Remembering Franco Zeffirelli

Franco Zeffirelli, the famed director behind many a Shakespeare adaptation, died in Rome this weekend at the age of 96.

His earliest days seemed to predestine him for the drama he would become celebrated for. Born out of wedlock in Florence, Italy, his mother made up his surname based on a mistranslation of a Mozart aria. During WWII, he fought with Italian partisans against Mussolini’s fascist regime before becoming an interpreter for the British army. After the war, he studied at the University of Florence, where he got his first taste of the wonder of stage and opera.

By Alexey Yushenkov – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

He began his opera career in the 1950s, first working as a production assistant, then set designer, and later directing productions in Italy and the United States.  He gradually transitioned into theatre, and he directed Shakespeare productions in London throughout the 1960s. He became known for his lavish sets and lush costuming, and he carried these hallmarks with him when he began directing films. His first film, The Taming of the Shrew (1967), starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. The film was a moderately successful, but his big break came the next year with Romeo and Juliet. This sumptuous film is still considered one of the best adaptations of Shakespeare’s tragedy, and thousands of American students watch it every year in classrooms.

After these two early successes, Zeffirelli took a break from Shakespeare and focused on making more religious films, such as Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972), and Jesus of Nazareth (1977), which earned mixed reviews from critics and audiences. After a decade adapting operas for the big screen, he experienced a sort of career renaissance after the release of Hamlet (1990), starring Mel Gibson, and Jane Eyre (1996).

As with many men in Hollywood, Zeffirelli was not without controversy. He was a demanding, difficult director—some would say abusive, and allegations of sexual harassment followed him from Romeo and Juliet onwards. Bruce Robinson, who played Benvolio in that film, later became a screenwriter and based the character of Uncle Monty from Withnail & I, on the Italian director.

Zeffirelli will be remembered in Hollywood as beyond as a director who retold our best known stories in sumptuous, lush fantasy worlds. You can find the following of his works in our collection:

  • Romeo and Juliet (DVD 5806)
  • La Boheme (DVD 7103)
  • The Taming of the Shrew (DVD 9159)
  • Hamlet (DVD 5914)
  • La Traviata (DVD 2327)

In addition to these DVDs, you can view many of his stage productions through The Metropolitan Opera streaming service, available with your AU credentials.

Posted in Obituaries.