Olivia Hussey was 15 years old when Franco Zeffirelli cast her in his adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. She had been a working stage actor for a few years but was unknown in the world of film and had no agent or manager. Her parents had split up when she was 1, and she hadn’t seen her father, an Argentine singer, since she was 7; her mother, a British secretary who worked three jobs, wasn’t around on set. To make the film, Olivia, along with her co-star, Leonard Whiting, moved in with the director in his villa outside Rome. Hussey was in awe of Zeffirelli. “When he comes into the room and speaks, no one else says anything,” she told a journalist at the time. “No one else can compete with anything he says, his ideas are so brilliant.” Sometimes she called him “Daddy.”
If he was a father figure, he wasn’t a very nurturing one. His focus on her body was relentless. Before the shoot began, she was ordered to go to a doctor who prescribed her diet pills that made her ill. By the time the cameras were rolling, Olivia weighed 100 pounds and wasn’t allowed to gain any weight. When she told Zeffirelli she was self-conscious about her chest and wasn’t sure about wearing a low-cut dress, he gave her the nickname “Boobs O’Mina,” which he would shout into a megaphone whenever he wanted her on set. She later reasoned he had humiliated her in order to break down her defenses. “Clever man,” she wrote in her memoir. “By constantly calling attention to my body, he had drained away my embarrassment.”
Zeffirelli waited until nearly the end of production to shoot the film’s most controversial scene. In a departure from Shakespeare’s text, he moved the young lovers’ postcoital scene from Juliet’s balcony to her bedroom. He shot the couple naked in bed together, covered only by a sheet and the angle of the camera. Olivia did not realize she would be fully undressed until that morning, when the makeup man arrived and announced he was there to make her up “head to toe.” Panicking, she ran to Zeffirelli, who promised her the audience would see only “a hint — a bare back, a shoulder.” For most of the shoot, she lay in bed holding the sheet over her chest, but Zeffirelli had placed her nightgown out of reach so that her nipples were briefly exposed when she rose to get it. She didn’t realize this moment made the final cut until she saw the film for the first time at its royal premiere in London, where she sat behind Prince Philip, Prince Charles, and the queen.
In the end, the scene proved central to the film’s good fortune. Zeffirelli had turned Shakespeare’s complex tale of a status-obsessed mercantile society into a fever dream of teenage rebellion and youthful lust perfectly suited to the tempestuous climate of 1968. It was sexy and beautiful and sad, and it reflected a common fixation of the era: young people fighting to get their own way in a world set against them. In the marketing materials, Paramount, the film’s distributor, emphasized Olivia and Leonard’s youth and their nudity. On the poster, Olivia lies on Leonard’s bare chest, her long dark hair falling down her back. “You can see her flesh, which is like an apricot,” Zeffirelli told a reporter for The Observer in 1967. “In the bed you can see the long line of his backbone. Which is just right.” When Olivia and Leonard were asked about the scene, they too said it was just right. “It doesn’t look dirty,” Olivia told one reporter at the time. “I think it works better that way,” said Leonard. The film was hugely profitable for both Zeffirelli and Paramount, yielding what was then the highest ratio of investment to earnings in the studio’s history. Its success helped revive Paramount, which had been on the verge of closing after a series of flops. For Zeffirelli, who had been known mostly as a director of lavish opera productions, its popularity was transformative. “The effect on me was stunning,” he wrote in his autobiography. It made him rich and internationally renowned. “I had crossed over from one state into another.” Olivia and Leonard, meanwhile, each made less than $3,000.
For almost a year, they promoted the film. They were the two most famous teenagers in the world, and Olivia’s face was everywhere. She inspired a collectible doll in South Korea and was the cover girl for the Yardley cosmetics campaign (a shoot she says she was never paid for). Olivia hated the crowds and the flashing bulbs, and she resented how frugal she had to be on the road. With no budget for clothes, she would wash her dresses in hotel sinks. In a story for Seventeen magazine, she said she often felt moody — “sad and happy, depressed and then gay, all mixed up for no reason that I can think of.”
Over the next five decades of her life, Hussey drifted. A few months after the royal premiere, she told a reporter she was broke and struggling to find work. On the shoot, she had grown ashamed of her body, which led to bouts of bulimia and more diet pills, and in the wake of the premiere, as she was stalked by paparazzi, she developed crippling agoraphobia. She couldn’t quite seem to motivate herself anymore — to work, to leave the house, to do much of anything. She didn’t act for nearly two years after Romeo and Juliet, talking herself out of big roles in major films, including True Grit, starring John Wayne. When she finally did take a role, it was in a little-seen independent film, which she agreed to do only because the director showed up at her mother’s house and Hussey thought he seemed nice. She did most things that way. If someone took an interest in her, she trusted them immediately and would do whatever they asked. She moved to L.A. at the urging of a manager who told her it would help her career. It didn’t. Into her 60s, she acted in dozens of films, but either they were small, or the roles were small, or both. She worked with dozens of managers, but they never seemed to have her best interests in mind. One persuaded her to sign bad contracts for his own enrichment. Some stole from her outright. In 1993, a manager named Jay Lawrence Levy was arrested after forging checks in her name and taking out a mortgage on her house off Mulholland Drive; Hussey lost her life savings and was forced to sell the home. She went bankrupt not long after. “I trusted everybody I ever met,” she said. “That was my weakness.”
