.

Shakespeare describes Romeo as a flawed, but lovable character. Zeffirelli's Romeo is saintly, if not perfect.

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Romeo Is Cursed

After studying this play multiple times, I think Romeo is cursed. His actions in the play are connected to six people's deaths, including his own. Romeo struggles to have his own agency because of the expectations and rules of society. He is fated to tragedy.

Whiting's performance is intended to make teenage hearts swoon. Romeo openly weeps when exiled. He has big teenage emotions. In fact, Whiting's portrayal has traditionally feminine qualities. He openly cries, he openly cares about others, and he is seen as attractive and winsome with a clean-shaven face, rather than bearded, burly, and fierce.

Romeo doesn't totally fit in with his peers. When the nurse is mocked by his friends, he doesn't join in. When his friends are battling Capulet cohorts at the beginning of the movie, Romeo isn't there. He is off on his own, daydreaming about Rosaline, his first obsession.

Romeo: Meek and Sympathetic

Whiting's portrayal of Romeo makes the character seem incredibly fragile and meek. He is boyish and romantic. He fits many of the ideals of a teenage heartthrob in the late '60s and early '70s. His sweet performance is appealing to young and sensitive viewers.

Zeffirelli wanted a sympathetic Romeo. He took out the scene where Romeo fights and kills Count Paris. A couple other scenes were also cut from the movie:

  • Romeo reads the party list and discovers Rosaline's name on it.
  • Romeo visits an apothecary for poison.

Whiting and Hussey Have Great Chemistry

A big reason why this movie is better than other Romeo and Juliet adaptations is that Whiting and Hussey genuinely seem in love. They do a beautiful job conveying Romeo and Juliet's love.

In Zeffirelli's film, the protagonists have a clear sense of their own free will, right up until Tybalt's death, when their fates become increasingly morose. Their downfall is more about their silly, childish actions and strong feelings rather than the conditions of society, which I feel is at the heart of the play.

3. Emotions Prioritized Over Speeches

Zeffirelli wanted unknown teenage actors to play the lead roles. In his autobiography, the director said that he adapted the play around Whiting's and Hussey's strengths. Instead of long speeches, the focus was on reaction shots. He taught them how to act, pushing for what he thought would sell movie tickets: a teenage emotional experience.

Zeffirelli built a romantic fantasy for young viewers. Instead of focusing on political ideology in the characters' speeches, he looked for opportunities to have them close to one another.

Romeo is a cursed character in Shakespeare. His actions (indirectly and directly) are connected to six people's deaths.

Romeo is a cursed character in Shakespeare. His actions (indirectly and directly) are connected to six people's deaths.

Olivia Hussey Is Brilliant as Juliet

Hussey plays the part of Juliet beautifully. This is one of Shakespeare's harder roles because there is so much emotional growth and change, it can be challenging to make it seem real or cohesive. Hussey's Juliet coyly falls for Romeo at the ball and quickly grows to love him during the balcony scene, her girlish laugh breathing life into Juliet.

Hussey perfectly conveys how Juliet is torn when her parents order her to marry Count Paris. She turns Juliet into a master manipulator when conspiring with Friar Laurence to fake her death. And it's hard to beat the actress' performance when she wakes in the tomb to find Romeo dead.

The director had the young actress focus on emotions rather than lines. In fact, for her audition, Hussey learned the monologue for when Juliet fakes her own death. She insisted on performing it at callbacks. She was upset when it came time to film the scene because the monologue was chopped down to a measly three lines.

4. Filming on Location Built Credibility

The movie was filmed in various parts of Italy, including the Palazzo Borghese in Artena, the town of Tuscania, Palazzo Piccolomini in Pienza, and the old town of Gubbio. Relying on real locations helped build the fantasy of the fictional Verona and made the movie come alive.

The cinematography and on-location set designs helped to bring out the world of Shakespeare's play. People no longer had to imagine what that play's setting looked like; they could simply refer to the movie's cobblestone walkways, grand stairways, humble chapel, lavish houses, native flora, and ancient tomb.

Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet early in his career. It premiered around 1597. The plot is based on an Italian tale: The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet.

Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet early in his career. It premiered around 1597. The plot is based on an Italian tale: The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet.

5. Capulets Wear Red, Montagues Wear Blue

The two rival families in the movie wear different colors. The Capulets wear red; the Montagues wear blue. This makes it easy for the audience to follow the story.

Are We Sure About the Color Choice?

I think the color choice for the two families is odd. The colors would make more sense reversed since the Montagues are seen as impulsive, plucky, and very forward. It was Romeo who broke enemy lines to attend the Capulet ball. Montagues make more sense in red.

As for the Capulets, Juliet is an incredibly intelligent 13-year-old. She goes through an incredible transformation in a short timeframe. She starts as a child who barely has any thoughts on marriage, meekly listening to her mom and nurse discuss her marriage prospects. She then falls in love with a Montague, gets married, and fights for her own agency when her parents betroth her to Count Paris.

Juliet's character growth doesn't stop there. She conspires with Friar Laurence to get back with Romeo, and while the plan fails, it shows her willingness to fight for true love. She's a total blue.

Colors Should've Been Switched

Juliet is thoughtful and introspective; Romeo is impulsive. Juliet makes more sense in blue, and Romeo makes more sense in red. Obviously, my opinions on color are at odds with Zeffirelli. I've read that he interpreted the Capulets as new money and the Montagues as old money. Therefore, the Capulets were red and the Montagues were blue.

