Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Only the Young Die Good

Film: Romeo and Juliet (1968)
Format: DVD from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on laptop.

Every now and then I find it necessary to hammer home a point. This is one of those times. I really don’t like the story of Romeo and Juliet. There are two versions of the story on my Oscar list, which means that despite my wishing it weren’t so, I’ll have to sit through it twice. Not wanting to be put in the situation of watching them back-to-back, I figured it made sense to knock one out now. Romeo and Juliet from 1968 is widely considered the best example of the story put to film. It’s also the one that was available.

If you don’t know the story, you’re either very young or very sheltered. It is the classic tragic love story, the yardstick by which all such love stories are measured. It’s curious in that sense that I don’t like it very much. I like tragic romances more than I like happy ones. What it comes down to is that I don’t really like the characters and I don’t really like the way that the plot turns. I’m not going to do a long summary of the story here (really, you should know the story and know at least some of the characters). The essential plot is that two horny teenagers from feuding families fall desperately in lust with each other (and call it love) and get married in secret. Then everybody acts like an asshole and everybody dies.

Okay, maybe that’s a little unfair. I went into this with very guarded hopes, though, since I’d been told since my undergraduate days that Franco Zeffirelli’s version of Romeo and Juliet is the gold standard. There are a lot of things it gets right. First is the casting. One of the issues with the story is that we’re dealing with children. Romeo is supposed to be about 17 and Juliet is a week or so away from her 14th birthday in the play. The problem is finding actors young enough to be believable in this respect but still capable of pulling off the difficulty of Shakespeare’s dialogue and intensity of emotion.

Rather than going with experience actors, Zeffirelli went with, well, kids. Leonard Whiting was 17 or 18 when he took on the mantle of Romeo. Similarly, Olivia Hussey was 15 playing Juliet. It’s evident that Zeffirelli didn’t specifically cast them for their acting talents. They’re not terrible, but they’re also a little stiff at times. What they are, both of them, is physically gorgeous. It’s easier to buy the love at first sight angle when the two actors in question are staggeringly attractive. Yes, I realize that I’m saying that about a 15-year-old playing a 13-year-old. Yes, I agree that that’s disturbing.

The casting is equally good in other prominent roles. Aside from the two principal characters, the most important roles in the play in my opinion are Mercutio, Tybalt, Friar Laurence, and the nurse. All four here (John McEnery, Michael York, Milo O’Shea, and Pat Heywood respectively) are just about perfect.

It’s also worth saying that while I don’t like the story in general, it has some great moments. The death of Mercutio is one of Shakespeare’s great scenes. This is mainly because it demonstrates the tone of what is to come in the final acts. For someone unfamiliar with the story, we have simply a romance that has blossomed between unlikely suitors at the start of the play. When Mercutio (Romeo’s friend) is stabbed by Tybalt (Juliet’s cousin), the tone shifts immediately. It works even more because Mercutio up to this point has been a comic character. Shakespeare is telling the audience that he’s about to get serious because he’s killed off his clown, the one guy who has been consistently funny up to that point. He even makes jokes while he’s dying.

Another benefit here is the staging. This really is beautifully filmed, evidenced by the Oscars won for costume design and cinematography. With any play adapted to film, the question I tend to have is how the director has made use of film as a medium. Sure, there’s no question that this is based on a play, but Zeffirelli doesn’t have it look like a play. It looks like it’s taking place in a town. There are wide angle shots that show us Verona. Action in scenes (like the battle scenes between Mercutio and Tybalt and then Tybalt and Romeo) occur in a wide expanse, something that could never work on a stage. In short, Zeffirelli has done all he can to pluck the story from the stage and place it in a real world.

And that’s really what it all comes down to. Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet is a really good version of a story I really don’t like. It is, for me, like a pecan pie baked by the world’s best pastry chef. If you’re a fan of that, you won’t find it better, but nothing is going to get me past the fact that I really dislike pecans. I’m still not going to like the world’s best pecan pie. And I’m never going to really like the best version of a story I think sucks.

Why to watch Romeo and Juliet (1968): It’s the best version of the story available.
Why not to watch: It’s Shakespeare’s dippiest story.


