21 April 1994
|Born||12 February 1923
Florence, Tuscany, Italy
|Political party||The People of Freedom|
|Alma mater||University of Florence|
|Years of service||1942–1945|
|Unit||24th Guards Brigade|
|Battles/wars||World War II|
Franco Zeffirelli (born 12 February 1923) is a celebrated Italian director of films and operas. He has also been a noted opera designer and producer of operas, theatre, film and television, as well as a politician.
Internationally, he is well known for his film version of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (1968), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award. His television mini-series Jesus of Nazareth (1977) also won acclaim and is still shown on Easter weekend in many countries. Zeffirelli has been a member of the Italian Senate since 1994, representing the Forza Italia party. In 2008, Forza Italia dissolved into The People of Freedom.
Zeffirelli was born in Florence as Gianfranco Corsi, the illegitimate son of a mercer. When he was six years old his mother died and he subsequently grew up under the auspices of the British expatriate community and was particularly involved with the so-called Scorpioni, who inspired his semi-autobiographical 1999 film Tea With Mussolini.
During World War II he fought as a partisan, before he met up with the British soldiers of the 1st Scots Guards and became their interpreter. In the post-war years he studied art and architecture at the University of Florence. However, on seeing Henry V in 1945, Zeffirelli directed his attention toward theatre instead. While working for a scenic painter in Florence, he was introduced to and hired by Luchino Visconti, who made him the assistant director for the film La Terra trema, which was released in 1948. Zeffirelli's later work was deeply impacted by Visconti's methods. He also worked with directors such as Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini. In the 1960s he made his name designing and directing his own plays in London and New York, and soon transferred his ideas to cinema. He was also a model.
Zeffirelli's first film as director was a version of The Taming of the Shrew with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. His major breakthrough came the year after when he presented two teenagers as Romeo and Juliet, the perfect venue for 1968. The movie is still immensely popular (witness countless groups on the internet discussing the actors and the film in general), and was for many years the standard adaptation of the play shown to students. This movie also made Zeffirelli a household name - although no other subsequent work in his name has come close to the impact made by Romeo and Juliet.
After two successful film adaptations of Shakespeare, Zeffirelli went on to religious themes, first with a film about the life of St. Francis of Assisi entitled Brother Sun, Sister Moon to an extended television mini-series about Jesus with an all-star cast entitled Jesus of Nazareth. The latter was a major success and is frequently shown on TV. He then moved on to contemporary themes with a remake of the boxing picture The Champ (1979) and the critically panned Endless Love. In the 1980s he made a series of successful films adapting opera to the screen, with such stars as Placido Domingo, Teresa Stratas, Juan Pons, and Katia Ricciarelli. He returned to Shakespeare with Hamlet presented the Danish Prince in a quite unexpected way, casting Mel Gibson, who was then seen as an action-hero rather than a serious actor, in the lead role. His 1996 adaptation of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre was also a critical success.
Zeffirelli frequently cast unknown actors in major roles; however his leads have rarely gone on to stardom or even a sustained acting career. Leonard Whiting (Romeo in Romeo and Juliet), Graham Faulkner (St. Francis in Brother Sun, Sister Moon) and Martin Hewitt (in Endless Love) all left the film business after failing to secure similar high-profile roles. The female leads in those films (Olivia Hussey and Brooke Shields) have had greater acting success.
Zeffirelli has also been a major director of opera productions since the 1950s in Italy, Europe, and the U.S. He began his career in the theatre as assistant to Luchino Visconti. Then he tried his hand at scenography. His first work as a director was buffo operas by Rossini. He became a friend of Maria Callas, and they worked together on a "La Traviata" in Dallas in 59. Of particular note is his 1964 Royal Opera House production of Tosca with Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi. In the same year, he created Callas' last "Norma" at the Paris Opera. He has over the years created several productions for the Metropolitan Opera in New York, including La bohème, Tosca, and Turandot.
In November 2004 he was awarded an honorary knighthood by the United Kingdom. In 1999 he received the Crystal Globe award for outstanding artistic contribution to world cinema at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.
Zeffirelli is openly gay. He has received criticism from religious groups for what they call the blasphemous representation of biblical figures in his films and also criticism from members of the gay community for publicly backing the Roman Catholic Church with regard to homosexual issues. Director Bruce Robinson claimed to have been the target of unwanted sexual advances by Zeffirelli during the filming of Romeo and Juliet in which Robinson played Benvolio. Robinson says that he based the lecherous character of Uncle Monty in the film Withnail and I on Zeffirelli.
In 2007, disappointed with the manner in which Pope Benedict XVI had been presenting himself to the media, Zeffirelli openly offered his services to the Pontiff as an image consultant. In connection with this matter, he was quoted as saying "I am a Christian down to the depths of my spirit."