In Memoriam: Franco Zeffirelli (1923-2019)
It is my sad duty to report that one of the great Italian directors of the 20th century, Franco Zeffirelli passed away this past weekend at the age of 96.
Born Gian Franco Corsi Zeffirelli in Florence, Italy, the son of a fashion designer and a silk dealer, Zeffirelli grew up under the English expatriate community after Zeffirelli’s mother died when he was six. After fighting in WWII, the director re-entered the University of Florence where after seeing a performance of Laurence Olivier’s Henry V he grew interested in theater. After working with Italian directors such as Luchino Visconti and Roberto Rossellini, Zeffirelli used his new found knowledge to design plays in London and New York during the 1960s.
Zeffirelli’s big break in the film industry came in 1967 with the release of his first film The Taming of the Shrew starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. One year later he would release the critically acclaimed and commercially successful film version of Romeo and Juliet for which he would receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Director.
Over the years Zeffirelli would release a number of films with various success including the remake of The Champ starring Jon Voight, an adaptation of Hamlet starring Mel Gibson, and 1999’s well received Tea with Mussolini. In addition to film and theater, Zeffirelli was also a major player in the opera scene especially in the 1950s and later producing successful versions of Tosca and Don Giovanni for the Met.
A complicated man, Zeffirelli was a hard-line ultra conservative Catholic known for his position on abortion and backing the Church’s stance on homosexuality. Yet he was also an openly gay man having come out publicly in 1996. Zeffirelli was also often criticized for his “blasphemous” depiction of Biblical figures in his films. Yet he also courted his own controversy once famously calling Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, a product of, “that Jewish cultural scum of Los Angeles which is always spoiling for a chance to attack the Christian world.”
Personally, I will always remember Zeffirelli for his outstanding 1977 miniseries Jesus of Nazareth which touted an all-star cast and is something I watch at least once a year.
R.I.P. Mr. Zeffirelli.