Franco Zeffirelli: ‘I had this feeling that I was special’

Recalling a two-day audience at the home of the great maestro, who has died aged 96

From THE ARTSDESK

“I am amazed to be still alive. Two hours of medieval torment.”  Franco Zeffirelli – who has died at the age of 96 – had spent the day having a lumbar injection to treat a sciatic nerve. You could hear the bafflement in his heavily accented English.

It was a warm Roman evening in Casa Zeffirelli in September 2009. The grandest old man of the arts — who worked with Callas and von Karajan, Tennessee Williams and Toscanini, Burton and Taylor and Olivier, who had the ear of popes, princes and prime ministers — was now visibly in the deep winter of a lifespan that began in 1923. “Il maestro”, as they all called him at home, had been decanted from the car at the front of the villa onto a solid-looking buggy. He sat side-saddle and, when one of the servants started to push, jutted his chin imperiously upwards and fluttered a wave. Even in jest, there was no misinterpreting the gesture. “I am Zeffirelli still,” it declared.

In his blue eyes and chipmunk cheeks, in the flamboyant theatricality of his gestures, there was indeed still the ghost of the pretty cherub this Methuselah once was. The stupendous career he will be remembered for includes, in opera, the great Tosca with Callas; in theatre, the Italian flavours he brought to productions of Shakespeare with the National Theatre in the 1960s; in cinema, his sexy, tempestuous Romeo and Juliet; on television, the epic Jesus of Nazareth. Away from his work, Zeffirelli blissfully ignored the contradiction between his conservative politics and profound faith, and his ultraliberalism when it came to the pleasures of the flesh and the aesthetics of the male body. Thirsty for sexual adventure as a young man, in later life he was the model for the predatory old fruit Uncle Monty from Withnail and I.

At this point in his life an underlying ailment had afflicted Zeffirelli for more than a decade. Some ill-considered post-operative care in California after a hip replacement deprived him of his balance. Not that he has any difficulty finding people to lean on in the court of King Franco. No Zimmer for Zeffirelli. “But my mind is as sharp as ever!” he declaimed down the phone from Italy when I called to request an… it’s hard not to call it an audience.

When I was granted access, there was a valedictory flavour to the conversations we had over two afternoons at his villa on the southern outskirts of Rome, down a private road just off the Via Appia Antica — the Old Appian Way. This was his home since the end of the 1960s. Evergreen vegetation — cypresses, palms, ferns — enveloped the verdant garden in shaded privacy.

It may seem strange that, in a house so well defended against intrusion, Zeffirelli was prepared to put up a journalist. True, I had previously met him and, presumably, gained his trust. He was also generous, and he liked an audience. But such transactions did not always run smoothly. The writer Anna Kythreotis enjoyed his hospitality for months on end as they worked together on a biography. But when Zeffirelli read an early draft he withdrew his authorisation. Kythreotis continued undaunted, and in 2008 Bloomsbury announced a biography whose warning shot was enshrined in its title: Allegedly. I flew out to Rome knowing that Bloomsbury had already postponed it twice. When I got there I discovered that Zeffirelli’s lawyers had further delayed it. Perhaps it may resurface now that he is no longer in a position to sue.

Deep into his 80s, Zeffirelli believed it was work that was keeping him alive. “It is the only thing I have,” he said. “I don’t have love.” Several big projects kept him going. One involves securing his professional legacy. His native city of Florence has allocated him a sizeable building in which to set up a foundation and museum for the performing arts. The Fondazione Franco Zeffirelli eventually opened in 2018. A decade ago there was a splendid accolade from Verona. The city’s famous annual festival of opera in its vast Roman Arena had been haemorrhaging audiences with experimental updatings of the classics. Zeffirelli, withering in his contempt for iconoclastic directors, was not surprised. “There were really disastrous examples of bad taste. If you begin Traviata with Violetta washing her **** naked, the audience does not enter this magic world. That’s the trouble with new readings.”

It gave him another chance to stand before an audience and take the applause. The last time it happened was in 2008 when the Metropolitan Opera in New York held a gala to celebrate Zeffirelli’s many classic productions. Halfway into a performance of La Bohème, the seas onstage parted to reveal the maestro stumbling slowly downstage towards his loyal audience, supported either side by his adoptive sons Pippo and Luciano. The room rose to greet him. “I could not say anything,” he told me in a voice so short of breath it seems to be disappearing. “I could not speak.”

At table his talk cantered off every which way. He ranged around politics, history, royalty, childhood, sex, old friendships with Chanel (“I was very fascinated by her”) and Callas (“a personality that made everybody breathless”).

Because I was there, the conversation was in English. “I don’t understand,” he said meticulously, “how you lived in Florence for a whole year and yet you don’t speak a f***ing word of Italian.” This is his way of flirting. I do speak some Italian, but Zeffirelli relished the chance to revisit the language. His favourite expression was “And how!” Surprisingly for someone who has directed three Shakespeare plays on film, his English is idiomatic.

