In the Charlie Rose interview above from 1996, Italian filmmaker Franco Zeffirelli talks about his new project, an adaptation of “Jane Eyre”. He was usually a man of the classics; after all, his breakthrough came with two very popular Shakespeare adaptations. Yesterday, he passed away at the age of 96.
Born in Florence, Franco Zeffirelli lost his mother at an early age and grew up in the British expatriate community, which he depicted in the film Tea with Mussolini (1999). He studied art and architecture, but when World War II broke out Zeffirelli fought as a partisan and also worked for the British as a translator. After the war he came into the film business, learning the craft from Luchino Visconti, Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini. Theater was also close to him and directing plays was how he ended up in London and New York in the 1960s.
He broke through as a film director with a very high-profile movie, The Taming of the Shrew (1966), starring two of the biggest stars at the time, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. That was his ticket to making Romeo and Juliet (1968), which was a huge hit and turned a teenaged Olivia Hussey into a star. The clip above shows Juliet on the balcony; the beauty of the scene, Hussey and Nino Rota’s music was a perfect combination to audiences. The director received an Oscar nomination for his work.
Zeffirelli was a man of faith, which was clear during the 1970s when he made Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972), a drama about Saint Francis of Assisi, that probably guaranteed Zeffirelli’s hiring as director of Jesus of Nazareth (1977), one of the most popular miniseries ever made. With an all-star cast, this seminal TV event chronicled the life, death and resurrection of Christ. The treatment was traditional, but made a great impact on audiences worldwide, including myself as a kid who virtually grew up in a church. This is certainly what I’ll remember Zeffirelli for.
When the director turned to material that wasn’t part of the classics, like Endless Love (1981), he was less successful. But even when he made Hamlet in 1990, he could challenge himself by casting Mel Gibson in the lead. That turned out quite well. In the 1980s, he did a lot to promote opera by filming several productions, especially La Traviata (1983). In the 1950s Zeffirelli had become a close friend of Maria Callas’s, and they worked together on several occasions over the years; his last film was the biographical Callas Forever (2002).
Zeffirelli’s political views were harder to stomach. Even though he was gay, he would defend the worst aspects of his beloved Catholic Church. Like so many other children, he was abused by a priest, but once said in an interview that “he suffered no harm”. He had no problem with the church’s homophobia and reportedly thought women who had abortions deserved the death penalty. He attacked Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) as the product of “Jewish cultural scum” and also served as a senator aligned with the deeply corrupt Silvio Berlusconi and his rightwing party.
The British director Bruce Robinson also accused Zeffirelli of having made unwanted sexual advances on him during the production of Romeo and Juliet and later had his revenge by basing Richard Griffith’s dirty old man in Withnail and I (1987) on Zeffirelli (watch the clip above).
No, Franco Zeffirelli may not have been a man you’d want to know personally. But his cultural legacy is undeniable.