In 2018, Hussey published her memoir, a book shot through with sorrow and loss. It chronicles the long line of men who had gained her trust and betrayed her. “The town floats on a vicious undercurrent of slime: it bubbles up, it seeps through,” she wrote. “If only I had been tougher, saying no to the wrong people and yes to the right people. But I always follow my heart.” As she was preparing to publish the book, she’d asked Paramount for a small favor — she wanted to use an image of her face from the balcony scene for the cover. They replied that it would cost $10,000. How dare they, she thought. How much more can these people take?
Those thoughts might have ended there if not for a chance encounter with a new business manager three years ago. “I thought it was something we were going to carry to our graves,” Hussey told me this summer. “But then Tony called.”
Tony Marinozzi, 61, lives in a Cape Cod–style house in Mentor, Ohio, a town of 47,000 in the Cleveland suburbs. His home office was dark and cluttered when I visited, the desk and shelves strewn with scraps of paper covered in scribbles. “I’m very bad at organization,” he told me. He is tall and lean with dark lines under his eyes and was dressed in baggy sweatpants and an oversize T-shirt. He brought me to his computer, where he opened a 500-plus-page document that he described variously as a manifesto, a masterpiece, and “hundreds of pages of craziness.” “It’s the guide to show us how we’re going to beat Paramount,” he said.
Marinozzi was referring to a legal battle he had taken up on behalf of Hussey and Whiting. This past December, at Marinozzi’s suggestion, the actors filed a civil lawsuit seeking up to $500 million from Paramount Pictures, alleging that Zeffirelli had forced them to expose their naked bodies on film. Zeffirelli died in 2019, but the actors didn’t sue his estate; they argued that the director was an authorized agent of Paramount and that the studio profited from their abuse. “I’m big on fighting for a cause,” Marinozzi told me. “It’s my William Wallace thing.” On his wall hung a framed poster of Mel Gibson as Wallace in Braveheart, one of Marinozzi’s favorite movies. (It happens to be a Paramount film.) Fiddling with his pen, he compared himself to the warrior-hero and his men, who used arrows, swords, and “anything they could find” to fight for their freedom. He quickly added he hadn’t watched all of Gibson’s work and just happened to like that one. I pointed out that he also had a framed poster of Gibson in The Passion of the Christ. “I am a Jesus guy,” he explained.
Marinozzi had never represented a major actor before. His clientele mostly consisted of a handful of little-known wrestlers and athletes with disabilities. His introduction to Hussey came by way of a series of bizarre and random occurrences. In 2020, a salesman cold-called the house looking to push supplements on Marinozzi’s partner, a homeopath named Dr. Jane Li-Conrad. “I thought he was kind of fishy,” Li-Conrad recalled over dinner. Marinozzi had a different impression: “I go, ‘He sounds pretty interesting.’ He told me a couple of crazy stories, and I loved it.” The salesman showed Marinozzi his website, which featured a picture of a “medical futurist” and physician from Malibu named Gayle Madeleine Randall. Marinozzi found her appearance intriguing. “She was real tall,” he recalled. He reached out and pitched her a few business ideas. “He does that all the time,” Li-Conrad said. “I just like doing it,” Marinozzi told me. “I could have been hired a million times over at ad agencies, but I don’t want to sit in a room. You’re not controlling me.”
As he and Randall spoke, she mentioned that one of her patients was Olivia Hussey. Randall had been treating her in the wake of her second bout of breast cancer. By then, Hussey had all but stopped acting. Her last role of any significance came in 2003, when she portrayed Mother Teresa in a TV biopic. She had three children now and was living a modest life in the Hollywood Hills with her third husband, the metal musician David Glen Eisley. Marinozzi did what he does — he called Hussey out of the blue and offered a few suggestions. He envisioned a perfume, maybe a jewelry line. Most exciting of all, for him, he imagined writing and producing a sort of sequel to Romeo and Juliet set in Heaven. Shakespeare, it seemed, had left money on the table by failing to write a play about what happens to the young lovers after they die. Hussey was surprised by the attention. She hadn’t been looking for a manager, but funds were tight and she liked the idea of a perfume line and maybe a coffee-table book. She introduced Marinozzi to Whiting, with whom she had remained in touch over the years, and Marinozzi took him on as a client as well.
The idea of suing Paramount came about gradually. Shortly before they began working together, Hussey got into a dispute with her landlord and ended up filing for bankruptcy for the second time. (Hussey’s husband, Eisley, said they were $22,000 in debt.) Marinozzi was surprised she was so hard up. “She’s in a rental, she’s living month to month,” he said. “I’m thinking, Wow, when you look at Romeo and Juliet and all the films she did, something’s not adding up.” In 2021, he learned that a clip of Hussey’s face in the film had just appeared in a Kacey Musgraves music video. Marinozzi wondered if there might be some legal angle to pursue: Shouldn’t the studio offer his clients a cut?