His English was the one great gift from his father, who sent Zeffirelli off to thrice-weekly English lessons with an elderly spinster called Mary O’Neill (played by Joan Plowright in his autobiographical film, Tea with Mussolini). He still recalled her tiny bedroom “in an old medieval street, on the first floor: it was never light enough”. A lifelong, career-enhancing Anglophilia was born in that room. (Pictured below: the young Franco Zeffirelli in Florence)

His balance may have gone but his gift for mischief was unimpaired. What, I asked him, did he make of the earthquake in L’Aquila? After all, he once made a fundraising documentary about Florence when it was similarly afflicted by flood in 1966. “I don’t give a damn,” he snaps. “It’s a city I don’t like.” The conductor Riccardo Muti, with whom he famously clashed at La Scala, “was always disturbed by the success of a director: he hated anybody that took the attention”. The neorealist directors Roberto Rossellini and Luchino Visconti “were not very important movie-makers at all. Death in Venice is a terrible film”. (No matter that Visconti discovered Zeffirelli and they lived together as lovers for several years from the late 1940s.) Even the then Pope Benedict — Zeffirelli was very devout — wandered into his gunsights. “He’s not exactly the image of a pope for me. He looks very much like an old lady.”

He had strong views on the then premier Silvio Berlusconi. He seemed to see him as a lovable buffoon with a Falstaffian lust for life. “He has always liked f***ing women behind doors,” he says dismissively over dinner one night. Then, “It is quite an achievement to become a multimillionaire without having killed anyone.” (Zeffirelli was always firmly on the right, and in 1994 became a Forza Italia senator.)

I wonder whether his preoccupation — it was almost a fixation — with Berlusconi was in some way connected to the indelible imprint of another charismatic Italian leader. Zeffirelli remembered the day the Führer and Il Duce saluted through Florence in an open-topped car. It was still peacetime — 1938. At 15, he was a uniformed member of the Mussolini Youth who lined the streets in welcome. “We woke up at three o’clock in the morning to parade,” he recalled. “We were absolutely groggy. They were in the middle of the street but it was not wide and you could see them. Florence was all covered with flowers and flags. Hitler was enchanted.”

More than 70 years later, Zeffirelli still saw himself standing to attention holding a bayoneted rifle. He held his hands rigidly vertical, as if in prayer but one above the other, and bisected his face with the imaginary piece of steel. “I see these two characters split with the blade,” he said. “I see it like in a film.”

Only a few years later, in Milan, he saw Mussolini’s bullet-riddled corpse hanging upside down, abused by a vast crowd. More graphically still, an American journalist who had enlisted him as an interpreter took him to a morgue to see the corpse laid out. Zeffirelli distinctly recalled the arms set rigid above the dead Duce’s head, pinging back every time they tried to straighten them. “It was very frightening to see. In my imagination he was the supreme character of my childhood.”

By anyone’s standards, Zeffirelli’s was a life full of operatic terrors and wonders, and he will happily revisit it all. But there is one area where his outspokenness was traditionally  muted: sex. Of his two memoirs — the first in English, the updated version in Italian — neither finds him being open about his inclinations.

Yes, he was homosexual — he hated the word “gay” — but like a decorous 1940s director he tended to close the bedroom door on that part of his life. In conversation he was much freer. When I asked him about the neorealists’ taste for casting actors off the street, for example, he said: “I only liked the popular people in bed, not to work with.”

The Scots Guards, for whom he was an interpreter during the war, were mentioned often, each time with a twinkle: 65 years on, the memories of going through the regiment like a dose of salts were still warm and fresh. He particularly recalled being wrapped in the arms of one of them as, from a garden looking down across the city, they both watched the Wehrmacht’s detonation of Florence’s historic centre in August 1944.

“It was suffocating,” he remembered, “and I see in the darkness a figure leaning on a bench. I thought he was sleeping. He grabbed my hand and made me sit next to him. For a strange moment I felt the man was really upset or very much in need to communicate and I had a precise feeling that he wanted sex. Instead he held me close to him. And finally one after the other the bridges blew up.”

In another conversation he said that “you have to be ruthless with sex. You have to be nasty. And the same time violent. It’s flesh, it’s blood.” From the maker of the definitive film about teenage love, this seemed a brutal statement. But then the circumstances of Zeffirelli’s childhood, where all these things are determined, were in their own way very brutal indeed. (Pictured below: Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting in Romeo and Juliet.)Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet

Because his father’s family came from Vinci, he liked to claim kin with Leonardo. “Can’t you see it?” he said, camply presenting his still-cherubic profile. His more immediate lineage cast a longer shadow. His father, Ottorino Corsi, worked in textiles. An invalided lothario, he spent the great war impregnating lonely Florentine wives. “God knows how many brothers or sisters I came across, because my father wouldn’t tell me.” His mother, Alaide Garosi, was conquered after the war. Already the married mother of three children, she was a designer Corsi met professionally. During the ensuing pregnancy, her husband died of tuberculosis. In 1923 she duly gave Corsi the son that his own wife could not. The wronged woman once waited at the school gates for the young Gianfranco, to screech “bastardino!” His mother was obliged to invent a name for her illegitimate son. She chose Zeffiretti after zephyrs in an aria from Le Nozze di Figaro, but it was misspelt in the registry. “It’s fresh and springy,” he said of his unique name. I asked him how important it had been to his success. “Well, I could have been memorable as Corsi.”

