Good Directors Made Small / Vox

Struggled with whether to call Franco Zeffirelli a Great Director, and decided I couldn’t. But I’ll allow “good.” Above is an eight-year-old Zeff in Pagliacci whiteface.

The image comes from FZ’s autobiography, imaginatively entitled Zeffirelli. Actually a pretty fun book, with the man’s pomposity amusing rather than hateful, and some interesting stories. Like how he visited Egypt in the 70s to prepare a film of AIDA. After touring the pyramids he stopped to buy some stamps for his postcards, and was struck by the large, colourful yet ominous images of Nasser in front of a burning city. “What is this?” he asked.

“Tel Aviv,” said the shopkeeper.

“Did all this happen while I was away looking at the pyramids?”

“Ah no, this is what’s going to happen.”

FZ, struck by what he viewed as a premonition (which I think is putting it too strongly), got on the next plane out, which turned out to be the last plane for some time, as the Six-Day War broke out, “though it was certainly not Tel Aviv that burned as a result of it.”

Also striking is a passage where Z manages to explain how he squares his Catholicism with his “sinful lifestyle,” which almost makes sense and goes some way to explaining how he can hold his homosexuality and his right-wing Catholicism in his head at the same time without the cognitive dissonance detonating inside his skull and blowing his chin off.

Most interesting to me is the but which intersects with my fascination with famous but anonymous voice artists, as detailed in The Vox Project. The scene is the post-production of his pretty good production of ROMEO AND JULIET (shown in UK schools during my youth, whereby Olivia Hussey became responsible for the first stirrings os sapphic passion in several women I know) ~

One by-product of the filming was my first chance to work with Laurence Olivier. While we were shooting, he was working on a neighbouring sound stage making THE SHOES OF THE FISHERMAN with Anthony Quinn as the Pope. Naturally he felt an almost proprietary interest in any film of a Shakespeare play. The contrast between the rather boring film on which he was working and the glorious text we had at our disposal obviously affected him. Eventually he asked me if there was any way he could join in, and I, delighted at the chance, asked him if he would voice the prologue.

‘Of course,’ he said, ‘But isn’t there anything else?’

I think he would have played Romeo if he’d thought there was half a chance. In the end I got him to dub Lord Montague, who’d been played by an Italian with a thick accent. By now unstoppable, Larry insisted on dubbing all sorts of small parts and crowd noises in a hilarious variety of assumed voices. The audiences never knew just how much of Laurence Olivier they were getting on the soundtrack of that film.

Really makes me want to see it again!

Buy here (US): Romeo & Juliet

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20 Responses to “Good Directors Made Small / Vox”

  1. david wingrove Says:

    Franco Zeffirelli, loathsome man that he is, does at least know how to make a movie that LOOKS like a proper movie. His Shakespeare and opera adaptations are probably the best known (and LA TRAVIATA is a masterpiece by his or any other standards) but I’ve also got a lot of time for TEA WITH MUSSOLINI and even CALLAS FOREVER. They say they don’t make ’em like that any more…well, Franco does!

    In the ‘guilty pleasures’ wing, both SPARROW and YOUNG TOSCANINI are imperishable camp laugh-riots. The latter has Liz Taylor as a Russian opera diva (in black face as AIDA) freeing the slaves of Brazil – no, I’m not making that up!

    The one aspect of Zeffirelli I really can’t cope with is his ‘best pals’ status with Silvio Berlusconi. Back in the 90s, he even served as the Forza Italia Minister of Culture – or is that a contradiction in terms?

  2. Zefferelli is quite a piece of work. Plenty of great dish about him in Farley Granger’s memoir “Include Me Out.” When Farley was doing Senso Zefferelli’s affair with Visconti was coming to an end. He was enraged at the very sight of Farley — convinced that Visconti was going to run off with him. So he tried to dye Farley’s hair yellow so he’d have to be replaced mid-shoooting. Well that didn’t work. And it only served to speed up Visconti’s showing Franco the door.

    While the bulk of his filmmaking career defines kitsch I have a great degree of fondness for Tea With Mussolini because Zefferelli really understands Cher.

    A worthy pursuit, comprehensible to the select few.

  3. “Z manages to explain how he squares his Catholicism with his “sinful lifestyle,” which almost makes sense”
    …Through masochism?

