Franco Zeffirelli lives in the spotlight, famous for lavish films, opera, & stage production spectacles. His works brought applause & accolades, along with certain critical contempt.
Zeffirelli is gay & open about his sexuality in his memoir & his films have a decidedly gay sensitivity, yet he is an advocate of Catholic dogma in opposition to gay rights, particularly his backing of Vatican effort to prevent a Gay Pride parade in Rome. The contradiction is characteristic of Zeffirelli's career with works with extreme degrees of reverence & revilement.
Religious organizations strongly took exception to Zeffirelli’s supposedly blasphemous representation of biblical figures, yet he also earned the derision of gay people for publicly taking the side of the Roman Catholic Church.
Zeffirelli writes in his memoir that he never liked to discuss his personal life, & that he considers himself "homosexual," not "gay," a term he considers less elegant.
Several years ago, Zeffirelli adopted 2 adult sons, men he has known & worked with for years who now live with him, dote on him & help manage his affairs.
Zeffirelli was turns 90 years old on this very day, February 12, in Florence, the son of a rich businessman, from the family line of Leonardo da Vinci, & his fashion designer mistress. His mother followed the Florentine tradition of naming a child born out of wedlock with a created name beginning with the letter "Z." After his mother's death, he was placed in the care of an English governess, from whom he learned the English language & its literature.
Zeffirelli studied architecture at the University of Florence where he began directing student theatrical & 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 influence from his new British friends, Zeffirella dropped plans to be an architect & became a theatrical set & costume designer. He found work as an assistant to film director Luciano Visconti. His first big break was in 1949, designing the set for the first Italian production of A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by Visconti. Zeffirelli: "There were lots of stories of Visconti & myself & 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 3 years.
Zeffirelli found real success staging plays & operas, famously noted for his highly naturalistic productions of Shakespeare at London's Old Vic, &operas at Milan's La Scala, London's Covent Garden, & NYC’s Metropolitan Opera starring Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, & Leontyne Price.
Zeffirelli’s lavish looks brought mainstream interest to opera, but the Zeffirelli's 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 production values overwrought, drawing attention away from the actual performance.
In the 1960s, Zeffirelli expanded his audience as a film director, starting with The Taming Of The Shrew (1967), starring the high wattage duo- Elizabeth Taylor & Richard Burton.
Zeffirelli gained my attention as a young teen with Romeo & Juliet (1968). The film was an introduction to Shakespeare for many young people, with his casting of unknown, inexperienced & 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).
The Husband & I watched Zeffirelli’s Tea With Mussolini for a 3rd time this weekend. We love this film, with the added attraction of enjoying Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright, Lily Tomlin (as a butch lesbian) & Cher in the same project.
Other films include Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1973), Jesus Of Nazareth (1977), Verdi's La Traviata (1982) & Otello (1986), Hamlet (with Mel Gibson & Glenn Close, 1990), Jane Eyre (1996), & Callas Forever (2001).