Zeffirelli, Franco: Oscar-Nominated Italian Director (Romeo and Juliet, Taming of the Shrew), Dies at 96

Franco Zeffirelli, the Oscar-nominated Italian director of the 1968 version of Romeo and Juliet, has died at his home in Rome on Saturday. He was 96.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Zeffirelli is best known for his literary versions of  “Romeo and Juliet,” “Hamlet,” “Taming of the Shrew” and “Jane Eyre,” but his legacy as director of opera and theater productions more consistent and long-lasting.

He directed, co-wrote and co-produced the 1966 production of “Taming of the Shrew,” starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, one of the celebrated pair’s most successful co-starring assignments. Spirited and amusing, it paved the way for a youthful and sexy “Romeo and Juliet,” which was a major box office success in the U.S. in 1968.

Romeo and Juliet, which starred the unknown teenagers Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting, also received a best picture nomination and garnered Oscar Awards for cinematography and costume design.

The film introduced a new generation to Shakespearean tragedy, created notoriety at the time for showing Hussey topless and was a big hit for Paramount.

A year earlier, Zeffirelli wrote and directed an adaptation of another Shakespeare classic, The Taming of the Shrew, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton at the peak of their careers.

In 1990, he helmed Hamlet, toplined by Mel Gibson, then known as an action hero, and Glenn Close.
On the casting of Gibson, Zeffirelli once said, “He gave a magnificent performance in the first Lethal Weapon,” he said. “I thought, ‘That’s it. He is attractive, he is naughty, he is dangerous.’ ”

Zeffirelli staged opera in an epic style and drenched movies in the pathos of opera. His works were unabashedly sweeping extravaganzas that were popular with tourists and moneymakers for such auspicious venues as the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

His lavish romantic style was sentimental, as seen with The Champ (1979), the boxing-movie remake starring Jon Voight, Faye Dunaway and Ricky Schroder, and Endless Love (1981), which starred a young Brooke Shields, and, in his film debut, Tom Cruise.  Zeffirelli’s first cut on the latter received an X rating.

His religious epics were traditional and blessed by the Vatican. In 1972, he directed Brother Sun, Sister Moon, about the life of St. Francis of Assisi, and five years later helmed the international miniseries Jesus of Nazareth; Hussey played the Virgin Mary.

His other films included the operatic La Traviata (1982) and Otello (1986), both starring the Spanish tenor Placido Domingo. For La Traviata, he earned another Oscar nomination for art direction-set decoration.

Since his work on Verdi’s Falstaff in 1964 under the musical direction of Leonard Bernstein, Zeffirelli directed other operas including Tosca and Norma, both starring Maria Callas, Anthony and Cleopatra, Pagliacci and La Traviata.

His direction of La Boheme in 1981 with Teresa Stratas and Jose Carreras was extravagant, for which he created all the ornate lavish sets.

He received five David di Donatello Awards during the course of his career.

He was born in Florence, Tuscany, on February 12, 1923, the product of affair his mother had with a  salesman. His mom wanted his last name to be Zeffiretti, after the title of an aria in Mozart’s opera Idomeneo.  The word means “little breezes,” but an error in transcription dashed that.  She died when he was just 6.