The Language of Love
by Art Ticknor
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It was in the mid-1990s when I first saw Zeffirelli's film "Romeo & Juliet." The fetching teenagers Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting spoke Shakespeare's words as if it were their everyday language and played their roles just as naturally. My reaction at the time was that it was the most moving and beautiful film I'd ever seen, capturing the idealistic love of youth and eternalizing it in death. Love and death: the two great themes of life.
Recently it dawned on me that the perpetually young lovers were young when the film was made in 1967. And I became curious to know what had become of those young actors. Following is what my investigation turned up.
Olivia had just turned 16 when the filming began in Italy in the spring of that year, and Leonard was about to turn 17. She was only 15 and he was 16 when they met earlier that year. He was an English boy with two younger sisters from a North London working family, born June 30, 1950. His father managed a store, and his mother worked in a telephone equipment factory. She was born in Buenos Aires on April 17, 1951, daughter of an Argentine singer and an English mother who divorced when she was two. She and her younger brother lived in a small flat near the Tower of London with their mother, who worked as a legal secretary.
Director Franco Zeffirelli told Rex Reed in a 1969 interview: "They had the exact qualities. She had to be strong and he had to be gentle." In his 1986 autobiography, he wrote: "The boy turned out to be less of a problem than I feared. Lila De Nobili, who was in London designing a production for Peter Hall at Stratford, told me to look out for a young actor called Leonard Whiting. I did so and, sure enough, he seemed ideal. He was beautiful in that Renaissance pageboy way that was revived during the 1960s; he could probably act; and, as was obvious when I met him, he was very ambitious. The girl was more a problem. I had seen Olivia early on in the tests. She had some talent, but she was unfortunately overweight, clumsy-looking and bit her nails constantly hardly the delicate Juliet I dreamt of."
He cast the other major parts then turned back to the problem of finding Juliet. "In desperation I summoned back some of those I had earlier rejected and that was how I stumbled on the amazing transformation of Olivia. She was a new woman: she has lost weight dramatically. Her magnificent bone structure was becoming apparent, with those wide expressive eyes and her whole angular self. She was now the real Juliet, a gawky colt of a girl waiting for life to begin. I had my cast."
He moved the principal players into his new villa outside Rome in that May, and they began filming at the end of June. Olivia "responded beautifully to my direction. By the same token, Leonard was the typical teenage boy trying out his ego. He always had to be allowed to do his own way first and I had to be patient, only stepping in when he stumbled. It was a struggle. He was frightened of seeming to be my puppet in front of the others...."
Olivia was "classically beautiful, with mesmerizing eyes, and a certain coarse strength." Leonard was "perfect for the part because he has a gentle melancholy ... and the kind of idealistic face Romeo ought to have." What he didn't mention is that the attraction between Olivia and Leonard wasn't merely acting. They were equally enthralled off the set.
In the interview mentioned above, during the 1969 Royal Film Festival, Rex Reed asked Whiting what he expected from his future. "I don't know. Ambition frightens me. I don't want to be cruel and ruthless. I always lived in a clique neighborhood and I love just being around kids I grew up with. Listen to me, already I am beginning to sound like Michael Caine. Now suddenly I'm in a business I used to respect for its art and I'm doing a nude scene. I don't think they put that nude scene in the movie for any other reason but money and publicity, and that bothers me. So I don't know if I can become an actor like Orson Wells and Marlon Brando, because you have to do a lot of things you don't believe in to get anywhere. I don't want to be a star. I guess I'll get married, but the idea of forever terrifies me. The more one sees of life before marriage the more one learns. Once you're married, what can you learn? I don't want to get married until I am at least 40. I'm not much of a conformist. Hey, you want to see what I am wearing to meet the Queen?"
"What is a Youth?" by Nino Rota
words by Eugene Walter
What is a youth? Impetuous fire.
What is a maid? Ice and desire.
The world wags on,
a rose will bloom....
It then will fade:
so does a youth,
so does the fairest maid.
Comes a time when one sweet smile
has a season for a while....
Then love's in love with me.
Some they think only to marry,
others will tease and tarry.
Mine is the very best parry.
Cupid he rules us all.
Caper the cape,
but sing me the song,
Death will come soon to hush us along.
Sweeter than honey...
and bitter as gall,
Love is a pastime that will never pall.
Sweeter than honey and bitter as gall.
Cupid rules us all.
So what became of these two young lovers? Twenty-five years later, in 1992, People Magazine did an article on Olivia (in LA) and Leonard (in London). He was 41, she 40. "I was thrust for a long moment into international stardom," he said. "When that happens, people want to see you in that same persona again and again." He said that his romance with Olivia during the filming of Romeo and Juliet still stands out in his memory, and he has kept in contact with her. "She still looks wonderful, only about two years older, whereas I look like Lord Capulet." He was living in a modest four-room row house in the Camden Town district of London. After a few forgettable movies, he faded out of acting. She had to sell her Hollywood Hills home not long before when she found that her manager had siphoned off the income from her two previous films.