Over the following months, Hussey would occasionally tell Marinozzi about working on Romeo and Juliet. “It wasn’t all lots of fun,” she said. Whenever Marinozzi suspects one of his clients is struggling with some sort of emotional problem, he sends them to an acquaintance of his, Stacy Feiner, a “business psychologist” who lives in Cleveland. Feiner has a doctorate in clinical psychology and had previously worked as a therapist but had set aside that practice in her 30s and eventually started a business as a sort of performance coach, using psychological principles to help her clients succeed financially. When I asked why she was drawn to this work, she said, “At 8 years old, I discovered that I could, or I would, improve the human condition.” Feiner met with both actors and came to the conclusion that they were severely traumatized by their experiences on the set of Romeo and Juliet. In particular, she felt Zeffirelli had harmed them by pressuring them to perform nude and Paramount had further harmed them by using their nudity to promote the movie. “They were coerced, and that is problematic. Their parents were not informed. That’s problematic. They were underpaid and paraded around,” Feiner said. She pointed to a “case study” she’d posted on her LinkedIn page that she had based on Hussey. In it, she wrote of an actress who “had yet to reconcile the betrayal of those she trusted — the source of her inconsolable rage.” After their work together, the actress could “perform better” and experience “a true and powerful comeback.”
A few months after Feiner met with Hussey and Whiting, a lawyer friend of Marinozzi’s told him about the California Child Victims Act, a 2020 law that temporarily expanded the statute of limitations on suing over claims of child sex abuse. The act was passed in recognition of a growing body of research showing that children who have been sexually abused can take decades to come forward or even to realize they have been harmed. Since its passage, thousands of plaintiffs had filed suits in California with abuse claims stretching back to the 1940s. Marinozzi wondered if the results of Feiner’s analysis could be grounds for a lawsuit. Both actors thought it was a good idea. But the law would be in effect for only a few more months, through the end of 2022. Marinozzi needed to act fast. He called up Solomon Gresen, an Encino plaintiff’s attorney and former college wrestler who was acquainted with some of Marinozzi’s contacts in the wrestling world. They filed the lawsuit on December 30, the day before the Child Victims Act expired.
In the complaint, they argued that Zeffirelli forced Hussey and Whiting to appear naked, threatened to destroy their careers if they refused to do so, and filmed them naked without their knowledge, causing them physical and mental anguish and a lifetime of lost earnings and opportunities. They accused Paramount of “repackaging what is essentially pornography” as art and reselling that “poisonous product” for a profit over Hussey’s and Whiting’s objections since 1968. The nude scene, they argued, was “evidence of a crime.” The lawsuit was dismissed in May, in part because of procedural errors. “It knocked me back for a second, but it didn’t keep me down for more than a couple of hours,” Marinozzi said. “I started looking for the loopholes immediately.” He’s now working on a new case to file in federal court.
In his office, he confessed his motives were not entirely altruistic. He jumped up and handed me The Definitive Guide to Screenwriting, by Syd Field. “I read it every day, I swear to you,” Marinozzi said. He had always dreamed of making it in Hollywood. Growing up, he was gregarious and good-looking, and people told him he should be an actor. He had other ideas.
“I thought I was going to be the next Coppola,” he said. The closest he ever got to fulfilling his dream was in the ’90s, when he wrote a screenplay for a mob movie called Entrapped. The film was partly inspired by a scam Marinozzi had pulled in his 20s while working as an insurance agent. He had secured a bank loan and an insurance policy on a car that didn’t exist; he then reported the car stolen and collected the award. After an undercover FBI agent arrested him, he pleaded guilty and paid a fine. “I made a mistake,” he said afterward. “I was a mob wannabe.” Not long after, he moved to Hollywood and started writing his screenplay.
Marinozzi spent years trying to raise money for the film. He courted an investor named Jim Capwill, a corrupt Cleveland businessman who promised to lend him $1.2 million. When it became clear that Capwill wouldn’t come through, Marinozzi tipped off the FBI to Capwill’s illegal activities: stealing more than $100 million from his clients. (Capwill eventually pleaded guilty to money laundering.) The film fell apart, and Marinozzi decided it was time to become a business manager. It was a “terrible disappointment,” he told me. It was also a disappointment for some of the people who had worked on Entrapped. One producer, Mitch Berlingeri, spent at least two years on the project. Looking back, he’d come to feel Marinozzi lied, telling people whatever he thought they wanted to hear. “He was flattering, and he knew people with money, and he was a good talker,” Berlingeri told me. But nothing ever came of all that talk, he said. “He kind of just bamboozled everybody into wasting their time.”
