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Lawsuit over nude scene in 1968 ‘Romeo and Juliet’ tossed

The stars of the film — teenagers when the film was made — said a brief nude scene amounted to "child pornography." A judge disagreed.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — A Los Angeles County judge on Thursday thew out a lawsuit filed by the two stars of the 1968 film version of "Romeo and Juliet" following a successful anti-SLAPP motion.

The critically acclaimed and Oscar-nominated film starred Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey, who were 16 and 15 years old, respectively, when production began. During the film's now-famous "bedroom scene," which takes place the morning after the two title characters are married, the camera shows Whiting's bare buttocks, as well as a brief glimpse of Hussey's bare breasts.

Whiting and Hussey, now in their 70s, sued Paramount in late 2022, 54 years after the movie was released, claiming sexual harassment and childhood sexual abuse. They say the film's Italian director, Franco Zeffirelli, pressured them into taking off their clothes but assured them the scene would feature no nudity. According to the civil complaint, "Defendants were dishonest and secretly filmed the nude or partially nude minor children without their knowledge, in violation of the state and federal laws regulating child sexual abuse and exploitation."

The suit asked for $500 million in damages.

The scene was always controversial. But in the past, Hussey had defended it. In 2018, she said in an interview, "It wasn’t that big of a deal... And Leonard wasn’t shy at all! In the middle of shooting, I just completely forgot I didn’t have clothes on.”

Paramount filed an anti-SLAPP motion, a legal maneuver that allows defendants to quickly dismiss a meritless lawsuit aimed at discouraging free speech or public participation. Among other things, the studio argued the film was free speech because it "set off a public debate about nudity in film." It went on to quote film critic Roger Ebert, who wrote in 1968, "A lot of fuss has been made about the brief, beautiful nude love scene. I doubt whether anyone could see it and disapprove of it, but apparently someone has."

LA County Superior Court Judge Alison Mackenzie agreed to dismiss the suit on anti-SLAPP grounds for a number of reasons. One was procedural: the plaintiffs had not submitted "certificates of merit" executed by a licensed mental health practitioner, which was requited in order to be exempt from the statute of limitations.

But the judge also weighed in on the merits of the case, writing in her tentative ruling, "Plaintiffs 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."

The plaintiffs' attorney, Solomon Gresen, strongly disagreed, arguing that the bedroom scene amounted to "pornographic material," and that it depicted Whiting and Hussey in "an act of sexual congress."

The judge said she had just watched the scene and called Gresen's description a "gross mischaracterization" of it.

Gresen then became angry, saying the fact that the judge had watched the scene was "misconduct" and would "invalidate the entire ruling."

After the hearing, in a phone interview, Gresen explained that he believes that Paramount's lawyers had submitted an "edited" version of the scene "for the purposes of misleading the judge."

"For the judge to say that, as a matter of law, this was not pornographic material because it did not depict sexual activity —that’s not what the law requires," he added.

The judge said she would address some of the attorneys' objections in her final ruling, but that the outcome of the case wouldn't change.

As to the ruling, Gersen said, "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." He said they would re-file a different version of the lawsuit in federal court "within a few weeks."

Paramount's attorney Richard Kendall declined to comment on the ruling.

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