Hits and Misses in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet

60s rj
Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting (cough, Zac Efron) as the titular lovers in 1968. Look, he even has Zefron’s dead eyes. Photo via Laura Loveday on Flickr.

There was a period of time (freshman year honors English) when after reading a classic piece of literature, my class was guaranteed to watch a film adaptation of it. It happened for Great Expectations, and, inevitably, it happened for Romeo + Juliet. The divide between me and some of my acquaintances came here: while some classes watched the period-accurate film from the ‘60s, the one with that actor that looked unnervingly like Zac Efron, my class and a couple others watched the color-blown, musically rich, tooth-achingly delicious 1996 Baz Luhrmann version.

If you can’t tell, I have a soft spot for it.

There’s got to be approximately 6,017 reviews of the film online, so fear not, this isn’t another one. What I’m reminiscing on today are a few casting and character choices I loved—maybe a few I didn’t. After all, that’s been my mission here so far, hasn’t it?

Let’s start with something I mentioned very fleetingly a long time ago. Once upon a time, I mentioned that Romeo and Juliet can be approached from a racial perspective. This is, indeed, one of my favorite variations to impose on the play. Luhrmann’s film gives that a nod—in a bit of a convoluted way, maybe, but there nonetheless. Throughout the film, we see marked Latinx influences in the Capulet family, juxtaposed by the Montagues’ touristy Hawaiian shirts:

  • The Nurse is played as the trope of the Latina housekeeper/nanny (and played by a white British actress, oops)
  • Tybalt is played by Colombian-American John Leguizamo (caving to the stereotype of the quick-tempered fighting Latino? Maybe)
  • Even Juliet’s father (again, a white actor) is given a bit of an ethnic twist

But most remarkably in my mind, the iconography of Latino Catholicism is rampant. Candles, candles, candles. Rosary beads. With the film filmed majorly in Mexico City, and set in a Miami lookalike, the racial identity of the Capulets isn’t hard to miss. Was the execution flawless? Of course not; as I alluded to, there’s plenty to criticize. But it’s a nice, realistic touch to something that could have easily been made a snow-white fantasy.

As long as we’re talking race, we have to talk about one of my hands-down favorite parts of the film: Harold Perrineau’s standout Mercutio. Dear God. That interpretation may have changed my life. While reading the play, we had commented extensively on Mercutio’s bold, flamboyant nature—Mercutio even more than Romeo would be the character most likely to do just about anything. When Luhrmann made this include a drag number, everything clicked like clockwork in my head. Mercutio is black—he is different from either side of the feud. He does drag—because why the hell shouldn’t he? This is even before we talk about Perrineau’s excellent acting. Mercutio is the golden god of the film, an example of Luhrmann’s ability to craft a true-to-text character that resonates with the modern. Which is why I get upset, every time, that after his death, his best friends simply abandon his body on the beach. It’s infuriating to make a character that richly nuanced and then toss him aside like a set piece.

If only the play was as peppy and happy as this video, via Ariel Gomez Ponce.

Which leads me to the growl-inducing anger I feel when I think about Dash Mihok’s Benvolio. You shouldn’t screw up any character in Romeo and Juliet, but in my opinion, you particularly shouldn’t screw up Benvolio and Mercutio. They are the benchmarks by which we measure Romeo’s behavior. They provide emotional context—does he always act like this? How do ensemble characters feel about this main character? These are things the best friends provide for us. Note: best friends. The boys are supposed to be peas in a pod, by God. Particularly with Benvolio, the lone survivor of his peers, you need to communicate that friendship, those relationships outside of Juliet. And yet. Talk about characters being set pieces—Mihok’s Benvolio does it to a tee. I could strangle Luhrmann for thinking that what the ensemble needed was a dumb brute character when Benvolio is anything but. My anger peaks at Mercutio’s death. Benvolio seems surprised, stunned a little, but not terribly involved. Not very best-friend-like. Oh, my fury.

