Saturday, September 15, 2018

The Girl on the Balcony by Olivia Hussey

The Girl on the Balcony
Olivia Hussey Finds Life After Romeo & Juliet
by Olivia Hussey
Kensington Publishing
Hardcover ISBN: 9781496717078
320 pages
July 2018

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"Juliet: It's the defining role of my life... It changed everything, and you would define my life in ways I never could have imagined."

At the tender age of 15, Olivia Hussey landed the role of a lifetime: Juliet in Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet (1968). Alongside newcomer Leonard Whiting, the duo captivated audiences around the world breathing new life into Shakespeare's renowned play. When I was a teenager I saw Romeo and Juliet in my high school English class. In fact I was shown the film more than once over the years and I remember being in total awe of how this movie recreated a world lost to time but I was particularly captivated by the chemistry between Hussey and Whiting. It opened my eyes and awakened something within me. This year at the 2018 TCM Classic Film Festival I got a chance to meet Hussey and Whiting and thank them in person for how their movie affected me all those years ago.

In Olivia Hussey's memoir The Girl on the Balcony, she takes readers on a journey of her entire life from her early days in Argentina to the present day. The second of two children, her parents split up shortly after she was born and a few years later her mother whisked her and her brother off to England. It was here that Hussey pursued her interest in acting. After a stint on stage and a couple bit parts in movie, she traveled to Cinecitta in Italy to audition for Zeffirelli for the part of Juliet. She was paired with Whiting from the very beginning and the two were up against hundreds of other hopefuls. The making of this movie was highly anticipated by many and became a worldwide cinematic event. It catapulted Hussey into stardom.

In the book Hussey recounts in wonderful detail the making of Romeo and Juliet. I was especially pleased by this because like many others that is one of the reasons I was drawn to the book. The reader settles into to the world of 1960s Cinecitta. I particularly loved reading the passages of the sweet bond she developed with Whiting, they remained friends for decades, and the mutual admiration between her and director Zeffirelli. He could be a tough director but she acknowledges that he knew what he was doing and could bring out the best performances from her. The two would later work on Jesus of Nazareth together.

Hussey is a gentle soul who wears her heart on her sleeve. You can tell this from her book. We follow the ups and downs of her life. Her marriages to Dean "Dino" Paul Martin (her first great love who died tragically in a plane crash), Akira Fuse (the Japanese rock legend) and her current husband David Glen Eisley with whom she's been in a loving and supportive marriage since 1991. We learn about her children Alex, Max, and India. There are also the various films and TV shows she worked on over the years which culminated with another role of a lifetime, Mother Theresa in the TV movie Madre Teresa. She discusses moving to LA, living in the Tate-Polanski home just weeks after the Manson murders, her abusive relationship with Christopher Jones (Ryan's Daughter), and her tender bond with the Dean Martin clan. We learn about the classic Hollywood legends that entered her world over the years including Robert Mitchum (he was a good cook), Frank Sinatra (helped her out with Dino Martin was arrested), Elizabeth Taylor (Burton once said Hussey was like Taylor), Bette Davis ("working with her was its own kind of suffering), David Niven ("like me he was a giggler"), Burt Lancaster (she was in awe of him) and many more.

We also learn about Hussey's spiritual enlightenment when she met the guru who would change her life. Then there were her bouts of post partum depression, her drinking problem and the stage 4 breast cancer that almost claimed her life. I was particularly interested to learn about her struggles with agoraphobia. When I met Hussey on the red carpet at this year's TCMFF, I noticed that she remained arm-in-arm with Whiting the entire time. In fact when I shook both of their hands, she would not remove her arm from his. Now I realize Whiting must have been giving her support because with all the press, photographers and the bleachers filled with adoring fans, that must have triggered her agoraphobia. We sometimes think of movie stars as extreme extroverts but it's interesting to learn that some of them have their own social anxieties and fears like we do.

Hussey's memoir is a delightful read. She has a gentle and soothing narrative voice. There are a few grammatical errors that could be easily cleaned up with some editing. Fans of Romeo and Juliet or anyone interested looking for a straightforward and highly readable memoir will want to check this one out.

A special thank you to my friend Vanessa who gave me an autographed copy of Hussey's book as a gift.

This is my fourth review for the Summer Reading Challenge.  

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