Franco Zeffirelli (born 1923) is best know for his extravagantly staged operas and films that bring the classics to the masses. His interests also span into the political arena. He was elected to the Italian senate in 1994 and 1996 representing Catania, Sicily.
Franco Zeffirelli has proven himself as a talented director of operas, plays and feature films. He has found the most success in the opera house. Though critics haven't always been in favor of his flamboyant staging, his audiences have been bedazzled by it. In fact, his elaborate set designs have often been thought to upstage the music. Zeffirelli has also brought classics such as Romeo and Juliet (1968), Hamlet (1990) and Jane Eyre (1996) to the silver screen so that the average movie-goer can understand them. While some claim that he oversimplifies the classics, Zeffirelli feels that he popularizes them instead. Even in the world of politics, Zeffirelli has looked out for the common people. William Murray in Los Angeles Magazine, noted that Zeffirelli has "secured jobs, money and other help" for his constituents in Catania, "one of the poorest, most Mafia-ridden cities in Sicily."
A Boy with No Name
Zeffirelli was born on February 12, 1923 in the outskirts of Florence, Italy. He was the result of an affair between Alaide Garosi, a fashion designer, and Ottorino Corsi, a wool and silk dealer. Since both were married, Alaide was unable to use her surname or Corsi's for her child. She came up with "Zeffiretti" which are the "little breezes" mentioned in Mozart's Cosi fan tutte of which she was quite fond. However, it was misspelled in the register and became Zeffirelli. Alaide placed her newborn with a peasant family for two years before bringing him to live with her after the death of her husband. Unfortunately, she succumbed to tuberculosis and a six-year-old Zeffirelli was sent to live with his father's cousin, Lide, whom he called "Aunt Lide."
As a child, Zeffirelli's earliest experiences of theater were the traveling actors who visited the peasant village where he spent his summers. He also enjoyed building toy theaters and scenery for his puppets. The first opera he saw was Die Walkre which he didn't understand. The music and scenery, though, captivated the young boy. Another early influence was the Catholic Club at his school. The club performed religious and historical plays at various churches. He also went to see movies quite often and knew who all the stars were and the gossip about them.
The War Years
Mussolini marched on Rome the year before Zeffirelli was born and Fascism was all around him. During World War II, Zeffirelli began studying architecture at the University of Florence. By the time most of his friends had been conscripted, he chose to join the partisans in the hills of Italy. After escaping the Italian Fascists and reaching the Allied lines, he ended up as a guide and interpreter for the First Battalion of the Scots Guards. It was with the Scots that his interest in theater was renewed. He helped organize a theatric performance with soldiers in drag. By the time he returned to Florence, Zeffirelli was a different person. He went to live with his father and after seeing Laurence Olivier's Henry V he decided to pursue a career in theater.
Count Luchino Visconti
The biggest break of Zeffirelli's career was his acquaintance with Count Luchino Visconti. According to Andrea Lee in The New Yorker, meeting Visconti "was the opening of the crucial collaboration of Zeffirelli's life, an artistic and sentimental relationship that would be equaled in intensity only by his passionate friendship with Maria Callas. It also marked an immense step up in the world." He met Visconti while working as a scene-painter and from there his career took off. He spent nearly 9 years with Visconti and worked for his Morelli-Stoppa theatrical company. Lee further noted that "[i]n Visconti, who divided his talents between cinema, opera, and theatre, Zeffirelli had an example of the restless eclecticism that in time became his own trademark." He also adopted Visconti's penchant for detailed research and hands-on demonstrations of how he wanted a scene acted out.
On Stage and Screen
Zeffirelli's career took off in the 1950s as a scene designer for Italian productions of A Streetcar Named Desire and Troilus and Cressida. From 1958 on, Zeffirelli has demonstrated the flexibility of going from opera to theater to film and back again all over the world. In one decade, he brought out: Lucia di Lammermoor (1959) with Joan Sutherland; Romeo and Juliet (1960) at the Old Vic; Othello (1961) with John Gielgud at Stratford; Tosca (1964) at Covent Garden; Norma (1964) at the Paris Opera; Taming of the Shrew (1967) with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor; and a film version of Romeo and Juliet (1968).
"Opera a la Zeffirelli is the greatest show on earth," claims Murray. His sets tend to be very large in scale and he often has literally crowds of performers on stage at once. He's even been known to use numerous live animals. Bernard Holland in the New York Times had this to say about Zeffirelli's productions at the Metropolitan Opera, "The Met-with its huge stage, its magnificent stage equipment and crew, and its pocket of wealthy patrons hungry to gild the status quo-has become for him an irresistible playground and a marriage made in heaven." With regard to a performance of Puccini's Turandot, Holland commented that "[s]omewhere in the house that night an opera, and a rich and stageworthy one at that, was going on. It really didn't matter, though. All the glitter and grandiosity descending over it made certain that music wouldn't get in the way of an evening's entertainment."
