June 16, 2019

"Death will come soon to hush us along/Sweeter than honey and bitter as gall..."

Goodbye to Franco Zeffirelli, hushed along at age 96.

Here's the NYT obituary, "Franco Zeffirelli, Italian Director With Taste for Excess, Dies at 96."
His interest in Shakespeare was awakened by an older British woman, Mary O’Neill, who tutored him in English as a child and imbued him with ethical values that foiled the Fascist curriculum served up at school.

“She kept injecting in me the cult of freedom of democracy that remained in my DNA for the rest of my life,” Mr. Zeffirelli told Opera News....

He went on to study architecture at the University of Florence, until the onset of World War II interrupted his education. He joined Communist partisan forces, first fighting Mussolini’s Fascists and then the occupying Nazis. Captured by the Fascists, he was saved from the firing squad when his interrogator miraculously turned out to be a half brother whom he had never known. The half brother arranged his release....

In the late 1940s, the director Luchino Visconti spotted Mr. Zeffirelli, blond and blue-eyed, working as a stagehand in Florence.... A smitten Mr. Visconti gave him his big break in 1949, making him his personal assistant and set designer .... The two became romantically involved and lived together for three years. In his autobiography, published in 2006, Mr. Zeffirelli wrote that he considered himself “homosexual,” disliking the term “gay” as inelegant....
"Romeo and Juliet" is the 1968 movie in my "imaginary film project." What an impact that had on me when I was 17! My high school "outing club" "arts society" took the bus into Manhattan to see it.

The lyrics quoted in the post title are from the song "What Is a Youth" that you hear in the beautiful film clip embedded above. The words do not appear in the text of "Romeo and Juliet." The song lyrics were gathered (by Eugene Walter) "from songs in other Shakespearean plays, particularly Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice." The composer is the great Nino Rota.


Wince said...

Surprised by the amount of news buzz surrounding this director's death with, seemingly, only one fairly obscure major movie credit.

Is that because it became the definitive version of R&J with that dramatic, very Italian musical score that everyone remembers?

A perfect bridge between Elizabethan theater and the Italian setting of Shakespeare's tragic story?

tim in vermont said...

I was reading some George Bernard Shaw recently, and the forward mentioned that Shaw knew Shakespeare inside and out, admired him very much, but thought that Shakespeare was too stoic and didn’t write plays to foment change. Well 400 years later, people are still watching Shakespeare’s plays, and with the exception of “My Fair Lady” an adaptation of a Shaw play, almost nobody reads Shaw’s explicitly political plays anymore, much less puts them on. I was trying to read Major Barbara, and after a brilliant first act, I just couldn’t keep reading the explicit politics in the second.

Hemingway supposedly said that writers who put politics into their work die like everybody else, but their corpses just stink more.

Howard said...

A commie who fought Nazis. Who knew?

Fernandinande said...

Yesterday the grocery store was inundated with talkative Italians and one of them looked like he'd escaped from a 1960's Italian crime movie and it made me think about how Italian movies are not good.

Hagar said...

... Mr. Zeffirelli, blond and blue-eyed, ...

Among the Italian exchange students I met in Oslo in 1952 there was one such, 6'-2"", and built like Burt Lancaster in his prime, so I said, "Pardon me, but you don't look very Italian?" He laughed and explained that he came from a back valley in southern Italy that was settled by Goths at the time of the fall of the Roman empire and were still the dominant people in that valley.

tim in vermont said...

Ever since the commies have been trying to recreate their glory days by calling everybody they don’t like a Nazi.

Big Mike said...

As a teenaged male when “Romeo and Juliet” came out that nanosecond glimpse of Olivia Hussey full frontal was the stuff of dreams. We had studied the play in high school senior English class and the wonderful Miss Pierce made the point that Romeo and Juliet were our own age. It put the play into perspective, which was reinforced by Zeffirelli‘s casting.

Big Mike said...

@Nobody, what a brilliant observation!

JMW Turner said...

I was 18 in 1968,a hopeless romantic like so many kids who are in love with being in love. What a rich, textured Renaissance world with two gorgeous teens, relatable physically and emotionally to the contemporary times. This movie is a favorite of my Shakespearean collection.

Professional lady said...

