Best Director Final 50: Franco Zeffirelli – Romeo and Juliet

FRANCO ZEFFIRELLI FOR ROMEO AND JULIET (1968)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

Carol Reed for Oliver!

Anthony Harvey for The Lion in Winter

Stanley Kubrick for 2001: A Space Odyssey

Gillo Pontecorvo for The Battle of Algiers

NOTE: dark blue text denotes individuals who won Oscars for the film being discussed, while light blue indicates those who were nominated.

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There are movies that bravely undertake the unfilmable, like 1967’s Ulysses or last year’s Cloud Atlas, and then there are those that, braver still, attempt the filmed-to-death.  Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 production of Romeo and Juliet is one of three Oscar-nominated direct adaptations of Shakespeare’s text, alongside the 1936 George Cukor version and the 1996 Baz Luhrmann Romeo + Juliet, a list that expands to include Best Picture winners West Side Story and Shakespeare in Love if you construe adaptation more broadly.  Somehow, I escaped watching this (or any) film version of the play during high school English.  Now that I’ve finally watched it, I have a hard time discerning whether Zeffirelli’s version seems so abjectly literal because of the reverent spirit in which it was conceived, or because it has so deeply influenced the decades of stagings, illustrations, and overall popular imaginings that followed it.  One way or another, this production rises to the level of standard, and while I’m always inclined to favor the radical (Throne of Blood, My Own Private Idaho) over the traditional treatment of Shakespeare’s work, I must credit Zeffirelli for at least doing a smart job in tackling perhaps the most clichéd story in Western literature.  Given the suffocating familiarity of the story, perhaps there is no better way to make a movie than to do it by the book, and as worthily as possible.

In some ways, this production’s faithfulness must be a bold step in its own right.  Both Zeffirelli’s on-location recreation of 14th century Italy and his casting of teenage leads was a marked improvement over the previous Best Picture nominee by this title, the Irving Thalberg-produced soundstage extravaganza featuring a thirtysomething Juliet and fortysomething Romeo.  On the first count, the film’s wins for both of its below-the-line Oscar nominations (Danilo Donati’s Costume Design and Pasqualino de Santis’ Cinematography) seem indisputable among the nominees: the two men work in tandem to conjure the total spectrum of Renaissance hues, including the stunning presentation of deep red clothing, peppering the whole film but most effectively used to make Juliet’s splendorous masquerade ballgown steamroll her competition.  (While unnominated, Nino Rota’s stately score and Renzo Mongiardino’s blending of Cinecitta sets with location footage deserve praise, at least from me.)  On the second count, while neither Olivia Hussey nor Zac Efron—er, Leonard Whiting—really merited a lone acting nomination for the film, the two young actors undeniably make the story of love at first sight more credible.  The ecstasy of the characters’ first meeting makes ideal sense in the whispers of the two breathless youths, and justify the joyous disbelief of the balcony scene when they learn that each other’s love is strong enough to conquer family prejudice.

Beyond these foundational aesthetic decisions, though, Zeffirelli makes a number of outstanding tactical choices throughout the film.  Among these are a number of indelible images, such as the rare onscreen depiction of Rosaline, Romeo’s fleeting first love, or the entombment of the slumbering Juliet among rows of dead Montague nobles, fragilely decaying beneath their death shrouds.  And perhaps Zeffirelli’s greatest attribute may be his ability to keep Shakespeare’s dialogue lucid, the intentions and inflections perfectly clear.  Mercutio’s “Queen Mab” monologue has the inspired air of a character making up a story for his friends’ amusement, while Juliet, in the midst of her final monologue, swoons along with the camera when she learns the irony that, “Thy lips are warm!”  From Gone with the Wind to Lincoln, the Academy Awards have a strong tradition of rewarding the impeccably old school, and in this case I tip my hat to Zeffirelli for his sure-handed job.

THE VOTE

1968 fell during a period of extreme schizophrenia in the Academy Awards, as vividly illustrated in Mark Harris’ book about the 1967 Best Picture field, Pictures at a Revolution.  Films like The Producers, Rosemary’s Baby, and Planet of the Apes dotted the nominations that year alongside the more conservative like Carol Reed’s Oliver! and Anthony Harvey’s The Lion in Winter, which figured into Zeffirelli’s Best Picture and Best Director competition.  However, just like in 1965, the real Best Director race is between the two rogue nominees: Stanley Kubrick for 2001: A Space Odyssey and Gillo Pontecorvo for The Battle of Algiers.  The two could hardly take more opposite approaches to an investigation of the human race, and choosing between the two masters is one of the toughest decisions ever posed to me by this category.  I give it to Pontecorvo for his indispensable study of oppression and resistance, with Zeffirelli taking a very respectable third place.

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One thought on “Best Director Final 50: Franco Zeffirelli – Romeo and Juliet

  1. […] outright masterpiece and a handful of minor classics, trailed by a string of enthralling visions, bold adaptations, and startlingly fresh commentaries. I’ve learned a few things in the process of writing […]

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