Twenty-five years after leaving Hollywood, Marinozzi still hopes to break into the screenwriting business. He gestured toward a bookshelf lined with scripts of his favorite films. “You can put me in a room with any screenwriter you want,” he said. “I’m not saying that other guys haven’t done some great things.” He offered a few examples: Quentin Tarantino, William Goldman. As he saw it, the world was finally about to recognize him as their peer. Hussey’s and Whiting’s legal drama, he told me, would serve as fodder for a sensational screenplay. The opening would re-create Zeffirelli’s bedroom shoot with a pair of young actors. He would call the film Bedroom Secrets. “To represent the stars, to write the script, produce it, fund it, and most importantly, control it — that’s the key,” he said. Recently, he’d called Hussey and thanked her. “I said, ‘Do you believe all my dreams are coming true because of you?’”
On a Tuesday afternoon in July, Hussey met me at a table in the far back corner of the Chateau Marmont lobby, a long, empty room with faded brocade couches and threadbare carpets. Most of the patrons were out by the pool, but she had asked to sit somewhere private with her back to a wall. At 72, Hussey still wears her hair long. She is beautiful, tiny, and frail, and she spoke in a raspy whisper that could barely be heard above the soft supplications of an old-fashioned crooner. She told me she suspected we were destined to meet that very day, in that very place. “I don’t want to sound like a dingbat,” she said, “but I’m very trusting in this thing we call God.” She wore tinted wireless glasses and a little straw hat with a black sash. She tugged the rim down around her eyes. “When I wear my hat, it makes me feel like I’m in my cocoon,” Hussey said. Although she’d been spending almost all of her time at home, she felt happy to be back out in the world. “Chateau Marmont,” she said with a sigh. “I could sit here forever.” Peering across the room, Hussey laid a hand on her heart. Sitting at the opposite end was Keanu Reeves. “He gets up and lets ladies sit on the bus,” she said reverently. “He’s not just a schmuck, like so many are.”
Hussey’s service dog, a little gray-haired mutt named Rupert whom she rescued off the street nine years ago, curled up beside her on a cushion. She asked for two glasses of water: one for herself, one for the dog. “We’re not going to start until the water,” she said. Once it arrived, she told me she’d never imagined she would file a lawsuit against Paramount. She had never been good at strategizing. “All my life I flitted from thing to thing,” she said. “Everything in my life is instinct.”
For nearly her entire life, Hussey’s instinct had been to protect the legacy of the movie she loved so dearly. “I was honored and happy to play this amazing role,” she said. “It was a perfect film. Perfect performances by everyone involved. Young people still watch it. It sounds silly, but it’s a big deal.” Widely considered a masterpiece, the film is screened in high-school English classes around the country, and its fan base, if not as vast as it was in 1968, remains enthralled by its sumptuous palette, its haunting score, the astonishing beauty of its stars. Hussey still communicates with her fans on Facebook and Instagram: “To hear them say, ‘You’ve changed my life’ — those words are, like, ‘Thank you, God.’ I don’t know what I did, but I’m so happy I did.”
Until the news of her lawsuit broke, fans had little reason to suspect Hussey was holding on to any bad feelings about the film or the man who directed it. As recently as 2018, she’d asked Zeffirelli to write the foreword to her memoir. In that book, she touches only briefly on the nude scene, writing that she was nervous about performing naked but trusted Zeffirelli’s judgment. “By the end,” she concludes, “I had forgotten about my shyness, the camera, and indeed my nightgown.” Even now, she speaks of Zeffirelli with reverence. “I loved Franco with all my heart,” she told me. “One look from Franco saying, That’s it, would make my whole freaking week. He could get a performance out of me. He was a genius, and it was my honor to work with him.” She paused and fiddled with a loose piece of wood on the couch’s armrest. “But that was not all of Franco,” she said.
Zeffirelli was in his 40s when he directed the film. By many accounts, including his own, he was not an easy man to work with. “I have a difficult character. I’m vindictive,” he once told a reporter. Hussey recalled Zeffirelli’s tendency to lash out for no reason. “He yelled at everybody. If he was having a bad day, if the ideas weren’t coming, he’d get on his megaphone.” Nearly ten years after Romeo and Juliet, she worked with him again on Jesus of Nazareth. One day, he threw a glass of water in her face in front of the crew. The entire production ground to a halt. Nobody knew what to do. “I didn’t say a word,” she told me. “I carried on. I did the scene.”
Like Hussey, Zeffirelli had grown up without a father, and his mother died when he was 6. Raised mostly by an eccentric aunt, he was sexually abused by a priest. In an Italian edition of his autobiography published in 2006, Zeffirelli wrote that he didn’t feel damaged by the abuse and that homosexual experiences “are not always bad for boys.” In recent years, a handful of male actors have alleged that Zeffirelli had sexually abused them. Hussey wasn’t shocked to hear those stories. In interviews over the years, the screenwriter and onetime actor Bruce Robinson has described how Zeffirelli cornered him in an empty room of his apartment in Rome and forced his tongue down his throat. Robinson had played Benvolio in Romeo and Juliet, and on that set, he told Hussey that Zeffirelli kept making passes at him and retaliated when the actor rejected them. At one point, Hussey said, Zeffirelli directed another actor to punch Robinson in the stomach as hard as he could. She recalled Robinson weeping about it. “He had a terrible time,” she said. “You can love somebody but not like who they are as a person.”