That was/is a beautiful movie and it probably sparked an interest in Shakespeare for many people. I once read a biography of an English actress during the Regency period- she was mistress to one of the many sons of King George. At that time it was a tradition that only older actresses played Juliet - often in advanced stages of pregnancy (by some noble or royal paramour). Zefferelli's staging and casting really captured the intensity of emotion and recklessness of youth - after all, all the action in the play from the lovers' first encountering each other to death takes place over just a few days. I also loved the beauty of the Italian Renaissance costumes and staging.

Craig Howard said...

As a 15 year old in 1968, when “Romeo and Juliet” came out, that nanosecond glimpse of Leonard Whiting’s bare ass was the stuff of other dreams for me and reinforced suspicions I’d had about myself for a while. That moment of revelation has never left me.

chuck said...

> almost nobody reads Shaw’s explicitly political plays anymore

Shaw was a gadfly. The gads went extinct in the twentieth century and took the flies with them :) Shaw's participation in the legendary Brahms-Wagner war still makes for amusing reading.

tim in vermont said...

I have never seen that version of R&J. There is a recent one on Netflix with a very young Juliet, and it really does bring home that aspect of the tragedy.

wwww said...

An old movie, but a great one. My favourite performance of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Love how his understanding of opera & the teenage status of the main characters informed his production.


And suppose the darlings get to Mantua,
suppose they cheat the crypt, what next? Begin
with him, unshaven. Though not, I grant you, a
displeasing cockerel, there’s egg yolk on his chin.
His seedy robe’s aflap, he’s got the rheum.
Poor dear, the cooking lard has smoked her eye.
Another Montague is in the womb
although the first babe’s bottom’s not yet dry.
She scrolls a weekly letter to her Nurse
who dares to send a smock through Balthasar,
and once a month, his father posts a purse.
News from Verona? Always news of war.
Such sour years it takes to right this wrong!
The fifth act runs unconscionably long.

Maxine Kumin

Sebastian said...

"“She kept injecting in me the cult of freedom of democracy that remained in my DNA for the rest of my life" . . . He joined Communist partisan forces"

Cuz, what better way to promote freedom and democracy.

dgstock said...

During filming Franco reportedly told Olivia Hussey to go easy on the pasta as she was starting to strain her wardrobe.

Lexington Green said...

“What an impact that had on me when I was 17! ”
Please tell us more about this, Professor.

Mary Beth said...

My high school "outing club" took the bus into Manhattan to see it.

Coming right after the part where you quote, "Mr. Zeffirelli wrote that he considered himself “homosexual,” disliking the term “gay” as inelegant....", I read "outing" and thought, they have a club for that? Then I realized you meant the club went on outings. I'm not fully awake yet.

William said...

His 1990 version of Hamlet is worth seeing. Mel Gibson plays Hamlet as an action hero. Hamlet's procrastination is just a way of revving up the engines before the big sword fight.....Helena Bonham Carter made a fine Ophelia. Ophelia's most affecting scenes are when she starts talking gibberish. (You can see why women stars always want to play male roles in Shakespeare.) Anyway, Carter talks gibberish in the most heartbreaking way possible....As movie star productions of Shakespeare go, his are about the best.

bonkti said...

I,too, saw the movie at 15 with my parents while I was in the ninth grade, where I was a lackluster student. My karma: For the past 20 years I have been teaching an average of three ninth grade classes ending the year with a reading of the play and a viewing of the film.

It is reaching the Promised Land for me. But the students want to see the Baz Luhrmann effort with Leo DiCaprio,which has a rousing first scene but loses coherence.

Like Romeo's glimpsing Juliet when he thinks he desires Rosaline, the students who choose to look at the Zeffirelli never look back.

tim in vermont said...

On second thought regarding Shaw, in the first act of Major Barbara we have a foundling, orphanages, and Daddy Warbucks in Mr Undershaft, the germ of Annie. We have a Salvation Army major and her somewhat louche admirer, the germ of Guys and Dolls. So while Shaw dissipated his gift on partisan politics, musical theater looted his work.

tim in vermont said...

Not to mention the philosopher dustman in Mary Poppins.

William said...

Shaw was a keen observer of the foibles and inequities of Edwardian England. That just makes his stupidity when it comes to Soviet Russia all the more glaring. He didn't just turn his head. He actively cheered for their greatest crimes.

john mosby said...

