California judge Alison Mackenzie has signalled she will be dismissing the Romeo and Juliet child abuse lawsuit filed by movie stars Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting.
Earlier this year, Hussey and Whiting, who starred in the 1968 feature film adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, filed a lawsuit against Paramount, accusing the production company of sexual harassment, fraud, sexual abuse, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
The lawsuit stemmed from a scene in the movie that showcased nude images of both actors, which were filmed when Hussey and Whiting were allegedly minors.
The complaint alleged that late director Franco Zeffirelli, who died in 2019 at age 96, told the lead actors that the film wouldn’t include nudity, but ended up turning on his word. In January, Zeffirelli’s son Pippo had called the lawsuit “embarrassing” and said that the nude scene at the centre of the complaint is “far from pornographic”.
This week, Judge Mackenzie indicated that she will side with the studio in this matter.
She determined that the scene was protected by the First Amendment, finding that the actors “have not put forth any authority showing the film here can be deemed to be sufficiently sexually suggestive as a matter of law to be held to be conclusively illegal”.
The judge found that the plaintiffs “cherry-picked” from the law and failed to provide legal authority for why it should apply to “purported works of artistic merit, such as the award-winning film at issue here”.
She quoted from an appeals court precedent that said child pornography is “particularly repulsive”, but “not all images of nude children are pornographic”.
In her written decision, she also found that the suit didn’t fall within the bounds of a California law that temporarily suspended the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse, and that a February re-release of the film did not change that.
Hussey and Whiting’s attorney denounced the decision and said they planned to file another version of the suit in federal court.
“We firmly believe that the exploitation and sexualization of minors in the film industry must be confronted and legally addressed to protect vulnerable individuals from harm and ensure the enforcement of existing laws,” lawyer Solomon Gresen said in a statement.
The actors were seeking compensation “believed to be in excess of $500m to match the amount the film has earned since 1968.
Romeo and Juliet is a 1968 coming-of-age period romantic drama film based on the play of the same name by William Shakespeare. An attorney for Paramount declined to comment to the Associated Press about the ruling.
(Additional reporting from Agencies)
If you are a child and you need help because something has happened to you, you can call the NSPCC free of charge on 0800 1111. You can also call the NSPCC if you are an adult and you are worried about a child, on 0808 800 5000. The National Association for People Abused in Childhood (Napac) offers support for adults on 0808 801 0331.