Zeffirelli's name is linked most often with the operas, La Traviata, Cavalleria Rusticana, and I Pagliacci. His 1958 staging of La Traviata in Dallas, Texas with Maria Callas as Violetta marked Zeffirelli as an up-and-coming international director. Often when Zeffirelli has been asked to direct an opera that he has done before, he will make changes to the time period or the setting. With I Pagliacci, he changed the time from 1870 to 1938 in one production and the setting from Calabria to the outskirts of a city like Naples in another. His fondness for opera can be seen in his carefully dictated quote to Murray that, "opera is a river that carries you forward."
Zeffirelli's films have not enjoyed as much critical success as his operas, yet they still appeal to the audiences. His 1977 five-part television miniseries Jesus of Nazareth shows the kind of ambitious undertaking Zeffirelli can achieve. This modern classic is broadcast in Italy and around the world every Easter. His film about St. Francis, Brother Sun and Sister Moon, was disliked by the critics but has seen cult-like popularity in the Philippines and Brazil due to its religious content.
In an interview with John Tibbetts in Literature Film Quarterly, Zeffirelli shed some light on perhaps another reason for the lack of critical acclaim received by his films when he said, "I think culture-especially opera and Shakespeare-must be available to as many people as possible. It irritates me that some people want art to be as 'difficult' as possible, an elitest [sic] kind of thing. I want to give these things back to the people." This can clearly be seen in his treatment of the films he has based on English classic literature such as Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew, Romeo and Juliet, and Hamlet.
Zeffirelli's practice of researching the subject to the smallest detail has helped bring these films to the general audience. In Romeo and Juliet, he used two very young performers in the lead roles who more closely matched the age of Shakespeare's characters. When criticized about the ages of Glenn Close and Mel Gibson as being unrealistic for a mother and son in Hamlet, Zeffirelli responded that it was common at that time for girls to marry at 13 and start having children. He has also done a film version of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. The book had been a favorite of his since he was ten years old and Mary O'Neal introduced him to it while tutoring him in English. Ian Blair reported in The Standard-Times that Zeffirelli said his biggest challenge with the film was "not to impose the eye of an Italian on it."
Zeffirelli has been an outspoken rightist for some 40 years. He ran for parliament in Florence in 1983 and lost. He had run as a favor for the Christian Democratic Party which feared the Communist Party might make some gains. Zeffirelli also had an ulterior motive for running. In his autobiography, Zeffirelli: The Autobiography of Franco Zeffirelli, he admits, "I genuinely thought I could use the post to realize a long-standing dream: to use my cultural connections and make Florence the European capital for the performing arts … [and] access to political power was essential for anyone trying to bring this about."
In 1994, Zeffirelli ran for a seat in the Italian senate representing the city of Catania in Sicily. With 63 percent of the vote, he was elected as a candidate for the rightist party, Forza Italia. He ran for re-election and won again in 1996. With regard to his activities as a senator, he told Lee that "he sensibly assigns others to cover areas he is unfamiliar with, and tries to take charge of things with which he has direct experience-culture, historic preservation, education, and the environment, including, in particular, animal rights."
Zeffirelli's political views tend to be on the conservative side. Even though he has not been known to attend mass regularly, he is a staunch supporter of the Vatican. Perhaps the only area in which the Pope and Zeffirelli don't agree is artistic preference. In a Vatican list of 45 films deemed to have worthy religious content, none of Zeffirelli's films are mentioned. Belinda Luscombe reported in Time that Zeffirelli felt his films "have brought about many more conversions then all those cited."
Even in his seventies, Zeffirelli is always on the lookout for a new endeavor, be it film or opera. "The more you work, the more you accumulate energy," he told Marion Hart in Entertainment Weekly. He has written a script for a film version of Madame Butterfly and is looking to cast Cher in the leading role of the film Tea with Mussolini which is based on a chapter from his autobiography. With regard to his future, Blair quoted Zeffirelli as saying, "I feel like an airport with all these projects circling around waiting to land. Some get lost in space, others land safely."
Zeffirelli, Franco, Zeffirelli: The Autobiography of Franco Zeffirelli, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1986.
Entertainment Weekly, April, 26, 1996.
Hartford Courant, February 1, 1998.
