‘Jane Eyre’ director Franco Zeffirelli
You could call Franco Zeffirelli many things — diehard romantic, cultural conservative, charming host — but modest is not one of them. Ask him to account for Hollywood’s renewed interest in literary classics and he takes all the credit: ”I started it back in 1965 with The Taming of the Shrew, [and then] with Romeo and Juliet, and the audience was there. Hollywood should have taken the hint.”
Mention moviedom’s current favorite lady of letters and the director of Jane Eyre begins cautiously — ”Jane Austen is wonderful” — then lowers the boom. ”But she did comedy of manners. I hope audiences won’t think, ‘Oh, here comes another Jane Austen movie.’ We’re dealing with entirely different levels of literature.”
Zeffirelli, 73, knows literature. With Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, he made Shrew — his first English-language feature — a raucous box office hit. His sexy Juliet (1968), starring unknowns Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting, won him an Oscar nomination for Best Director. And though his 1990 Hamlet got mixed reviews, it grabbed audiences with his bravura casting of Mel Gibson as the troubled Dane. But Hollywood never offered enough to hold the Florentine-born director, who, since giving up acting in the late 1940s, has pursued a dual career, directing films and also opera in Paris, New York, Vienna, and London. ”Opera is like a mother to me,” he says, rising from the couch in his New York hotel suite to serve coffee. ”With cinema you spend nasty stretches waiting for the next film. I go through that agony, but at the same time I’m busy. And the more you work, the more you accumulate energy.”
It took energy to make Jane Eyre. Rules tied to the production’s European financing allowed him to cast only one American (William Hurt) and forced him to comb continental acting schools for a Jane until his producer, Dyson Lovell, tracked down French actress Charlotte Gainsbourg from a photo he’d seen. The director believes her lack of ”precious, pretty looks” helps audiences identify with Jane — and with her creator’s battle for equality.
”We were all moved to do an homage to Charlotte Brontë,” recalls Jane Eyre co-screenwriter Hugh Whitemore (Stevie, Pack of Lies). ”She’s the woman writer for men who love women.” And for directors who expect female characters to be more than window-dressing. Notes Zeffirelli: ”Unlike her sister Emily, who said women had to die to create a romantic story, Charlotte said women have to live, fight, and be equal.”
Zeffirelli’s ready political sense led him to win a seat in the Italian senate for the rightist Forza Italia party in 1994. Now he’s seeking another two-year term to advance an agenda that includes promoting family values and drama schools for children, a constituency that looms large in his latest film.
”People were vaccinated to the horror facing children in Bronte’s age,” says Zeffirelli, who, like the orphan Jane, lost his mother to TB when he was but ”an urchin.” That may explain his enduring fascination with the book he discovered at 16 and now considers a tough act to follow. Would a modern story be eligible? ”I’m looking for one, but unless you have faith in a society, nothing creative comes to your attention. Cinema reflects society.” And the passions of its makers.