When I asked Hussey how she felt about the nude scene today, she took a tiny sip of water. “I’m getting hot, thinking of it. It’s ridiculous,” she said. She recalled the words Zeffirelli had used to pressure her into taking off her clothes: “We want young people to love it 50 years from now when we’re all dead or old. And what do young people love? They love passion. They love youth. Naked bodies.” “Things which I understand as a person that understands art,” she continued. She’d never been in bed with a boy before or naked in front of one, and she was terrified. “But when you’re acting, you always pretend everything is fine,” she said. After she finished shooting that day, she went into her dressing room and locked the door. She thought about what her devout Catholic mother would say. “I didn’t know what I was feeling, but I started to cry, and I cried and I cried. I cried for a good 15 minutes,” she said. “Everything I felt came out then.” All these years later, Hussey can’t quite banish the thought that she was somehow to blame for the shame she carried from the set. “If I’d had a body like a model, maybe it would’ve been a lot easier,” she said. “But I loved to eat. I had a tummy, I was round. I was a typical teenager, but my breasts were like 34D. So after that, I just always felt I had to be thinner, I had to be thinner.”
Two of Hussey’s oldest friends from London told me that when Hussey returned from the shoot in Rome, she was different. “Before, we would laugh all the time. She was afraid of nothing,” said Lavinia Hudson, who acted alongside Hussey in the West End production of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in the years before she was cast as Juliet. “She was a go-getter.” After the shoot, “she was always guarded,” Hudson said. “It just destroyed her,” added Linda Deverell, who met Hussey at acting school in London when they were both 11. “Her self-esteem was so low.” Deverell recalled going out with her in London and throwing up together in the bathroom. They disagreed about Zeffirelli. Deverell felt he was abusive and untrustworthy and warned Hussey not to put her faith in him. Hussey refused to listen. “She had no father figure in her life,” Deverell told me. “And she was always vulnerable to anyone who was going to offer that. She adored him, and he’d strip her down to the bone to get what he wanted.”
After Hussey moved to L.A., Deverell didn’t see her for more than five years. They reunited in the late ’70s when Hussey returned to London to shoot Jesus of Nazareth. Deverell was shocked by how badly her old friend seemed to be doing. Hussey had separated from her first husband, Dean Martin’s son, whom she’d married at 20. Her addiction to diet pills had spiraled out of control. She was drinking heavily, and her agoraphobia kept her locked in her home. Deverell, at loose ends herself, agreed to go back to California, move in with Hussey, and work as her personal assistant for a while. “My job was to make sure she got to set,” Deverell said. “And to keep her alive.”
While Deverell was living with Hussey, a stream of people flowed in and out of the house. “Lots of psychics and astrologers and gurus,” she said. She recalled one of Hussey’s gurus, Swami Muktananda, the founder of Siddha Yoga, a spiritual movement now known for its glitzy devotees and dark secrets. Dating back to at least 1981, Muktananda was trailed by allegations of sexual abuse and rape, including having sex with his young female disciples in esoteric Tantric rituals. Hussey, for her part, credits him with saving her life and said she never paid attention to the “gossip.” Deverell didn’t think Muktananda had harmed Hussey, but she worried about her friend’s propensity to embrace everyone who presented themselves as a savior. She described Hussey as “a child wanting someone to kiss them and make them better.” This quality was “her blessing and her curse.” “She sees the light in everyone first,” she said.
Deverell’s worry resurfaced this year when she heard a new manager had persuaded Hussey to sue Paramount. “I suppose I fear she might be being exploited again,” she told me. But Hussey saw the light in Marinozzi, too. “Every time I get off the phone with Tony, I feel good,” Hussey said. “‘Tell me again about when Sinatra kissed your hand’ — he says things like that.” Marinozzi was “all over the place,” she told me, but had a good heart. “I go by my feelings.”
When Marinozzi first approached Hussey with his ideas for perfumes and T-shirts and a documentary, she was delighted by the thought of giving more to the fans who had given her so much. After they settled on a plan to make a coffee-table book, she reached out to her fans through social media and asked if any had photographs she might include in the project. One wrote back to say she’d bought two pictures on eBay that she thought Hussey had never seen before. A few days later, a manila envelope arrived in the mail. “I opened it up and I saw them and I pushed them back in the envelope. I blanked out. I hid them. I felt sick. I was angry,” she said. At the Chateau, she pulled out her phone. “Bear with me. Are you ready?” The pictures were apparently taken on set the day they shot the nude scene. Both show Whiting fully naked from the front. In one, he is lying on the young lovers’ bed, his eyes closed, a slender arm thrown back onto the pillow. Hussey was stunned. Zeffirelli had promised her the set would be closed that day. As far as she knew, the set photographer had been sent out once the shoot began. She described the set: “It was a little bedroom built with detachable walls in the middle of this soundstage. When you looked out beyond where the camera was, everything was black, everything was dark. So if anybody was in there taking pictures, we could not see them.”