Corsi was a remote figure who took the boy out for walks on Sundays. He also visited Alaide for romantic liaisons. It was hard to credit, but as a young man Zeffirelli had heterosexual encounters. He linked them firmly to early memories of watching his parents copulate as he lay in the same bed. “An inner voice sounded to me that an adult lady was my mother. My first sexual experience I transferred an image into this woman opening her bosom and having sex with me. I saw my mother do this with my father.” Years later that affinity with women helped him, he believed.

When he was taken under Visconti’s wing as a promising young designer, the more meteoric his rise, the more jealous his patron became. “He didn’t take it well. Just couldn’t accept it. He thought that he’d taught me everything, and what he should have achieved, I did.” Zeffirelli ascribes some of his success to his greater rapport with the actresses and divas who became his stars — above all, Callas, the subject of his final film Callas Forever. “With women my love was connected with the mother I lost, so the chapter remained open. I opened my heart and helped them when they needed it. All women need it, even if they are beautiful. There is an area of panic,” he opines, “in every woman.”

Alaide died when he was six. He was taken in by a cousin of his father, whom he called Aunt Lide. She in effect became his family. It was Lide’s lover who introduced him to opera. As he progressed through school, and his gift for drawing and acting developed, he became gradually aware that it wasn’t just being an orphan born out of wedlock that made him different.

He had a terror of doing sports with other boys because of the feelings it stirred in him. “It was much more disturbing to think about sex with a man,” he remembered. “I wanted to be the best in the class, to be respected. I was afraid that the fact that I was not normal would become used as a weapon against me.”

He seemed to belong to a pre-Freudian era. He dismissed the idea that the circumstances of his childhood set him up for a life of romantic longing, of searching for love to replace the mother he lost. Quite the reverse, in fact. His superstitious belief was in an invisible guiding hand. “I never needed more love than I received,” he said. “I had plenty. Even too much sometimes. I was always very joyful, never tormented. My destiny since childhood was a sign that I would have not an ordinary life, that something great and important would happen to me. I had this kind of feeling that I was special. The facts of life helped me idealise what happened to me. I was in front of the firing squad twice: the story of my brother who was ready to shoot me. So you begin to say, ‘Wait a minute, what is it?’”

Those two brushes with death came during the war. On both occasions it was sex that saved him. The first time, he was rounded up by fascists as a partisan and destined for the bullet until it was revealed that his would-be executioner was a half-brother he’d never met. He was saved, in short, by his father’s inability to keep his flies done up. Having survived the firing squad once, at the end of the war he was rounded up by Communists as a suspected fascist. He could still picture the scene in a school courtyard in the Apennines.

“They killed two groups. First five, then six. It was terrible. I heard people imploring. Bradada! Bradada!” He mimicked the sound of machinegun fire. “This little nasty-looking intellectual called the names of the prisoners, who were brought to the school and shot. But he was also a queen. Every time he came he left me in the last group. Finally he said, ‘We will kill you tomorrow. Come.’ He brought me to his family villa. And I had to accept his offer. I was so exhausted I didn’t even know what I was doing. I fell asleep and said, ‘Do whatever you want.’ He did a blowjob, I think. I woke up and went to Florence.”

Franco Zeffirelli will finally return once more to the city of his youth. A newly purchased family mausoleum awaits at one of Florence’s most beautiful churches, but Pippo asked me not to ask questions about it because Zeffirelli found the whole subject of death too upsetting.

The lure of reminiscence, however, had him in its thrall. Under the awning on the terrace Zeffirelli talked, on and off for hours, about the kind of life that people just don’t lead any more: the proximity to the most powerful people on Earth, the frantic couplings in the age of innocence before Aids, the limitless artistic funding that permitted his imagination to run wild across centuries and continents.

Towards the end of the second afternoon his voice began to falter, his sentences to shorten, and Pippo stole in to say it was time to stop. He had been talking for a lifetime.

Il Maestro was helped from the terrace to a sofa indoors. It was festooned with cushions featuring dogs’ faces. Canine statuettes lined the shelf above it. The old man, supine, insouciantly tucked his hands behind his head. By some miraculous trick of the light, he suddenly could have been 16 again.

“Buona notte,” I said.

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Read more at AV CLUB: For a movie about a famous massacre, Mike Leigh’s Peterloo is very dry

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Continue at: Stop everything: “The Talented Mr. Ripley” is being adapted for TV

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Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero film adapted for stage musical


Bill Forsyth, right, on the set of Local Hero in 1983 with Denis Lawson and Peter Riegert

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Continue at THE TIMES: Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero film adapted for stage musical | Scotland | The Times