Zeffirelli also did the elegant/spooky 1977 “Jesus of Nazareth” mini series.

One of his techniques was to cut it so that Jesus never blinks until he finally closes his eyes on the cross.


rcocean said...

"I believe Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet is the most exciting film of Shakespeare ever made" - Roger Ebert.

Zeffirelli received criticism from religious groups for what they call the blasphemous representation of biblical figures in his films. Contrariwise, Zeffirelli roused accusations of antisemitism for describing Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ as a product of "that Jewish cultural scum of Los Angeles which is always spoiling for a chance to attack the Christian world."

Also, A Gay Right-winger. Sounds like an interesting dude.

rcocean said...

I liked his Opera movies the best. Especially, "La Traviata" (1983)

Heartless Aztec said...

The Zeffirelli tombs in that beautiful graveyard of Basilica San Miniato across the river and above Florence are spectacular in way befitting the cities grandees and citizens. Fully equal to the art scattered throughout the city below...

rcocean said...

Shaw wrote two good plays "Pygmalion" and "Man and Superman". But the more I read him, the more i realized he was just a crank. Anything the English Bourgeois liked, he was against.

He was also an extremely weird person in real life.

Narr said...

The Bard's plays just never really do it for me; I too saw FZ's R&J for the fanny-flash but I'm blind to the appeal of the great works.

Stand not upon the order of my going

Zach said...

I love the Renaissance costumes.

cronus titan said...

Capulet (Juliet's father) was right. The guy just looked our for his 13 year old daughter, and instead she got mixed up with a 16 year old who just got dumped and had no discernible future.

Just thought I would point that out on Father's Day.

Zach said...

"“She kept injecting in me the cult of freedom of democracy that remained in my DNA for the rest of my life" . . . He joined Communist partisan forces"

Cuz, what better way to promote freedom and democracy.

I read a memoir by a Czech resistance fighter once (The Hitler Kiss -- very interesting) who pointed out that *everyone* in the partisans was a little bit Communist. They were suffering under a brutal Fascist occupation, and the only hope they had of doing anything about it involved the Red Army. Any fool who could read a map could tell they would get liberated by the Soviets or by no one.

The Communists later chased him out of Czechoslovakia, so that was an admission against interest. Their position after the war was that the entire Resistance was explicitly Communist, which justified elevating the Communist parties to preeminence in the postwar government. Someone who was nationalist but not Communist was inconvenient at best and dangerous at worst.

The Federalist Society did not have an armed guerilla wing in those days, so maybe we should cut him some slack about joining a group that did.

Marc said...

I watched this interview with Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting after I saw news of Zeffirelli's death. The interviewer (Bernard Braden, evidently someone quite well known in 1968's UK) was pulling teeth, it seemed to me, most of the time but maybe it is some English cultural otherness going on. The one moment Hussey seemed animated was when she responded to the intimation that 15 year old girls 'don't much smoke in public'. An artefact of what seems like the distant past; I was 11.

Ron Winkleheimer said...

That movie's ok, but for some really good Shakespeare check this out.


James K said...

Surprised by the amount of news buzz surrounding this director's death with, seemingly, only one fairly obscure major movie credit.

He was as known for his opera direction, both movies and Met productions, including most famously his Boheme and Turandot sets, depicted here.

Zach said...

Hussey's face and costume remind me of Da Vinci's Lady with an Ermine:


In fact, several of the characters in this scene have costumes or poses reminiscent of period art. I'll bet a Renaissance buff could pick out the individual paintings.

narciso said...

he ended up on the Right as a Senator in the 90s, under Berlusconi's banner, Forza Italia,

tim in vermont said...

“Capulet (Juliet's father) was right. The guy just looked our for his 13 year old daughter, and instead she got mixed up with a 16 year old who just got dumped and had no discernible future.”

I think about something like that whenever I hear the song “Cat’s in the cradle” by Harry Chapin. I hear Harry talk about his son and I think “Harry, you done good."

Andrew said...

That's a strange coincidence. I'm watching The Godfather today. (It is Father's Day, after all.) Like Romeo and Juliet, the musical score was written by Rota. What an amazing talent for melodies that encapsulate the images on the screen.

Narayanan said...

I wonder what Italian communist felt about this.

Fascist eventually banned it.