  1. I'm guessing the other version on your list is the DiCaprio version. I actually feel that's a better film than this one, although this one is certainly a traditional adaptation. A big advantage is both DiCaprio and Claire Danes were much better actors. I think I remember you mentioning in your review of Much Ado About Nothing that adaptations set in modern times but with Shakespearean dialogue threw you some, so maybe the DiCaprio version won't be any better for you.

    I actually saw the 68 version of Romeo and Juliet in my English class as a Freshman in high school in 1979. We had to have our parents sign a permission slip to see the movie since it had nudity in it. I remember the girls in the class tittering when Romeo got out of bed and walked to the window. As for the 14 year old me, Juliet made quite an impression, even if it was just a split second. Can you imagine the shit that would hit the fan now if a teacher wanted to show this movie to 14 year olds in a classroom today? Things are way too uptight nowadays. And that's even more ridiculous with far, far more explicit content just a few key clicks away for teenagers nowadays.

    I did watch this movie again many years later and I agree that the performances seemed kind of stiff.

    1. The DiCaprio/Danes version of this story was only nominated for set design, so it doesn't fall into my categories. No, the version I have upcoming is from 1936 and features a 30-something Norma Shearer and a 40-something Leslie Howard. I'm not looking forward to it.

      I really have a hard time imagining that this would be objectionable. I also would guess that most 14-year-olds would much prefer the modernized version with actors they recognize today.

      I remember my college Shakespeare teacher complaining that there hadn't really been a great adaptation of the play on film because no actor who looked the part was capable of really playing the part of the two principle characters. This is a case where the director went with looks, and I have to say it was probably the right decision. Shakespeare can come off a little stiff anyway, so a wooden reading or two doesn't completely kill it. With a good supporting cast (John McEnery and Michael York are both spot-on), you can get away with it a little more.

      I do sometimes have a problem mentally adjusting to modernized Shakespeare, but I can usually adjust by the end of the first act. I think my issue in watching Romeo + Juliet would mainly be that I don't have any sympathy for either character no matter what time period they are in or, as in West Side Story, if there is well-choreographed dancing involved.

    2. If it's any consolation, I absolutely love the 1930s version. Sure, Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer are too old, but the 1930s version is just full of charming and highly entertaining Old Hollywood stuff. Andy Devine is hilarious.

      And if you like Mercutio, you should love John Barrymore in the role. He's a very decrepit and dissipated Mercutio, but Barrymore kills it nonetheless.

      I also like the 1968 version and the one with DiCaprio and Danes, but my favorite is the one from the 1930s.

    3. My anticipated problem with the 1930s version is that I really don't like Leslie Howard that much. He's cinematic Lunesta as far as I'm concerned, with the possible exception of Pygmalion.

    4. I've heard that line about this play somewhere, too. In the case of the DiCaprio version I felt that came damn close to balancing ability, age, and looks. He was 20 and coming off an Oscar nomination while she was 17 and had received universal praise for her work on the TV show My So Called Life. At the time of the film they were both the consensus "best of their generation" for each gender.

      For what it's worth, they just did another version last year with the girl from True Grit (Hailee Steinfeld) and a guy I'd never heard of. I haven't seen it, but I didn't hear very good things about it.

    5. I may watch it some day. I'd be a lot more excited about it and interested in it if I liked the story even a little bit.

  2. I've watched this movie I don't know how many times because I taught Freshmen English for two years and so had to teach Romeo and Juliet for two years. And my classes watched both this and the DiCaprio version for comparison. In that time, I came to find a particularly funny bit of trivia. Olivia Hussey was not allowed to go to the world premiere of this film because it featured nudity... which just so happened to be her own. (Which means this film also sexualizes underage nudity, albeit brief.)

    Also, Romeo looks freakishly like Zac Efron.

    1. He does at that.

      Olivia Hussey has had a strange career. After this, she did tons of weird horror movies.

  3. I really love this film, have done since I was 14,; though I like you don't really like the story itself. I do like Shakespeare's romantic language and imagery. Zeffirelli did a great job of expanding the story roots in a stage play. And the whole thing looks and sounds (love the music!) beautiful!

    1. I don't have a problem with Zeffirelli's nomination. If you're going to adapt a stage play for the screen, you should do something you can't do on stage. That's what he did, and I applaud him for that.