Franco Zeffirelli’s career encompassed nearly 60 years of directing features, television movies, operas, and shorts. While the Italian-born filmmaker met with success on many fronts, he’s mostly associated with his three Shakespeare features, Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew, and Hamlet.
So distinctive were his takes on Shakespeare that I always thought his versions should have been titled “Zeffirelli’s…” Having an unerring ear for the bard’s dialogue, his productions were both reverent and transgressive.
Zeffirelli had nearly ten years in filmmaking before his first big success: The Taming of the Shrew (1967) starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. His largely forgotten first feature, Camping, arrived in 1958. It was followed by a well-regarded TV special featuring performances by Maria Callas in 1964, and a documentary covering the great flood of Florence arrived two years later.
Then came Taming. While many a director might have been overwhelmed by Taylor and Burton as the most powerful couple in Hollywood at the time, Zeffirelli was not that kind. While it could be argued both leads were a bit long-in-the-tooth for their roles, Zeffirelli’s expertise and lively direction elevated the production. As the 25th highest grossing film of the year, it would be Taylor’s last big hit. Critical acclaim matched the box office receipts, and the film received Oscar nominations for costuming and art direction.
Zeffirelli would return to Shakespeare the next year with what many – including myself – consider the definitive version of Romeo and Juliet. It was a rare move to cast age-appropriate leads as the star-crossed lovers, but Zeffirelli’s decision to place the unknown Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey in the titular roles paid off in full.
Produced on a budget of just $850,000, the film made $38.9 million. Only The Odd Couple and Bullitt outgrossed it in 1968. A Best Picture and Zeffirelli’s lone Best Director nomination accompanied the film’s box office success. While Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 Romeo+Juliet may now supersede Zeffirell in terms of popular awareness, it does not approach Zeffierlli’s version when it comes to quality. Every word exiting the actors’ mouths finds its aim most true under Zeffirelli’s direction, resulting in a performance less spoken than sung.
Four years would pass before Zeffirelli took the director’s chair again. His dramatic depiction of the life of Saint Francis of Assisi, Brother Sun, Sister Moon was lightly regarded in general and brutally panned by Roger Ebert. Despite an Oscar nomination for Art Direction, the film was roundly considered a disappointment.
Zeffirelli went quiet for five years before directing two episodes of the massively successful Jesus of Nazareth mini-series. He followed that success with The Champ, starring Jon Voight in 1979 and the notorious Brooke Shields starrer, Endless Love in 1981. While both films were hits at the box office, the reviews were largely scathing.
After the dismal reception of his only two American-set films, Zeffirelli turned to opera. His production of La Traviata, starring Placido Domingo, was a return to form, receiving both strong critical notices and Oscar nominations for Costume Design and Zeffirelli’s Art Direction.
Thus began a fruitful four-film collaboration with Domingo. After La Traviata, Cavialleria rusticana, Pagliacci, and Otello followed. All were well-received.
Zeffirelli’s next film foundered. His biopic of the conductor Toscanini, Young Toscanini, starring – of all people – C. Thomas Howell came and went in 1988 without much notice.
A full 22 years after Romeo and Juliet, Zeffirelli returned to Shakespeare with Hamlet, starring Mel Gibson in 1990. Zeffirelli and Gibson’s take on the Danish Prince is decidedly masculine when compared with Laurence Olivier’s oft-considered definitive version from 1948. Just six years after Zeffirelli and Gibson’s film, Kenneth Branagh would produce a four-hour version of Hamlet.
Of these three most-prominent film versions, Zeffirelli’s is typically seen as the runt of the litter. An ignominious distinction whose common consensus eludes me. Gibson is fabulous in the role, and the film is a beauty to look at (it did receive Oscar nods for its costume and art design). In Zeffirelli’s hands, Hamlet is delivered with a certain muscularity that sets it apart from all other filmed versions. Despite the presence of Gibson (being so hot at the time), Glenn Close, and British stalwarts such as Alan Bates, Paul Scofield, Ian Holm, and Helena Bonham-Carter (fantastic as Ophelia), both the film’s box office receipts and its critical reception were modest. It’s a film greatly deserving of fresh consideration.
Next Zeffirelli teamed with Pavarotti on a filmed version of the opera Don Carlo in 1992. As with his Domingo films, it was well received.
Four years later, Zeffirelli made a terrific version of Jane Eyre with William Hurt and Charlotte Gainsbourg. While some felt was Hurt miscast, the dark beauty of the film and the luminous performance of Gainsbourg did not go unnoticed by critics. Only Cary Fukunaga’s 2011 Jane Eyre is superior.
Zeffirelli made just two more features after Jane Eyre: 1999’s Tea With Mussolini (an eclectic cast with Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Lily Tomlin, and Cher), and 2002’s Callas Forever with Fanny Ardant as the great opera singer. Both were regarded respectfully, if without rapture.
While Zeffirelli was an extremely successful director, sporting both critical acclaim and box office success over the course of his career, he is seldom spoken of as a director of great significance. Perhaps his grand emotional style of filmmaking has fallen out of favor in our more knowing, wink-wink, irony-ridden age.
But at his best, Zeffirelli was a sophisticated, stylish, and exceedingly literate filmmaker. To me, he always seemed like a guy you’d love to have a glass of wine with and a good meal. While I would likely be out of my depth as Zeffirelli would hold court speaking of opera and literature, I suspect I would walk away more learned and delighted, as I often have after watching his films.
Franco Zeffirelli died today. He was 96 years old.