Literature Film Quarterly, April-June, 1994.
Los Angeles Magazine, September 1996.
New Perspectives Quarterly, Summer 1994.
New York Times, October 5, 1997.
New Yorker, April 22, 1996.
Time, March 25, 1996.
Victoria, June 1996.
Blair, Ian, "Zeffirelli's 'Eyre' love affair," The Standard Times, (April 7, 1996) http://www.s-t.com (March 21, 1998).
"Franco Zeffirelli," http://www.unitel.classicalmusic.com(March 15, 1998).
Nationality: Italian. Born: Gianfranco Corsi in Florence, 12 February 1923. Education: Studied architecture at University of Florence, and at Accademia di Belle Arti, Florence. Family: One son, one daughter. Career: Theatre director, from 1945; designer for opera, from 1946; made only acting appearance in Zampa's Angelina, 1947; assistant director to Visconti, for films and theatre, from 1947, working on La Terra trema, Bellissima, Senso; opera director, from 1953; directed first film, 1957; made Jesus of Nazareth for TV, 1977. Awards: Academy Award nomination, Best Director, for Romeo and Juliet, 1968.
Films as Director:
Camping (+ co-sc)
The Taming of the Shrew (+ co-sc); Florence—Days ofDestruction (doc)
Romeo and Juliet (+ co-sc)
Fratelli sole sorella luna (Brother Sun, Sister Moon) (+ co-sc)
Gesu di Nazareth (Jesus of Nazareth) (for TV) (+ co-sc)
La Traviata (+ sc); La Bohème (for TV)
Otello (Othello) (+ sc)
Il Giovane Toscanini (Young Toscanini)
Hamlet (+ co-sc)
Storia di una Capinera (The Story of a Blackcap) (+ sc)
Sparrow (+ sc)
Jane Eyre (+ sc)
Tea with Mussolini (+ sc)
Angelina (Zampa) (role)
La terra trema (Visconti) (asst d)
Bellissima (Visconti) (asst d)
Senso (Visconti) (asst d)
Placido Domingo: A Musical Life (role)
By ZEFFIRELLI: books—
Zeffirelli: The Autobiography of Franco Zeffirelli, London, 1986.
By ZEFFIRELLI: articles—
"Versatility," an interview with Gordon Gow, in Films and Filming (London), April 1973.
Interview with B. J. Demby in Filmmakers Newsletter (Ward Hill, Massachusetts), September 1973.
"Knowing, Feeling, Understanding, Then Expression," an interview with A. Stuart, in Films and Filming (London), August 1979.
"A Dialogue with Franco Zeffirelli," in American Cinematographer (Los Angeles), October 1981.
Interview, in La Revue du Cinéma (Paris), May 1986.
Interview by Jean-Michel Breque, in L'avant Scene Cinéma (Paris), May 1987.
"Une aventure esaltante mais risquée," an interview with J. M. Brèque, in Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), July/August 1988.
Interview with Steve Grant, in Time Out (London), 17 April 1991.
"Breaking the Classical Barrier: Franco Zeffirelli Interviewed by John Tibbets," in Literature-Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), April 1994.
"A Beachhead of Anti-Politics," an interview with Nathan Gardels, in Los Angeles Times, 6 April 1994.
"Anti-Politics of the Image," an interview with Nathan Gardels, in New Perspectives Quarterly (Los Angeles), Summer 1994.
On ZEFFIRELLI: articles—
Lane, John, "The Taming of the Shrew," in Films and Filming (London), October 1966.
Chase, D., "The Champ: Round Two," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), July/August 1978.
Pursell, M., "Artifice and Authenticity in Zeffirelli's Romeo andJuliet," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), October 1986.
Stivers, Cyndi, "Hamlet Revisited," Premiere, February 1991.
"Alas, Poor Mel," in The Economist (London), 27 April 1991.
Van Watson, William, "Shakespeare, Zeffirelli, and the Homosexual Gaze," in Literature-Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), October 1992.
Rooney, D., "Zeffirelli Suffers the Unkindest Cut," in Variety (New York), 11/17 March 1996.
Lee, A., "Zeffirelli's Revenge," in New Yorker, 22 April 1996.
Calderale, M., in Segnocinema (Vicenza), May/June 1996.
Simmons, James R. Jr., and Philip Weller, "'In the Rank Sweat of an Enseamed Bed,': Sexual Abberation and the Paradigmatic Screen Hamlets: Freud's Footprints in Films of Hamlet," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury), April 1997.
