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Hollywood Power Abuse: Pressure On Young Actors To Do Nude Scenes

A black and white photo showing an older man on the left in a check jacket and turtle neck, a cigarette in his hand, next to a teenage girl with a pony tail smiling up at him, and a teenage boy in a jacket and sweater staring off to the right hand side.
From left to right, Italian film director Franco Zeffirelli (1923 - 2019) with actors Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting, in front of the National Gallery in London, UK, 23rd October 1967.
(Evening Standard/Getty Images
Hulton Archive)
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As the recent conviction of Harvey Weinstein and the rape charges filed against Scrubs producer Eric Weinberg attest, we are scarcely done confronting Hollywood’s long and shameful history of powerful men sexually assaulting those beneath them.

Yet that conduct is hardly limited to rape and other violent acts. Sometimes the behavior is seemingly less criminal but potentially no less insidious.

The then-teenage actors who starred in 1968’s Romeo and Juliet filed a lawsuit against Paramount Pictures this week, arguing that director Franco Zeffirelli forced them to perform in the nude, despite promises to the contrary.

Zeffirelli died in 2019, and Paramount has yet to comment.

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The allegations made by Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting, who are now in their 70s, not only sound plausible but also very familiar: I know several actors (all of them women) who were initially told they wouldn’t have to perform nude or topless, only to be aggressively encouraged to do otherwise once they arrived on set.

The practice was so prevalent in pay cable television some 20 years ago that it sparked a (not very funny) joke that actors would tell—playing off the marketing tag, “It’s not TV. It’s HBO”—that went “It’s not nudity. It’s HBO.”

When Zeffirelli directed Romeo and Juliet, Hussey was 16 and Whiting was 17. They allege that Zeffirelli told them their bodies would be covered with flesh-colored undergarments. But on the day of the shooting, one of the last in the production, Hussey and Whiting said in court documents that Zeffirelli told them “they must act in the nude or the picture would fail. Millions were invested. They would never work again in any profession, let alone Hollywood.”

Furthermore, the actors maintain that once they relented about the nudity, Zeffirelli misled them about where the cameras would be placed, thus exposing even more of their bodies than they expected.

Even though the alleged incident took place more than half a century ago, Hussey and Whiting were able to file their civil complaint thanks to a California law that temporarily pauses the statute of limitations for claims of sexual abuse against children. Their causes of action include childhood sexual abuse and intentional infliction of emotional distress; they are seeking more than $500 million in damages.

A light skinned man wearing a black tuxedo jacket, black tie and white shirt holds a gold colored Cesar award, the French equivalent of an Oscar
French actor Benoit Magimel delivers a speech after receiving the Best Actor award for the film "De Son Vivant" during the 47th edition of the Cesar Film Awards ceremony at the Olympia venue in Paris on February 25, 2022
(BERTRAND GUAY/AFP via Getty Images

The Romeo and Juliet lawsuit isn’t the only significant development involving the movie business and alleged sexual abuse.

The organizers of France’s César Awards, the country’s equivalent of the Academy Awards, said this week that nominees either convicted of or being investigated for sexual assault charges cannot attend its February ceremony. Such people can still compete for trophies, however.

“Out of respect for the victims, it has been decided not to highlight people who may have been implicated by the judiciary in acts of violence,” the César organizers said in a statement.

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It’s an imperfect solution—people being investigated for such crimes can very well be innocent—but it’s a start.

What questions do you have about film, TV, music, or arts and entertainment?
John Horn, entertainment reporter and host of our weekly podcast Retake, explores whether the stories that Hollywood tells about itself really reflect what's going on?

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