Can you talk about the pros and the cons of Olivia Hussey's Juliet? She is my favourite Juliet, but I would like to see a more critical review of her portrayal for once!
Ah! I’m really happy that you asked this because I’m hopelessly in love with Franco Zeffirelli’s movie and I could talk about Olivia Hussey’s acting all day long.
The first thing I would like to remark is the context in which the movie was made. In many ways, it is a mirror of the youth movements of the 60s, and the trope of idealism versus violence, dreaming versus fighting, is one of the main characteristics of the movie.
The fights are really violent (the opening brawl, for instance, was filmed in a more aggressive way than usual, as it fatally has Capulets and Montagues murdering each other and women screaming with their children in their arms), and it presents Romeo and Juliet’s love as an innocent, harmless force as opposed to the cultural violence that surrounds them. Olivia Hussey underscored how excellently the movie had harmonized with the ideals of her generation. And, indeed, you could say it is an ode to sexual freedom, peace, and the power of youth. You can see that in the way Zeffirelli filmed the bedroom scene, with Juliet lying naked after consummating a marriage she arranged herself.
Zeffirelli seemed to be particularly interested in her character:
The central idea is that of a puppeteer, Destiny, who handles all the characters. They are all puppets on a stage and no one is fully responsible. The whole tragedy is permeated with the idea of fate. There is nothing to do. Juliet is the only valuable opposition to it.
So he decided to exploit the transgression of Juliet’s acts, and I will always be grateful to him for giving us such a powerful, intrepid Juliet. He was also one of the first directors to cast teenagers to play the lovers. Precisely, physically speaking I consider Olivia to be really suitable for the role. The innocence and tenderness of childhood she conveys wonderfully, but once she gets to express herself you find that her eyes denote such intelligence, her voice such fortitude, that you couldn’t possibly dismiss her as a dumb kid. (To be honest,
I can’t fathom how it is possible to distort the play to the point that people think the word “dumb” befits Juliet and Romeo.) She transmits so much expressiveness with those piercing, inquisitive eyes and her loud, firm voice. See how monotonous she sounds when she lies to the Nurse, but how fierce her voice is during the “O bid me leap…” speech in the cell. She is a Juliet that does something else apart from blushing and smiling tenderly—she is also restless, frustrated, even rude in some parts. She doesn’t limit herself to simply reciting her lines in a monotonous tone, but rather she inserts so much depth and energy in every single word that she succeeds in constructing a complex Juliet—Olivia handled the duality of her character really well. Sometimes she cries fearfully on the floor as she implores her parents to listen to her and sometimes she contemptuously yells at her mother that she won’t marry Paris “by Saint Peter’s Church and Peter too.”
To me, Olivia portrayed Juliet as a young girl who is too alive to contain herself—as if the world weren’t big enough for her. One of the things that amazes me about her acting is the way she uses her body to transmit her indefatigable energy. She shows a great command of herself. For instance, I noticed that she spends a huge amount of time running. We find her running the first time we see her, she leaves the scene running after her conversation with her mother, she arrives at the ball running, she comes in and out of her balcony running repeatedly, she arrives in the church running again, and hurriedly crosses herself before running again toward Romeo with her arms wide open. I could go on. (But interestingly, during Paris and Friar Lawrence’s brief conversation in the cell, she comes in running as well, but once she spots Paris she stops suddenly and starts walking instead, as if she were attempting to behave more correctly, faking to be a more restrained and therefore acceptable woman. She does this as well when she runs to her mother’s bedroom and stops abruptly before Lady Capulet can see her.) With this restlessness and her resolute nature, she transgresses the tediousness of her society—she is simply too in love with life itself to confine herself to inaction. It makes perfect sense to hear her describe herself as “a boundless sea” when you hear her exhilarated laughter.
And then she denotes so much determination and self-condifence. Olivia takes advantage of every single line to portray Juliet as an independent, strong-minded young girl. “But trust me, gentleman, I’ll prove more true / Than those that have more cunning to be strange.” She sounds so angry when she says that. More than swearing her love to Romeo, she looks like she is threatening him not to fool her. (He actually even nods nervously there and it’s hilarious.) And her face is priceless when he tries to swear his love by the moon. She tells him off. She is so resolute and skeptical throughout the whole balcony scene, it’s wonderful. I invite you to watch that scene again, paying attention to her facial expressions.