6. Nino Rota's Enchanting Score

Nino Rota created the movie's gorgeous score, which relies heavily on woodwinds and strings and swells with sentimentality. Rota's score harkens to the Renaissance period while also having a treatment on par with cinema from the late '60s and early '70s.

One of the most memorable scenes of the movie is a ballad sung at the Capulet ball. The song takes place just before Romeo and Juliet meet for the first time. In an enchanting vibrato, Glen Weston sings, "What Is a Youth."

What is a youth?

Impetuous fire

What is a maid?

Ice and desire

The world wags on

A rose will bloom

It then will fade

So does a youth

So does the fairest maid

"What Is a Youth" as Motif

Rota teamed up with Eugene Walter to create the neo-Elizabethan ballad. "What Is a Youth" plays multiple times throughout the movie, sometimes with lyrics, sometimes without. The song is used to draw out the emotions of the film, playing more into the beauty and magic of the couple rather than the sadness of their demise. The lyrics were borrowed from other Shakespeare plays.

Some critics have negatively reviewed "What Is a Youth" for being cloyingly sweet, and there are times that Zeffirelli beats the audience over the head with the motif. However, the movie is a master class in capturing sentimentality. The play itself doesn't focus so much on emotion and considers the competing interests of society and the powers of fate.

Who Was Nino Rota?

Nino Rota was a prolific composer, best known for scoring La Dolce Vita and The Godfather. Amazingly, he wrote scores for more than 150 films.

The music and sound design of Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet is so enchanting, I truly believe it could be enjoyed as a radio play. In fact, the soundtrack includes movie dialogue and sound effects to go along with the nine songs.

Score Plays to Emotions

As previously mentioned, the score does an impressive job of conveying the emotions of the characters. It also hints at the tragic things to come. I've listed pivotal score moments below.

Romeo and Juliet's Wedding

A church organ plays as Romeo and Juliet get married. "What Is a Youth?" is sung in another language. The music captures the seriousness of the couple's decision, the religious nature of their experience, the foreboding sense that something dreadful is coming, and ultimately, the devotion Romeo and Juliet have for each other.

The Deadly Duels

When Mercutio dies, strings are played to heighten the tension. Tremolo strings are a big part of the Romeo and Juliet score. It reminds me of scenes in Hitchcock films where dissonant music accompanies a character falling into madness (e.g., Vertigo).

Similarly, the brass section picks up when Tybalt and Romeo fight. The music conveys fear, paranoia, and Romeo's need to avenge Mercutio. The song slowly fades out when Prince Escalus arrives on the scene and decides how Romeo will be punished for killing Tybalt.

Romeo and Juliet's Last Happy Moments Together

Before Romeo leaves Verona—he has 24 hours to get his affairs in order—he spends an intimate night with Juliet. The music for this scene is gentle and romantic. There are slow strums of a guitar and a gentle flute section. It sounds like a beautiful Italian wedding song. The music is simple; it could be assumed that someone is playing a guitar near where Romeo and Juliet are professing their love to each other.

A version of "What Is a Youth?" is playing as Romeo and Juliet are about to part. It's the last time they're awake, happy, and alive together.

Juliet Seeks Help from Friar Laurence

There is hopeful, yet forbidding music playing when Juliet meets with Friar Laurence, who comes up with a plan to help Juliet reunite with Romeo. When the sleeping potion is mentioned, the music becomes frenetic, drawing out the tension. The tremolo strings are very noticeable.

Juliet Fakes Her Death

After Juliet fakes her death, there is a sad funeral scene featuring a serious version of "What Is a Youth?" As a children's choir sings, we're subtly reminded of how young Romeo and Juliet actually are.

Balthazar tells Romeo of Juliet's death, and the music becomes noticeably sad and dramatic. When Romeo arrives at the tomb, the woodwinds hint at his grief, and the harp plays to his happy memories of Juliet.

When Romeo looks at Tybalt's body, the music becomes dark and reflects the leitmotif played during their battle. As Romeo studies Juliet's beautiful face, seemingly untouched by death, he contemplates taking the poison. The music switches from romantic and sad to grim.

Juliet Realizes Romeo Is Dead

When Juliet wakes after Romeo's death, the music reflects her hope that she'll find Romeo and run away with him. But, anxious strings hint at something terrible. She finds Romeo and discovers the poison; the music again becomes dramatic. It harkens back to the battle scene with Romeo and Tybalt.

The Ending

The final section of the score is yet another version of "What Is a Youth?" The Capulets and Montagues are criticized for essentially causing the deaths of Romeo and Juliet. The music is overly dramatic with a voiceover from Laurence Oliver, but it fits the Hollywood zeitgeist of the time.

Requiem for Romeo + Juliet (1996)

FYI, I'm a big fan of Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet (1996) starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. The movie is set in an alternate modern world rather than 16th-century Verona. It was meant to be a movie accessible to people in the 1990s. It has guns instead of swords, flashy cars, ending credits music by Radiohead, a drag queen-esque Mercutio, and Paul Rudd in an astronaut costume.

One of the greatest romantic scenes of all time is when Romeo discovers Juliet while looking through a fish tank. The 1996 film spoke directly to the hearts of Generation X and young Millennials.

Still, Zeffirelli’s film is the definitive cinematic version of the play, in my opinion.

Further Reading

  1. Hussey, Olivia. The Girl on the Balcony: Olivia Hussey Finds Life after Romeo and Juliet. Kensington Books, 2018.
  2. Jackson, Russell (2007). Shakespeare Films in the Making: Vision, Production and Reception. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. p. 213
  3. Zeffirelli, Franco. Zeffirelli. Arena Books, 1986.

© 2022 Andrea Lawrence

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