Remembering Franco Zeffirelli: Italy’s Mad Genius

Franco-Zeffirelli

He may not be a household name, but the work of Senator Gian Franco Corsi Zeffirelli, KBE, Grand Ufficiale OMRI is pretty much required viewing for any GCSE students looking to do well without doing the reading.

Zeffirelli was an Italian director best known for works that dealt with passion, and love. Having begun his career as a production designer, his move to direction saw him win great acclaim for his adaptations of serious Shakespearean works. His most famous work was his adaptation of Romeo and Juliet in 1968, that saw him Oscar-nominated for best director – he would receive a second nomination for Art Direction for his directorial feature La Traviata.

His first major work was an adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew (1967) that used the burning passions of both Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton to bring intensity to the screen while supporting roles went to Cyril Cusack, Michael Hordern, Alfred Lynch and Michael York. His version of the story has gone on to become one of the essential Shakespearean adaptations, and one that many consider to be near perfect.

The film was also a success at the Academy Awards, earning two nominations for Best Art Direction and Costume Design, while Richard Burton and the film itself received Golden Globe nominations in the comedy or musical category.

He followed this with the famous and near perfect Romeo and Juliet (1968), starring Leonard Whiting, Olivia Hussey, John McEnery, Milo O’Shea, Michael York and Bruce Robinson, again earning praise and awards. His other Shakespeare works include Othello (1986) which featured a white man in the central role but filmed in Italy, and Hamlet (1990). While a success critically Hamlet has often been negatively compared to Kenneth Branagh’s acclaimed version, though it did feature performances from big stars: Mel Gibson, Glenn Close, Alan Bates, Paul Scofield, Ian Holm, Helena Bonham Carter, Stephen Dillane and Trevor Peacock.

His other works include the religious film Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972), about the events of St Francis of Assisi and his friendship with St Clare, the two-part television drama Jesus of Nazareth (1977), one that featured Robert Powell, Anne Bancroft, Ernest Borgnine, James Frentino, Ian McShane, Christopher Plummer, Olivia Hussey and again Michael York – the production is considered one of the great achievements in television.

Romeo and Juliet 1968, one of Zeffirelli’s most successful adaptations.

His adaptations of literary works such as Jane Eyre (1996) starring William Hurt, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Anna Paquin, Sparrow (1993) an adaptation of the novel by Giovanni Verga, as well as works that dealt with opera or music composers such as La traviata (1982), Young Toscanini (1988) again with Elizabeth Taylor, and his final directorial work Callas Forever (2002), starring Jeremy Irons, Fanny Ardant and Joan Plowright, a production about famed opera singer Maria Callas.

Perhaps, however, he will be known for his more mainstream Hollywood works, such as boxing drama The Champ (1979) starring Jon Vought about a former boxer dealing with family issues, romantic drama film Endless Love (1981), which many teenagers saw as a date movie back in the day, or his penultimate film, the war-drama-comedy film Tea with Mussolini (1999) the biographical story of Zeffirelli’s life which stared among its cast Cher, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright, Maggie Smith and Lily Tomlin.

Outside of the film world, Zeffirelli was also a senator of the centre-right Forza Italia party under the leadership of Silvio Berlusconi from 1994 until 2001. His politics seemed to conflict with his private life in which his conservative views were at odds with his out-and-proud homosexual orientation. Famously he hated the word “gay” as homosexual was much more elegant.

He was also no stranger to controversy. Long before the MeToo movement came to the world’s attention, Bruce Robinson, a former actor in Romeo and Juliet and later writer-director of Withnail and I, Jennifer 8 and The Rum Diary came forward as saying that Zeffirelli was sexually aggressive and made numerous advances on him. Later, Robinson would base the lecherous Uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths) on Zeffirelli in Withnail and I.

Even so, Zeffirelli received an honorary knighthood from the Queen in 2004 for his services to the British film industry, and along with Laurence Olivier managed to make Shakespeare films popular and with urgency. Despite having not made a film for over fifteen years, Zeffirelli’s work on screen, and his acclaimed operatic work on stage, will not go forgotten, and above everything else, we’ll always have Uncle Monty.

Franco Zeffirelli
1923 – 2019

Leave a Reply