Another scene I think is worth commenting is 2.5, when the Nurse delivers Romeo’s news to her. I like to compare her acting here with that of other actresses playing Juliet. In this scene, her impatience is usually portrayed more like an inoffensive, sweet frustration. She is still adorable even when she is irritated. However, Olivia’s Juliet does not even try to palliate her impatience. When she goes down the stairs and notices that the Nurse is not yet come, she boldly places her needlework on the table as she goes on ranting about how disgusted she is by old people. When the Nurse finally arrives with Peter, Juliet basically puts her hands on her waist impatiently and kicks him out after giving him a quite exasperated look. She then even takes away an apple that the Nurse was holding in her teeth and clenches her fists. But when she finally gets her Nurse to tell her what she wants, she euphorically bursts into laughter and thus leaves the scene running enthusiastically. I find this much more entertaining than, say, Rebecca Saire’s acting, who was only slightly impatient in comparison with Olivia’s liveliness.
The movie is replete with moments like that. I still can’t get over the way she looks at her own cousin when she turns around (screencaps here), or the fact that she doesn’t even look at Paris when he kisses her hand and says farewell before leaving the ball. Moreover, the camera tends to focus on her emotions. The first kiss is filmed in a way that only allows you to contemplate Juliet’s face and all the different emotions she goes through. There is that long kissing sequence in the balcony scene where you can only see her face as well. And in the last scene, the first hint that she is still alive comes from her hand. The camera focuses entirely on it as she begins to move her fingers slowly, but all of a sudden she clenches her fist with strength and resolution. The camera then follows her hand as it reaches her face, and those wide, alert eyes open again. Those are just a few examples, but the movie is full of close-ups of her intelligent eyes.
The main flaw of Olivia’s Juliet, however, is the same flaw of the whole movie: too many lines were cut out (more than half of the play!). Certainly they skipped some of her wittiest moments, such as the part where she deceives her mother, or the “gallop apace” speech, in which she so explicitly poeticizes sex. Although its absence is partly compensated, in my opinion, by the more than evident sexual agency she shows throughout the movie. She actively looks for Romeo at the ball, and even when he touches her hand for the first time, the camera shoots her eyes closing in ecstasy. She grabs his shoulders in their second kiss, and even holds his face in her hands and kisses him as he stays still in the balcony scene.
Another thing I dislike is her reaction to Tybalt’s death. The way she criticizes Romeo is wonderfully acted again—really vigorous and enraged. But it stops there. The last thing she says is, “But wherefore, villain, didst thou kill my cousin?” In the play she goes on trying to find out what must have really happened between Romeo and Tybalt, and she comes to her own conclusions. However, in the movie, we just see her bash Romeo and then we don’t see her again until the next morning, when she is happily sleeping by his side. It sort of weakens the character, because Juliet doesn’t forgive him entirely until she decides it couldn’t had been his fault.
And, of course, there is the potion speech missing. It is actually the soliloquy she chose for her audition, but Zeffirelli decided to cut it out because he feared it would alter the balance between Romeo and Juliet in terms of their importance to the plot: “If she does this potion speech, she’ll get all the attention. The film won’t be Romeo and Juliet—it will be ‘Did you see Olivia Hussey in that scene?”
But I think Olivia’s Juliet is excellently paired up with Leonard’s Romeo—the angriest Juliet comes with the softest Romeo. It is as though Thought and Dream intertwined. While Juliet speaks with a very potent, determined voice, Leonard’s Romeo has more of a whispering, soft tone. (We literally see him sighing with his eyes closed against some pretty flowers.) This duality of their personalities is tangible in the very way they are introduced in the movie. Romeo’s entrance is accompanied by a dreamy, tender song as he appears smiling at a flower that he is holding in his hands; Juliet, on the contrary, shows up running while a much more energetic song is playing (from around 1:03 on). It goes on like that for the rest of the movie and it culminates with their last words. Romeo raises the venom with tears streaming down his face as he slowly whispers, “here’s to my love”. (It! Breaks! My! Heart!) Juliet, however, roars her last words, and even half smiles at the dagger for a moment as she commands it to “rust” in her.
So what I love about her is her strength and her ability to denote so much expressiveness with her body. If only I could watch her perform all the missing lines. She did so much with the little she was given, it’s wonderful. We need more Juliets like this—Juliets who express themselves so freely and fearlessly.