The Iconophile web page on Olivia said that she might have escaped the Hollywood rule that "the younger they are when they get famous, the less to expect of them when they get older," but "it manifested first in her developing agoraphobia, which got so bad that at the height of her fame she was obliged to retire from public life. It might have ended there, but then the money problems began, and between her alimony-less marriages and sticky-fingered accountant, Olivia soon found herself returning to film and even selling off her jewelry to make ends meet. And has she made ends meet, at long last? It's hard to say. Certainly she's racked up a fair number of film credits since Romeo & Juliet, but mostly in films that few have heard of or remember outside of Japan, where for a time she was very popular.... Hailed everywhere as a rare natural beauty, Olivia should have been a much celebrated icon in her day, but instead went unseen and unappreciated by most of the world. If Zeffirelli's Romeo & Juliet wasn't regularly shown in high school, chances are that no one would know that she ever even existed."
In 1995, journalist Sergey Sholohov did a TV interview with Leonard. Asked about their romance during the making of the movie, he responded: "I didn't tell anybody that I liked this girl. I think she liked me also." Sholohov: "When you played Romeo, and Olivia was Juliet, all of the people in Russia thought that after filming such a film, in which both of you die, that in actual life you should probably get married. Why has it not taken place?" Leonard: "It is very strange, because we have never spoken to western journalists about the truth. We madly liked one another, or, at least I was madly in love with her. But our paths in life have not coincided, unfortunately. No one understands it, but it was the truth. I liked her very much."
Olivia and Leonard married in 1971 but not to each other. She married actor Dean Paul Martin, the son of celebrity Dean Martin. They had a son, Alex, in 1973 then divorced in 1978. Leonard married fashion model Cathee Dahmen. They had a daughter, Sarah, and divorced in 1977. In 1980 Olivia married Japanese musician Akira Fuse and had a son, Max, in 1983. After their divorce in 1989 she married musician David Glen Eisley, and in 1993 they had a daughter, India. Leonard had another daughter, Charlotte Westenra (originally named Katie Scarlett O'Hara?) with Valerie Tobin. Then in 1995 he married his agent, Lynn Presser. Olivia and Leonard keep in touch, and her oldest son stayed with Leonard on a trip to London in 1992. In 2003 they collaborated at the Hollywood Collectors and Celebrities Show.
Olivia recalled her role as Juliet for the Paramount Pressbook of 1973: "It still all seems like a dream, one of the most beautiful ones I've ever had." From a 2001 imahal.com interview with Olivia: "In 1974 I was very fortunate to meet a great Indian swami, Muktananda Paramahansa. I went to visit his Ashram in India after our initial meeting and discovered I had a deep affinity for the country of India as well as its people and customs. I felt very at home. My soul felt at complete peace." As of 2002 she was residing outside of Los Angeles on a ten-acre ranch with her family and menagerie of animals. Recently she completed a longtime dream of portraying Mother Teresa of Calcutta in a biographical film, which was shot in Sri Lanka and Italy. The photo left is from a 2005 interview in Tokyo when the film was released there.
While it seems that Olivia may have found a source of contentedness in her meditation, which she has continued since being "zapped" by Muktananda in 1974, and in her children, I have the feeling that contentment has eluded Leonard. In the 1995 interview cited above, he also said: "In this world there is a lot of gloomy darkness. I think we need more light, like Romeo and Juliet. Many people liked this film, but for me it wasn't only a professional discovery, but also something light, as a window of light in a world that should have more light and understanding. All people, even small children, should use their imagination more to imagine another world." The photo to the right appeared in the Camden New Journal in 2003.
US Senator John McCain, a Vietnam war prisoner now in his 60s, wrote in Worth the Fighting For: "The immortality that was the aspiration of my youth, like all the treasures of youth, has slipped away." The idealism of youthful love with its whisper of immortality fades, but the fortunate person finds a new direction for pursuit of the best that life has to offer. The appeal of love is the loss of the boundary that traps us in our conviction of individuality, of being a thing apart. This seeming separation also leaves us feeling threatened with being overwhelmed and subject to annihilation. It is the cocoon or egg of the undefined self.
The internal language of love, the longing for loss of separation and for permanent satisfaction, is the silent melody that guides us Home. We generally have to experience the disillusionment of finding that personal love, no matter how sweet, is variable and conditional. Eventually we may reach the intellectual realization that we're looking in the wrong direction for permanent and unconditional love. Even then, though, a war will continue with the emotional part of us that hasn't yet caught up to the intellect's understanding. The only direction that holds hope is the direction of going within. When we rediscover what we are, essentially, we find that we are permanent and unconditioned. Our true state of being is the love that we've longed for.
August 2010 addition:
I came across a clip on Youtube that the submitter describes as a 1979 recording of a song he wrote, called Heaven in Your Eyes, sung by Leonard Whiting. This is the note dated November 04, 2009 accompanying the clip:It was in 1979 that I got to work and record with the great English film and stage actor Leonard Whiting of ROMEO AND JULIET fame. We met at Mills College in Oakland CA where he was guest teaching at the time. I was brought in to accompany Leonard for the Shakespeare Productions. We struck up a friendship resulting in many long chats, writing some music, and recording a few songs. I was absolutely thrilled when Leonard fell in love with my song HEAVEN IN YOUR EYES. We recorded it in one of the women's dorms with one microphone. Leonard is singing, I'm on piano, and we brought in a string quartet to boot. I recently rediscovered the tape and cleaned it up a bit using today's technology. I have combined the recording with visual images found on the internet. Here it is, a little rough around the edges, but just good enough hopefully to enjoy. Thanks for stopping by.I've uploaded an mp3 sound file (3 minutes) in case the Youtube clip disappears.
George Peter Tingley
composer and pianist
Movie trailer (requires the Adobe flash player).