February 12, 1923– Franco Zeffirelli:
“I have always believed that opera is a planet where the muses work together, join hands and celebrate all the arts.”
Zeffirelli lives in the spotlight, famous for his lavish films, opera, and stage production spectaculars. His works have brought applause and accolades, along with certain critical contempt.
Zeffirelli is a gay man and he is open about his sexuality in his memoir. His films have a decidedly gay sensitivity, yet he is an advocate of traditional Catholic Dogma including opposition to Gay Rights, particularly his backing of the Vatican’s effort to prevent a Gay Pride Parade in Rome. The contradiction is characteristic of Zeffirelli’s career, with works that possess extreme degrees of reverence and revilement.
Yet, many religious groups have strongly taken exception to Zeffirelli’s supposedly blasphemous representation of Biblical figures, at the same time, he also earned the derision of gay people for publicly taking the side of the Roman Catholic Church.
Zeffirelli writes that he never likes to discuss his personal life, and that he considers himself “homosexual”, not “gay”, a term he considers less elegant.
“When I was young, I was very attractive, very handsome, and a lot of women fell in love with me, some of them desperately. Same with men. One even tried to commit suicide. I managed to deal with it because I actually felt that I was a special person: I was so successful and handsome. I was in a commanding position. People panted around me to get my favors – one way or another. The real, serious commitment was more with men. I was hit right on the forehead and in the heart by a couple of serious love affairs – not important sexually, but for the involvement that they brought.”
A decade ago, Zeffirelli adopted two adult sons, men he has known and worked with for years who now live with him, dote on him and help manage his affairs.
He was born in Florence, the son of a rich businessman and his fashion designer mistress. He is from a family line that goes back to noted gay Renaissance man Leonardo da Vinci. His mother followed the Florentine tradition of naming a child born out of wedlock with a created name beginning with the letter Z. His mother passed away when he was a tot, and after her death, he was placed in the care of an English governess, from whom he learned the English language and English literature.
Zeffirelli studied architecture at the University Of Florence where he began directing student plays and opera productions. He left the university to join the fight against the Nazi occupation of Italy, working as an interpreter for the British Army.
With the influence from his new British friends, Zeffirelli dropped his plans to become an architect, and instead he became a theatrical set and costume designer. He found work as an assistant to the great film director Luciano Visconti. His first big break was in 1949, designing the set for the first Italian production of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by Visconti. Zeffirelli:
“There were lots of stories of Visconti and myself and the relationship that developed, but the quality of my work did not authorize anybody to doubt my serious professional preparation.”
He lived with Visconti for three years. They broke-up when his own professional ambitions became too much for his competitive older lover to bear.
Zeffirelli found real success staging plays and operas, famously noted for his highly naturalistic productions of Shakespeare at London’s Old Vic and operas at Milan‘s La Scala Opera House, London‘s Covent Garden, and NYC’s Metropolitan Opera, directing the greats like Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, and Leontyne Price.
Zeffirelli’s lavish designs brought mainstream interest to the opera world, but the Zeffirelli style, which he compared to Hollywood epics of Cecil B. De Mille, “but in good taste”, met with resistance from the critics who found his productions overwrought, drawing attention away from the actual performances. But, audiences ate it up.
In the 1960s, Zeffirelli expanded his audience, becoming a film director, starting with The Taming Of The Shrew (1967), starring that high wattage duo of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, rather perfectly cast.
Zeffirelli gained my own attention when, as a young teen, I saw his Romeo And Juliet (1968). The film was an introduction to Shakespeare for many young people, with his casting of unknown, inexperienced and attractive teenaged actors in the title roles. A generation later, he would repeat the formula of obsessive teenage romance against parental prohibition with Endless Love (1981).
I watched Zeffirelli’s Tea With Mussolini for a third time recently. I just love this charming film, with the added attraction of enjoying Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright, Lily Tomlin (as a butch lesbian) and Cher all in the same project. I nearly passed out with pleasure.
Other Zeffirelli films include: Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1973), Jesus Of Nazareth (1977) with Robert Powell as Hot Jesus, Verdi’s La Traviata (1982), Otello (1986), Hamlet with crazy Mel Gibson and Glenn Close (1990), Jane Eyre (1996), and Callas Forever (2001).
Zeffirelli served as a senator for Silvio Berlusconi’s very conservative Forza Italia Party. He was staunchly anti-Fascist as a youth, but I was worried that he might be a fan of our American President, but he seems done with politics now, although he remains steadfastly conservative:
“I know that theater people often have very simplistic view of politics and tend to express very black and white patriotic sentiments but perhaps that is because we know the value of illusion, how it can help strengthen the weak, and stimulate the weary.”
His support of the Catholic Church confounds me. It seems baffling when the Church denounced his own Jesus film:
“I believe that Catholicism is the only one that comprehensively meets the needs of mankind. No other religion has words so full of hope as those Jesus preached in the ‘Sermon On The Mount’.”
In his memoir, Zeffirelli admits he was introduced to sex by a pedophile Catholic priest, but he shrugs it off by writing:
“Molestation suggests violence and there was no violence at all.”
Still, Zeffirelli did bring me that glimpse of Leonard Whiting’s fine ass as Romeo in that film in 1968. It had a major influence on my budding sexuality and may have made me begin to explore my own gayness.