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Franco Zeffirelli imbues his theater, opera, and film productions with a dazzling array of baroque imagery, visual pyrotechnics, sumptuous sets and costumes, and overt eroticism. Of his major motion pictures, nearly all are adaptations of classical derivation set in another era. To many viewers, his films are hollow, banal, and superfluous romantic exercises, but Zeffirelli defends his love of the past and tradition by saying: "We have no guarantee for the present or the future. Therefore the only choice is to go back to the past and respect traditions. I have been a pioneer in this line of thinking, and the results have proven me right. . . . The reason I am box-office everywhere is that I am an enlightened conservative continuing the discourse of our grandfathers and fathers, renovating texts but never betraying them."
After studying architecture at the University of Florence, Zeffirelli took up acting. Luchino Visconti saw him in a production of Jean Cocteau's Les Parents terribles and hired him to act in stage productions of two works—Eurydice, by Jean Anouilh, and Crime and Punishment, by Dostoevsky. Zeffirelli also involved himself in designing sets and costumes for Visconti's stage presentations, and appeared in the film L'onorevole Angelina, directed by Luigi Zampa and starring Anna Magnani. As a result of that film, he was offered a seven-year acting contract at RKO-Radio by screenwriter Helen Deutsch. Zeffirelli turned the offer down, however, to become Visconti's assistant on three films—La terra trema, Bellissima, and Senso. Zeffirelli's natural talent in the realms of set and costume design and his love of opera provided an obvious segue into staging opera productions. These productions gained a reputation for opulence and for the focusing of attention on the lead female singers. Zeffirelli, who says he "adores fun, fantasy, and women," emphasized these elements in his operas. His most famous and successful association in opera was with the volatile Maria Callas, for whom he staged productions of La Traviata, Lucia de Lammermoor, Norma, and Tosca. His lengthy apprenticeship in the various theatrical arts earned Zeffirelli a reputation as a Renaissance man of sorts. He turned to feature film directing in 1967, bringing his romanticized traditionalism to The Taming of the Shrew, which starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. While unarguably a bowdlerization of Shakespeare, its slapstick and boisterous merriment was engaging.
Romeo and Juliet was another matter entirely. Here the very heart of Shakespeare was replaced with Romeo and Juliet as flower children. It was an unabashed combination of theatricality, nude love scenes, and a Mercutio which Zeffirelli describes as "a self-portrait of Shakespeare himself as a homosexual." The film was tremendously popular with the young movie-going audience and received Academy Awards for cinematography and costume design.
Fratello sole sorella lune (Brother Sun, Sister Moon) was also aimed at the young, this time the "Jesus freaks," members of a fundamentalist religious group, but this outrageous portrait of St. Francis of Assisi was a complete flop.
Zeffirelli's 1978 Easter television presentation, Jesus of Nazareth, employed a star-studded cast and surprised many serious critics with its sensitivity and restraint. This was not the case, however, with his syrupy diminishing of The Champ, a sentimental classic that should never have been updated.
Zeffirelli disavows the explicitly erotic Endless Love, a vehicle for Brooke Shields, which, he says, was a beautiful story of the tragedy of two families in its original three-hour-version. He labeled the truncated version "trash" and vowed to stop with his attempts to capture the young audience. Appropriately, his next picture was the opulent and admirably cinematic presentation of La Traviata. For his Hamlet, however, he courted controversy with his casting of heartthrob Mel Gibson in the title role.
Zeffirelli's Hamlet was similar to his earlier The Taming of the Shrew in that both attempted to bring Shakespeare to the masses by casting bankable Hollywood names—Mel Gibson, Glenn Close—alongside classically trained Britons—Paul Scofield, Alan Bates, Ian Holm. Zeffirelli defends his extravagant approach to filmmaking by saying, "I am a flag-bearer of the crusade against boredom, bad taste, and stupidity in the theater," but he is still the target of critical barbs such as those from a Time magazine reviewer who stated he was "a director in need of a director."
Zeffirelli's other recent films of note include Tea with Mussolini and Sparrow, a typically ornate but otherwise ponderous account of a young novice nun in 1850s Sicily who is forced out of her convent because of a cholera epidemic. She returns to her hometown and promptly falls in love, but rejects her suitor to return to the nunnery. Once there, she is conflicted by her feelings for her beloved and her religious commitment. Almost driven to insanity, she eventually garners the fortitude to persevere in her religious calling.
In recent years, Zeffirelli primarily has concentrated on directing opera productions in Europe and the United States, including a stint at New York's Metropolitan Opera, where he directed a 1995 production of La Traviata.
—Ronald Bowers, updated by Rob Edelman