Hussey says this discovery, more than anything else, is what changed how she felt and talked about her time on that set. “We called it art,” she said, “but it was abuse.” She and Whiting had “made that company” with their performances and with their nudity. And what did they have to show for it? She wanted someone who bore responsibility for what happened to admit to her and Whiting that it was wrong and to offer them a “fair settlement” as a gesture of their sincerity. But who could do that? Zeffirelli was dead, and in any case, he had been a mad artist, a creature of impulse. Shouldn’t the studio have intervened to protect its actors? In September 2022, before filing the lawsuit, an attorney retained by Marinozzi made this case in a letter to Paramount. A lawyer for the studio replied that they did not see “any basis upon which Paramount Pictures is responsible, legally or otherwise, for conduct that third parties allegedly committed over 55 years ago, and of which we are only learning now for first time.” (Paramount did not respond to our requests for comment.)
After they filed the lawsuit, Hussey told me, fans wrote her messages asking if she’d been lying all those years. Some accused her of sullying the film’s legacy. Others were outraged by the amount of damages they sought. One called her a “money-grubbing whore.” Hussey was hurt and bewildered. “If I was a money-grubbing whore, I’d be in a better position than I am right now,” she said. Even so, she felt as if she’d destroyed something precious. “It was like, God, I’m gonna crush so many people’s dreams. But on the other hand, what about me? Don’t I count? I worry about everybody else all the time. But I never worried about me enough.”
Photo: ZUMA Press
Photo: Everett Collection.
Photo: Keystone Press/Alamy
In the decades since they’d toured the world, Leonard Whiting’s career proved more disappointing than Hussey’s. When he auditioned for Zeffirelli, he was already a rising star of the stage. He had been the youngest member of the National Theatre under Sir Lawrence Olivier and was playing the second lead in a long-running musical production of Oliver! on London’s West End. Two years after the film’s release, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Whiting lamented that he felt adrift. The first few movies he’d landed after Romeo and Juliet were flops. “What I notice is that you cannot chart a course,” he told the reporter. He stopped acting in his early 40s after having a stroke. For the past three decades, his wife, Lynn, has supported him. As the years passed and the film continued to generate revenue for the studio, he felt increasingly angry at how poorly he’d been paid. In January 2018, he sent Jim Gianopulos, then the CEO of Paramount, a letter accusing the studio of “abusing the ignorance of youth” and prioritizing its own profit margins at the expense of his. No one had advised him, he wrote, that the fee was “extraordinarily low, bordering on an insult.” He said he wanted compensation but did not wish to pursue a legal path at the moment. “This is nothing we couldn’t work out in half an hour over coffee and a glass of ouzo.” Paramount never responded. “That got my goat a bit,” Whiting told me one day this summer.
We were in a suite at the Mandarin Oriental with sweeping views of the Hudson River and Central Park. Whiting and Lynn had arrived from England that morning by way of a weeklong sail on the Queen Mary 2. They were there to see their grandchildren in Connecticut and had stopped in New York to discuss the lawsuit and other potential projects with Marinozzi, who had also come to the hotel. Marinozzi had previously told me he would need to be there just to introduce me to Whiting and Lynn, but as it turned out, he had brought along three other people: Li-Conrad, his partner; Feiner, the business psychologist; and Rich Puleo, an attorney from Pennsylvania. I had expected to have a serious conversation with Whiting about what the lawsuit framed as an act of sexual abuse and the “extreme and severe mental anguish and emotional distress” he’d suffered as a result. But it seemed Marinozzi saw the meeting as an opportunity to talk about Bedroom Secrets, the film he hoped to make about the case. Puleo, Marinozzi informed me, had been persuaded to fund it. At the mention of his name, Puleo looked up from his phone and waved. He’d met Marinozzi through wrestling circles and was now paying for Whiting’s stay at the hotel, where suites run upwards of $2,500 a night. Marinozzi pointed at Puleo, then at himself. “Money has to meet idea or nothing gets to the screen,” he said. For ten minutes, he spoke about various scripts he had written that Puleo was planning to fund. He envisioned Timothée Chalamet playing a young Whiting in the film.
