Franco Zeffirelli, who has died at the age of 96, was more at home on the stage than the screen. Abandoning plans to become an architect after seeing Laurence Olivier’s Henry V (1944), Zeffirelli tried acting in the manner of Montgomery Clift. However, he declined an RKO contract after debuting in Luigi Zampa’s L’onorevole Angelina (1947) to assist Luchino Visconti on La terra trema (1948), Bellissima (1951) and Senso (1954). While designing Visconti’s landmark theatre productions of As You Like It (with Salvador Dalí, 1948) and A Streetcar Named Desire (1949), Zeffirelli learned how to use detail to immerse the audience in a story’s world and, having tired of being ‘the gilded creature of a famous man,’ he struck out on his own, with opera productions with Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland, and a 1960 Old Vic version of Romeo and Juliet, with Judi Dench and John Stride.
He would continue to confound critics with his innovative stagings for the remainder of his career. His cinematic efforts proved equally divisive after he debuted with the 1957 comedy, Camping. He boldly teamed Hollywood royals Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in The Taming of the Shrew (1967), novices Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting in Romeo and Juliet (1968) and action man Mel Gibson in Hamlet (1990). But, having miraculously survived a 1969 car crash with Gina Lollobrigida, Zeffirelli’s bid to depict St Francis of Assisi as a hippie in Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972) set a misfiring trend that encompassed The Champ (1979), Endless Love (1981), Young Toscanini (1988) and Sparrow (1993). More successful were the 1977 mini-series, Jesus of Nazareth, and exercises in operatic revisionism like La Traviata (1982) and Otello (1986).
Following a typically schismatic adaptation of Jane Eyre (1996), Zeffirelli indulged in a touch of the memoirs in Tea With Mussolini (1999) and Callas Forever (2002). Having served as a Berlusconi-supporting Sicilian senator between 1994-2001, he received an honorary knighthood in 2004. During a lengthy retirement, he enjoyed conducting media feuds with his often contentiously conservative views. Sneering critics have pitched him somewhere between Cecil B. DeMille and Claude Lelouch. But, while his style was ‘lavish in scale and unashamedly theatrical,’ it also made highbrow spectacular and accessible.
Romeo and Juliet (1968)
Kenneth Tynan had called Franco Zeffirelli’s 1960 stage interpretation of this star-crossed tragedy, ‘a revelation, even perhaps a revolution.’ Roger Ebert declared his screen version ‘the most exciting film of Shakespeare ever made.’ Purists criticised the liberties taken with the text, while not everyone felt teenagers Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey were up to the task. But a $1.5 million project grossed over $50 million, earned Academy Awards for its cinematography and costumes, and not only provided Radio One DJ Simon Bates with his ‘Our Tune’ theme, but also inspired Bruce Robinson (who played Benvolio) to reimagine the Oscar-nominated Zeffirelli as Uncle Monty in Withnail & I (1987).
Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972)
It’s trendy to dismiss Zeffirelli’s biopic of Francis of Assisi by comparing it to Roberto Rossellini’s The Flowers of St Francis (1950). Yet, for all its countercultural eccentricities, there’s something disarmingly sincere about the son of a wealthy textile merchant embracing spirituality and simplicity after returning from combat. The timing was a little off, as the moment for flower power denunciations of Vietnam had passed, while it’s regrettable that Zeffirelli preferred Graham Faulkner to Al Pacino opposite Judi Bowker. But the Oscar-nominated production design makes this look like a living Book of Hours, while Donovan’s songs have acquired a cultish quaintness that complements the script’s anti-materialist message.
Endless Love (1981)
Forming part of a teen triptych with Romeo and Juliet and Sparrow, this adaptation of Scott Spencer’s novel got a merciless critical pasting. It landed six Golden Raspberry nominations and was dubbed ‘that endless bore’ at the Oscars by Bette Midler after Lionel Ritchie and Diana Ross’s chart-topping theme had been nominated for Best Song. Zeffirelli himself claimed that directing 15 year-old Brooke Shields was like ‘cracking the whip at a limping horse,’ while he had to make extensive cuts to ensure a notorious sex scene avoided an X rating. But this misbegotten Chicago saga is key to understanding Zeffirelli’s yen to connect with audiences on their own terms.
La Traviata (1982)
Zeffirelli had mixed fortunes with Alexandre Dumas’s tale of a fading courtesan. His 1963 Broadway bow with The Lady of the Camellias closed after four shows, yet his flashbacking 1958 Dallas production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera was hailed as groundbreaking. Following Susan Strasberg and Maria Callas into the role of Violetta, soprano Teresa Stratas so bewitches Plácido Domingo’s Alfredo while switching from coquettish to cadaverous that she drew comparisons with Greta Garbo in George Cukor’s Camille (1936). Oscar nominations for costume and production design persuaded some that this was chocolate-box cinema. But Zeffirelli broke the mould by filming the opera rather than a performance.
Tea With Mussolini (1999)
Having been unfairly maligned for a thoughtful Jane Eyre, Zeffirelli delved into his own past for this elegiac rite of passage. Raised by a cousin of father Ottorino Corsi after mother Alaide Garosi had died when he was six, Zeffirelli had acquired a love of literature from English tutor Mary O’Neill. She is played with typical grace by Joan Plowright, who is joined among the expat Scorpioni in 1930s Florence by Judi Dench and a BAFTA-winning Maggie Smith, who were all reuniting with their director after previous stage liaisons. The action’s a touch episodic and latterly becomes muddled, but this remains an elegant gesture of heartfelt gratitude.