Initial release: September 14, 1942
Director: Goffredo Alessandrini
Adapted from: We the Living
Awards: Biennale Award
Nominations: Mussolini Cup for Best Italian Film

Narayanan said...

Buwaya should be able to inform better.

European fascist and communist went together and then split as did Hitler and Stalin.

Main goal for both to defeat LIBERALS

Marx himself must have met and influenced many Americans during his civil war reporting gig.

gadfly said...

From My Cousin Vinny:

Vinny Gambini: Is it possible, the two youts-
Judge Haller: Uh, two what? What was that word?
Vinny Gambini: What word?
Judge Haller: Two what?
Vinny Gambini: What?
Judge Haller: Did you say "youts"?
Vinny Gambini: Yeah, two youts.
Judge Haller: What is a yout?
Vinny Gambini: Oh, excuse me, your honor. Two youths.

Narr said...

Not sure which Americans Marx might have met in the 1860s--not denying, just not recalling.
He was quite the fan of the USofA, especially the dynamic capitalism of the North.

So FZ was a gay, Red, right-wing weirdo. Interesting, but those factors aren't important in judging his artistry. I'm not fan enough of Italian grand opera so haven't seen those things.

My rule of thumb is always to judge an artist by his best work. He or she will be remembered for that anyway.

And anyone who raises an eyebrow about any young European choosing an anti-Fascist, anti-German force just has no appreciation for the context of political affiliation in that place and time.

You couldn't mail in a ballot

madAsHell said...

Isn't Capulet Italian for "a little head"?

Yeah....Juliet was doomed from the beginning!!

Rory said...

"That movie's ok, but for some really good Shakespeare check this out."

Thank you.

tim in vermont said...

In the comments for Winkleheimer’s YouTube post somebody said that that was the greatest episode of any TV show ever. “Top ten, at least!” Might be true!

Here’s a hot link to Gilligan as Hamlet.


chuck said...

> Marx himself must have met and influenced many Americans during his civil war reporting gig.

IIRC, he stayed in England and wrote articles for the NY Tribune, one of the few times that he actually earned money. I read a collection of his articles and was impressed at first, but later discovered that many parts of his analysis might be considered common knowledge, at least among those who thought about such things, Sherman for example.

Narr said...

I had not recalled Marx actually having visited, or many contacts with America; his analysis as you say was actually fairly conventional.

He knew progress when he saw it

stephen cooper said...

Nobody - you probably know this ---- back in the day (for Gilligan's Island fans, that was the 1960s, for other people, back int the day means a different decade - life goes on) there was a tradition that any lousy TV show that went more than a few seasons would have what they called "a very special episode" ....
the actors on a typical sitcom were generally a mix, back then (talking about the 1960s, now), of middle aged people who had grown up on vaudeville, funny looking people who had gone to Yale Drama before heading to LA for acting gigs, but who wound up in sitcoms instead of films because, well, they were funny looking, and people who had little charisma and little talent but who were nevertheless hired for Harvey Weinstein reasons.

in order to keep the most talented of each crew around for another year, there was often an episode or two where the people who thought of themselves as real actors had a chance to show off, to do real actor stuff, to say things like "it is no small thing to be a friend to a creature who never had a friend in this world" (Hogans Heroes) or "the wish to pray is a prayer in itself" (the Munsters) or "a new commandment - love each other as you would wish to be loved" (Addam's Family) or "God loves you, Fred, the way you are, but God loves you much too much to let you stay the Fred you are" (Sanford and Son - that was Aunt Edith).

Of course most of the best lines were never televised. Or they were televised, and people like me remember them, but you can't find them on Youtube, for obvious reasons.

think about this - Marcia. Marcia. Marcia.

(that was a riff on one of King Lear's big lines in the play that bears his name, Ralph Richardson did a good job with the lines, but I was in a restaurant once at a table next to a really good actress and she did the lines even better after a couple of Manhattans - not Marcia Marcia Marcia but the original Shakespearean words from one of the later acts in that five act play, which, to tell the truth, would have been a better play in three acts .... just saying)

en la sua volontade esta nuestra esperanza

stephen cooper said...

in the will of God we recognize our greatest hopes

Char Char Binks, Esq. said...

I'd probably enjoy Shakespeare's plays more if they were translated into English.