I asked Marinozzi and his entourage to leave. Marinozzi protested for a moment, but then he did. Once we were alone, Whiting rose to get a glass of water from the bar. He was dressed crisply in light-blue jeans and a long-sleeved navy polo, his Cockney accent smoothed over by his years on the stage. “Darling, I’m getting another cup,” he told me. “Would you like some?” The conversation that followed was brief and at times vague. Lynn pointed out that Whiting’s memory hadn’t been the same since his stroke. “I didn’t want Leonard to go through any of this,” she said. “All the stress and strain of bringing up old ghouls.” When I mentioned the nude scene, which briefly shows him standing at a window with his backside facing the camera, he said he didn’t remember much about it. Like Hussey, he said he didn’t know he would be shot naked until the morning the scene was filmed, and he was disturbed that someone had apparently taken photographs of them without their knowledge. But what had bothered him more over the years was the way the nude scene seemed to shape how the world viewed him. Fans of the film have told him that seeing his bare bottom made them realize they were gay. Stills from the film have appeared on porn sites. He brought up Robinson, the Romeo and Juliet actor who’d alleged Zeffirelli was sexually inappropriate with him; Robinson went on to write a character based on Zeffirelli into his semi-autobiographical film Withnail and I, a dark comedy about two struggling actors who stay at the country home of a lecherous old man with designs on the protagonist. Whiting told me he was still “preoccupied” by a moment from the film that he felt insinuated he had been cast as Romeo not because of his talent but because Zeffirelli wanted to sleep with him. “People in the business thought I was there for one thing and one thing only,” said Whiting, adding that Zeffirelli had never tried anything with him. He wondered if this accounted for his career not panning out as he’d hoped. But he didn’t hold Zeffirelli responsible for any of it. As Lynn put it, “Franco was the artist, and artists run riot. The legal department at Paramount should have said, ‘We’re going to have a problem here.’” Whiting was incensed when Paramount never responded to his letter. “If they had a nice way of dealing with me, we could have come up with a decent proposal,” he said.
“You were a commodity to them,” said Lynn. “That’s all you were.”
Whiting was amazed when Marinozzi told him there was a law that would allow them to go back and redress these injustices, and he seemed to have faith that Marinozzi was the guy to get the job done. “He’s very positive and everything,” he said. He added that Marinozzi made him feel like a star again. “He’s got all these things and ideas he’s coming up with.” He leaned toward his wife, sitting on a couch opposite him. “Isn’t he darling?”
After dismissing the case in May, the judge ordered Hussey and Whiting to pay Paramount’s legal fees, which totaled some $181,000. Her ruling didn’t address the question of whether Hussey or Whiting had been abused. The order was based on two factors. First, their lawyer, Solomon Gresen, had failed to offer any authority supporting his claim that the nude scene was “sexually suggestive” enough to be deemed illegal pornography, and in the absence of such evidence, the Constitution guaranteed Paramount’s right to freedom of expression. Second, Gresen had failed to comply with important procedural requirements in filing the paperwork: As the California Child Victims Act is written, plaintiffs over the age of 40 must obtain certificates of merit from licensed mental-health professionals declaring there is a basis to believe the plaintiffs were traumatized by the decades-old acts laid out in their claims, and they must file these certificates within 60 days of bringing suit. Gresen filed them nearly three months late.
I interviewed four lawyers who had reviewed Gresen’s complaint and the judge’s ruling. They were all struck by the weakness of the complaint. “It just wasn’t very high-quality lawyering,” said Carissa Byrne Hessick, a professor of law at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Paul Cassell, a professor of law at the University of Utah who specializes in crime victims’ rights, including victims of child pornography, also felt the lawsuit failed to demonstrate that what Hussey and Whiting had experienced amounted to “child sexual abuse.” Without explicit images of their genitalia or of sexual contact between them, there was no evidence of a crime, he said. Zeffirelli might have behaved like a tyrant and Paramount might have paid them unfairly, but the Child Victims Act was not designed to protect workers from cruel bosses. When I told Cassell about the nude photographs Hussey had shown me, he was surprised they hadn’t been included in the suit, as they could have served as the basis for a stronger claim. Even so, he wondered whether Paramount could be held liable. Hussey had no idea who had taken the pictures. “There are a lot of links in the process that haven’t even been alleged yet,” he said, “let alone proven.”
One attorney, Marci Hamilton, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the founder and CEO of Child USA, a think tank dedicated to the prevention of child abuse, told me she thought Hussey and Whiting have a chance to win if they appeal. Although she agreed the nude scene does not meet the definition of pornography under criminal law, she argued that civil cases are another matter. To file lawsuits alleging abuse under the Child Victims Act, plaintiffs simply need to prove they were harmed by sexual activity. There is a body of research, Hamilton pointed out, that shows “children can be traumatized by sexual suggestiveness and exposure even without the act of sex or showing the genitalia.” But she also stressed that the success of any such lawsuit would depend on an assessment by a professional trauma-informed therapist showing that the sexual act caused lasting harm. Hussey and Whiting each had a conversation with a therapist months after their lawsuit was filed. (Their conversations with Feiner, who is not a licensed therapist, did not count.)
One day this summer, I met up with Gresen on Sunset Boulevard at a Chinese restaurant he likes. He cut a hulking figure with a gray beard trimmed for the courtroom and the clothes of a ’90s skater kid: long-sleeved striped shirt, shorts cropped below the knee, Nike high-tops. He told me the lawsuit had been a rush job. “When the fucking rubber hits the road and you need somebody who can do something, I’m one of the guys who can,” he said. When I asked why he thought the case was important, he took out his phone and began scrolling through pictures. I was surprised when he showed me a photo of what appeared to be a sculpture of a dinosaur. “Chrome Hearts,” he said, referring to a brand that produces designer fashion and luxury goods. Pointing to the dinosaur, he said, “His wiener is a dagger.” I reminded him we’d been talking about the case. “My kids have Chrome Hearts,” he said. “It’s the coolest company nobody knows about yet.”
