Friday, October 17, 2008

Wherefore Art Thou?

When I was, all those decades ago, in grade school, when the teachers needed to get something done - union meetings, parent conferences, God knows what - there would be a sudden shift in our otherwise lockstep days, and we would, with little warning and less explanation, be sent to the cafegymnatorium and shown a movie.

Sometimes it was a cobbled-together program of improving little documentaries and public safety films ("The Wonders of Modern Food Processing" with "Stop! Look! Cross!" as a double feature, for example). Sometimes it was a straight-out headscratcher (why would any sane teacher put 300 under-twelves in a room in 1971 and show them Duck Soup? It happened).

Mostly, though, they were pictures that were meant to be a little glimpse of High Culture in our drab lives, inspiring and enertaining. And by far the most entertaining of those, in my memory - although perhaps not for the reasons the principal intended - was Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet.

Here's why:

Zeffirelli, in what seemed for 1968 an amazing innovation, cast the movie with actors more or less of the age of the characters, and for Romeo he chanced on a little-known British stage novice (a veteran of Oliver! and not much else) named Leonard Whiting.

The rest is history. Olivia Hussey was Juliet, Michael York - fairly toothsome himself - was Tybalt, the location shooting was vital and glamourous, the costumes sumptuous, the whole thing very, very gala even as it was (terribly important at the time) Young, Hip, and Contempo.

But nothing approached the sheer beauty of young Leonard. And not just because, in a memorable scene that somehow, I suppose in the name of Kultcha, was not elided even for school viewing, we got a full-on butt shot. And very nice, too - it's around on the 'Net if you're interested (this is where I expect the Feedjit tracker will show a mass exodus to Google).

Together, the young leads really were pretty enchanting:

But unfortunately for Whiting, nothing much else happened. Hussey went on to a respectable enough career (although lately it's been mostly things like Psycho IV and one-offs on "Pinky and the Brain"), and Michael York of course was for many years a Big Star and is still very much at work.

Like many of the 60s pretty young men (think Keir Dullea or John Phillip Law), Whiting seems to have been a little too blank, a little too ethereal for the grittier 70s.

He tried to butch up for changing times, but the pickings were slim. He had a supporting part in Peter Shaffer's Incapalooza oddity, The Royal Hunt of the Sun, and he got a fair amount of attention headlining a TV version of the Frankenstein story. The the career more or less ended, though, in 1974 (right about when we were watching R&J at school, in fact) with an Israeli-made biblical sub-epic, Rachel's Man, that bizarrely also features Mickey Rooney and Rita Tushingham.

Rex Reed wrote about the furor that surrounded Romeo and Juliet's release, which included a gala royal premiere in London. It's an evocative bit that ends with an image of the young stars at the tail end of the ball that followed the screening:

" 2 a.m., when everybody else started turning into pumpkins, they stood in the middle of a lavish ballroom at Claridge's holding the magic as long as they could. Dazzling under the chandeliers like uncut diamonds, Romeo pulled off his tie, tore into that damnable collar, and lit into his third souffle'glace grand marnier, and Juliet kicked off her slippers, stepped all over the train of her Cappuci gown, and thrashed away the night with Prince Charles, heir to the throne of England, in one last sweaty Funky Broadway......And they lived happily ever after."

Well, not quite, perhaps, but it does seem to have been fun while it lasted.


  1. I recall a "Where Are They Now?" feature on Olivia and Leonard in "People" magazine in the 80's or early 90's; and, sadly, he did NOT retain his fawn-like beauty into maturity.

    But, oh, how divine it was while it lasted!

  2. Oh yes.
    Leonard Whiting and those codpieces are seared into my prepubescent mind.