Even after heavy reflection, I still love that darned movie. It feels true to the Romeo and Juliet experience. Latinx Capulets? Cool! Could have been done better. Black cross-dressing Mercutio? Beyond excellent! Give him more respect! Dunce Benvolio with that stupid buzzcut? …We don’t have to talk about it. Learn and move on. All in all, to touch the tip of the iceberg, the film did the play a great service in making the character choices seem realistic and accessible. Perfect? No. A jumping off point? Definitely.


Farmer Laurence: An Insight Into a Major Theme

Since my last post (read here!) was on Julius Caesar, one of the less accessible plays, I thought I would do a little reversal and take a new look on potentially the most accessible Shakespeare play of all the folios: Romeo and Juliet. It’s so well-known and generally well-loved that it almost feels too cliché to talk about, and to be frank, the play has been reworked and recast and redone so many different times in so many different ways that coming up with something new is very daunting. Romeo and Juliet themselves have been made interracial and queer in a number of ways; the “Mercutio and Benvolio were lovers” theory is a fan favorite, and one that I hold so dearly that it feels too obvious to approach (not that I won’t approach it later, mind you). But an oft-overlooked character gave me inspiration into a new approach: Friar Laurence.

The argument is often made that Mercutio is Romeo’s foil, contrasting Romeo’s tenderness with Mercutio’s brazenness, a cavalier attitude with a sensitive one. But I would argue that Friar Laurence is even more of a foil for Romeo; he is for the most part calm and rational, not at all like Romeo, and on top of that, represents a different social class and age group. The struggle between ages is well represented in the play in the sense of tradition vs. rebellion: the lovers versus their parents’ beliefs, the generations-old feud. However, Friar Laurence’s interactions with Romeo (and later, with Juliet) highlight the age vs. youth dynamic in the sense of wisdom and patience vs. irrationality and passion. Friar Laurence has such a different perspective on the lovers’ struggles that it then makes sense to add another differentiating factor: social class. This is where some analysis outside the text comes into play.

Within the text, we know that the friar is older than Romeo, and often the inference is made that he is in fact older than most of the characters of the play. I have no problem accepting this. The alteration I would make isn’t quite clearly touched upon anyway. The friar is never described as poor or of a humble rank, and in fact probably held some respect in Verona, but he is markedly apart from the wealthy families. That combination of factors reminded me of a certain trope: the farmer. It fits, doesn’t it? Extensive knowledge of plants, living dedicated to his work, serving the community, an example of experience and sagacity. Most of all, a contrast to wealth—in this case, a contrast to the warring families of Verona.

A new look and new approach to the Friar, perhaps? Image by Dorothea Lange (USDA) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I was thrilled when I came up with this idea and excitedly told it to a friend. She blinked at me and then said, “So you’re setting Romeo and Juliet in the Baptist South?” At which point I became even more thrilled. It’s painful to extricate Romeo and Juliet from its Catholic influences, but the Baptist South makes perfect sense for the play. Blood feuds that go back generations aren’t unheard of in the south (I live here, I should know), and the sweltering presence of religion is unavoidable. Additionally, the juxtaposition of old money (Montagues, Capulets) with farmers and moral figures (Friar Laurence) happens all the time. And with the religious traditions of the south, there’s nothing really stopping Friar Laurence from being a leader of the church, so his religious role in the play is still fulfilled. You can also argue the parallel that when farmers’ crops fail, their communities suffer, and when Friar Laurence fails to make the best decision for Romeo and Juliet, they suffer in the worst way. Responsibility is a huge factor of Friar Laurence’s character, and it would come through even more if he was costumed and presented as a farmer.

With my woman of color Cassius, I felt the casting would make the character more compelling and accessible. I don’t necessarily believe that of Farmer Laurence—the play is fairly accessible as is. But I do think making the choice to make him a farmer would highlight his role as a foil to Romeo, and Romeo and Juliet in the south would be a joy to watch. It may not be as politically ripe as some other interpretations, but it’s an idea, at the least, to emphasize one of the more subtle themes of the play.