Throughout our conversation, Gresen kept straying off topic. In the midst of a critique of the judge’s ruling, he interrupted himself to compliment my looks. “Big black eyes,” he said. “Nice.” At another point, he noted he’d be arguing a case in court the next day. “If you want to fall in love with me, come watch me,” he said. Eventually, he admitted the lawsuit contained errors. Its most inflammatory claim is that Zeffirelli told Whiting and Hussey that “they must act in the nude or the Picture would fail” and that if they refused to comply, they “would never work again in any profession, let alone Hollywood.” Gresen told me he later learned Zeffirelli hadn’t actually said that. “They were told it was absolutely essential, and they felt like the weight of the world was crushing down on them,” he continued, “but he didn’t say that. Those are my words.” I told him I had more questions. “You have such a cute lisp,” he said. “I think it’s awesome.”
In September, Marinozzi told me they’d fired Gresen. He planned to hire a new lawyer to bring the case to a federal court. In February, the Criterion Collection had reissued a digital restoration of the film. According to Marinozzi, this had created an opening for him to bring a new case arguing the company was republishing pornography (an argument that could run into the same problem the original case encountered). “I’m not a lawyer,” he conceded, “but I understand the law, and I can add up one plus one equals two.” He said he’d talked to an undercover FBI agent who thought the film could constitute evidence of human trafficking. “Click, click,” he said, tapping his wrists together to suggest the studio executives would soon be wearing handcuffs. He hoped to reach out to attorneys for Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislane Maxwell to see if someone from Paramount could be placed on “Epstein Island.” Describing his approach to the legal process, Marinozzi said, “I’m a Michelangelo guy. You keep carving and the angel appears. I keep chiseling away.”
A few months after we met at the Chateau Marmont, I called Hussey at her home in the Hollywood Hills. She’d been passing her days in the usual ways, drinking hot water with lemon and ginger, tidying her house, doing the laundry, delighting in videos of her grandson going about his life. At one time, she’d had an “ark” full of adopted animals: eight dogs, four potbelly pigs, an old gray mare, two cats, four rabbits, five guinea pigs, and an African gray parrot named Popeye. By now, only two remained: Popeye and Rupert, her little gray rescue. After she fed them, she would go on Facebook and chat with her fans. Then she would watch old English TV shows — Midsomer Murders, Fawlty Towers. “That’s my passion in life,” she said. “Watching actors act. We all started out with this passion to perform. It’s the people in the suits who think, I could make money off that person.”
No one working in Hollywood today would dispute that what happened to Hussey and Whiting on the set of Romeo and Juliet was wrong. But attitudes were different in the “old days,” as David Kirkpatrick, the president of Paramount Pictures in the ’90s, pointed out. When Zeffirelli shot the film, the obscenity code that had governed the depiction of nudity and sexuality onscreen since the ’30s was on the verge of collapse, and movies featuring nudity were breaking box-office records. By the time Kirkpatrick was running the studio, the standards had changed. Guardians routinely accompanied minors on set, and studios refrained from shooting minors nude in part because of laws that sprang up in the ’90s in response to the proliferation of child pornography on the internet.
Kirkpatrick was astounded that Hussey and Whiting had never consented to the shoot and weren’t even informed of what would appear in the final version of the film. “Directors do whatever they need to sometimes in order to get their shot, but that was just crossing the line,” he said. It was Paramount’s responsibility, he felt, to deal with the situation. Kirkpatrick left Paramount in 1996, but he was dismayed that his old company hadn’t settled the matter when the actors first reached out with their grievances. “It should never, ever have gotten to a lawsuit,” he said. “It should have been settled at the kitchen table.” In January, Kirkpatrick, a longtime fan of Hussey’s, wrote a letter to Brian Robbins, the current CEO of Paramount, urging him to settle with the actors. “The best thing they could do is work out something that involves restitution,” he told me. “And then they could say, ‘A mistake was made, we understand it, we don’t condone it. And we have made it right.’” Robbins never wrote back.
On our calls, Hussey had a tendency to get lost in the past, slipping between bad memories and beautiful ones until they were all mixed together. She recalled a terrible fight Zeffirelli had with the costume designer over her dress for the ballroom scene, then thought of dancing the moresca in that dress and sang a bar from the film’s score. “‘Da da da,’” she hummed. “I can’t do it now.” She’d had a sore throat for three months; she knew she should get it checked but kept putting it off. After two bouts of cancer and the stress of the lawsuit, she said she prefers not to know when something goes wrong.
For better or worse, she wished the lawsuit were done with. “It’s in God’s hands now,” she said. “It’s all in God’s hands in the end.” Even if it failed, she said, she’d be okay. “Most people on their deathbeds, even the most evil people, have to say, What have I done? And what was wrong? And what did I do right? I’m not afraid to die because I’m not scared of my reckoning.” She’d made her share of mistakes, and sometimes she wondered whether filing the lawsuit was one of them. But she could live with that. “Nobody’s perfect,” she said. “If we were perfect, there’d be no need for all this charade, this illusion that we call life. If we were perfect, we’d all be angels.”