    Thanks for the Olivier Dubbing anecdote: I tend to regard him as an uber-serious person, so this picture of him enjoying himself so hugely showed me a more charming side of the man

  4. If someone gave me the money back I shelled out on a date where we ended up watching Endless Love, maybe I’d watch another Zeffirelli film.

  5. Hard to forgive Endless Love, I’ll grant you. Fortunately FZ has the Virgin Mary to intercede on his behalf. That’s how he manages his Catholicism: he takes the view that pretty much anything can be forgiven if you repent it, so why reform?

    Of course, simply regarding a victimless activity which he enjoys as harmless and undeserving of condemnation doesn’t occur to him. He thinks it’s far better that he should feel guilt and repent for having a good time than that the church should change its outdated “principles.”

  6. Well the Church has no “principles” — and neither does Franco.

  7. Christopher Says:

    I enjoy his opera on film..and the ’68 Romeo and Juliet….His ’77 tv movie, Jesus of Nazareth was good too,good color and scene compositions,wasted on a small screen.

  8. I enjoyed Leonard Whiting’s naked ass in R & J

  9. Zeff obviously had a great working partnership with DoP David Watkin, who shot Romeo and Jesus… and was gay also.

    I heard that Watkin used to work with a return ticket taped to his camera, so if the director said anything he didn’t like, he could just point at the ticket… “I don’t have to be here, you know?” He was a real star cinematographer and took full advantage of the fact.

  10. David Boxwell Says:

    And we should mention how damn cute Bruce Robinson is in R & J, too.

  11. Robinson claims he turned down Jesus because he was getting tired of fending off FZ’s advances. And then he gave up acting after working for Truffaut because he felt that if he couldn’t give a good perf for that man, whom he deeply admired, there was no point.

    Very excited to have Robinson back directing again!

  12. Robinson is a very fine director and One Fabulous Babe

  13. Bruce at his most devestating

    Definitely worth losing one’s mind over.

    I love what Truffaut said about Adjandi: “She’s James Dean come back as a girl.”

    Clearly one of his masterpieces.

  14. I find it a fascinating film. It runs up against the wall of the character’s madness, which makes her somewhat had to relate to, but then it somehow breaks through. The ending is intensely emotional.

    Adjani’s father told her she was ugly and raised her in a house without mirrors…

  15. david wingrove Says:

    Zeffirelli claims the studio recut ENDLESS LOVE behind his back, and says that’s why it was such a disaster. Who knows?

    Have never cried so much at any film as I have at TEA WITH MUSSOLINI. The most shameless piece of tear-jerking kitsch I have ever experienced. When those nasty Fascists tried to throw Dame Judi Dench’s dog out the window of the Uffizi Gallery, I was a helpless puddle of tears on the floor.

    And I don’t even like dogs!

  16. Zeff wades so deep in kitsch notions of beauty that it probably wouldn’t take much studio interference to nudge one of his films from tacky to unbearable. I am quite looking forward to watching Brother Sun, Sister Moon sometime.

  17. rosemurasaki Says:

    I once interviewed Zeffirelli for Time Out at his fabulous multi-bungalowed villa among acres of bougainvillea-blooming terraces in Positano. He wafted around all afternoon and evening in a Liz Tayloresque kaftan while Yorkshire Terriers nipped at his heels and visitors popped in off passing yachts and his chef prepared spaghetti Bolognese for hordes of people.

    I remember there was a TV room decorated entirely with shells, and someone told me, seemingly with authority, that The Godfather was the favourite film of the Italian Mafia.

    Needless to say, FZ was a good interview.

    I somehow ended up staying the night (on my own) in one of the bungalows. I guess that if I’d been a good-looking youth I might still be there.

    But there are two things for which I can’t forgive him: 1) his later condemnation of women who had abortions as murderers, and 2) leaving the Willow Song out of Otello. Though he did do a good impersonation of a diva wailing, “Wiiiiiill-ow wiiiill-ow” as explanation for one of the reasons he left it out.

  18. david wingrove Says:

    Are we to believe the Willow Song was TOO kitsch for Zeffirelli? That’s akin to being ‘too right-wing for Adolf Hitler’ or ‘too camp for Liberace.’

    Zeff not only condemned women who have abortions as murderers – he even said in one interview that they should be executed in public! And then he wonders why people don’t like him much…

  19. What a thoroughly creepy man. And yet, obviously with a kind of charm.

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