12 Star-Crossed Facts About Romeo + Juliet

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When adapting William Shakespeare, most movie directors spend a lot of time fussing over Elizabethan gowns and crumbling castles. Baz Luhrmann was more concerned with guns, slang, and Ecstasy trips. For his 1996 take on Romeo and Juliet, the Australian director dropped those famously star-crossed lovers into a contemporary city with contemporary problems. The resulting Romeo + Juliet was a bombastic update that struck a chord with teens, who turned it into a major hit. Here are a few interesting details about the hurricanes and kidnappings that plagued the set.

1. BAZ LUHRMANN WANTED TO PROVE THAT SHAKESPEARE WASN’T FOR SNOBS.

In retelling Romeo and Juliet as a modern story, Baz Luhrmann hoped to shake up Shakespeare’s accessibility. “The thing I really set out to do was to smash what I call ‘club Shakespeare,’” Luhrmann told ScreenSlam. “[The idea that] you have to be a member of the club to understand it. This 26-year-old writer wrote this fantastic play so that everybody could understand it, so that everybody could be affected by it.” Luhrmann was especially committed to this goal because he was intimidated by Shakespeare as a school kid. It took a psychedelic performance of Twelfth Night to bring him over to the Bard's side, and he hoped to do the same for moviegoers with his equally brazen vision.

2. LEONARDO DICAPRIO FLEW TO AUSTRALIA ON HIS OWN DIME TO GET THE MOVIE MADE.

Romeo + Juliet came out a year before Titanic, long before "Leo Mania" had struck. Without that star power behind him, Leonardo DiCaprio had to fight hard to get the movie made. Luhrmann told SFGate that when 20th Century Fox was still on the fence, DiCaprio flew down to Australia to help Luhrmann convince the studio of the project's viability. "He cashed in his business-class tickets so he could bring his friends, and he stayed in Australia for no money at all," Luhrmann explained. "He did a video workshop, so we could persuade the studio to do it. He was extremely passionate about it." Clearly, that passion paid off.

3. NATALIE PORTMAN ALMOST PLAYED JULIET.

Luhrmann claims many now-famous actresses read for the role of Juliet, but only one has been confirmed: Natalie Portman. She made it all the way to rehearsals, but the studio execs found her pairing with DiCaprio problematic. “Fox said it looked like Leonardo DiCaprio was molesting me when we kissed,” Portman told The New York Times. That’s probably because she was the actual age of Juliet in the text (14) while DiCaprio was already 21.

4. JANE CAMPION SUGGESTED CLAIRE DANES FOR THE MOVIE.

When Luhrmann was still struggling to find a suitable replacement for Portman, a fellow Aussie director helped him out. Jane Campion, the Oscar-winning writer/director of The Piano, asked Luhrmann if he had seen the TV show My So-Called Life. She suggested he check out the series' young star, Claire Danes, because she was “so mature for her age.” Luhrmann set a meeting with Danes and pretty soon, the role was hers.

5. DANES WASN’T IMPRESSED WITH DICAPRIO.

Luhrmann was dazzled by Danes’ maturity, but there was another quality that helped her land the job: DiCaprio said she was the only actress who looked him in the eye during auditions—which was no mean feat, considering how many women were smitten with the teenage heartthrob. “Claire just came in and was just so in the moment, so there, and so not trying to do this little angelic flower [version of] Juliet,” DiCaprio told ScreenSlam. “When we were doing the scene where we were supposed to be together, she came right up to me and looked me right in the eye and starting doing her lines.”

6. MARLON BRANDO NEARLY JOINED THE CAST.

Pete Postlethwaite ended up playing Father Laurence, the priest who marries Romeo and Juliet. But Marlon Brando was initially interested in the role. Luhrmann said that Brando sent him letters about the part, but took himself out of the running due to “personal family problems” surrounding his son, Christian. (Christian spent five years in prison for killing Dag Drollet, his half-sister’s boyfriend.) Even before Brando exited, though, he had some reservations—mainly because DiCaprio was too convincing in a previous film. “He said he saw Leonardo in [What’s Eating] Gilbert Grape,” Luhrmann recalled. “[He asked,] ‘Why is it you are going to cast a young man who’s not entirely in control of his mental facilities?’ So Leonardo had him believing that he wasn’t all that balanced.”

7. A HURRICANE HIT THE SET DURING FILMING.

Mercutio’s famous line, “A plague on both your houses!” gets some extra gravitas in this movie, thanks to the thundering skies behind him. That wasn’t CGI; it was a real hurricane. As Luhrmann explained to The Guardian, the cast and crew decided to capitalize on an actual storm rolling through their set in Mexico. They only had time to get two shots (one wide and one reverse) before things turned dangerous. “All the crew had goggles on, and the guys had stinging sand in their eyes, and then, after those two shots, the sets were completely blown away by the hurricane,” Luhrmann said. The crew returned four days later to film close-ups and had to use fans to recreate the effect.

8. THE HAIR STYLIST GOT KIDNAPPED.

That hurricane wasn’t the only disaster the production weathered. At one point, its key hair stylist, Aldo Signoretti, was kidnapped and held for ransom. “The bandidos rang up and said, ‘For $300 you can have him back,’” Luhrmann told Cinema Papers. “So Maurizio [Silvi, the key make-up artist] goes down clutching the money outside the hotel, holds it up, chucks them the bag and they threw Aldo out of the car and broke his leg.”

9. THE BILLBOARDS HAVE SECRET SHAKESPEARE QUOTES.

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Basically every billboard, sign, and scrap of paper seen onscreen contains a Shakespeare reference. Just look at the opening gas station fight alone. You’ll immediately see signs for Montague Construction and Phoenix Gas. The motto for Montague Construction is “retail’d to prosperity,” which is a reference to Richard III. Meanwhile the slogan for Phoenix Gas is “add more fuel to your fire,” a fragment from Henry VI, Part 3. Next to the gas station is Shylock Bank, named for the character in The Merchant of Venice. Look closely at the newspaper in the display rack and you’ll see the headline, “A rash fierce blaze of riot.” This comes from Richard II. And that’s all in the first eight minutes. Keep your eyes peeled and you’re bound to catch dozens more.

10. ALL THE GUNS ARE NAMED AFTER SWORDS.

Romeo, Mercutio, Tybalt, and their friends have shoot-outs in this film, as opposed to the sword duels that take place in the Shakespeare play. But Luhrmann alluded to the original weapons by stamping all of the guns with names of swords. Some characters carry a “Dagger” 9mm, while others have a “Rapier.” Benvolio got stuck with a more generic “Sword Series S” handgun. See if you can catch the “Rapier” text on Tybalt’s pistol in the clip above.

11. THE FINAL SCENE REFERENCES ANOTHER PAIR OF STAR-CROSSED LOVERS.

For the famous double-suicide finale, Luhrmann chose a classical composition. It’s called “Liebestod” (or “love death”) and it comes from the Richard Wagner opera Tristan und Isolde. That medieval story also concerns a doomed couple who die in the final act—but with more love potions and maritime mishaps.

12. THE SOUNDTRACK WENT PLATINUM.

Romeo + Juliet featured a famously anachronistic soundtrack stacked with singles by Garbage, The Cardigans, and Des’ree. People apparently loved the dissonance. The album went multi-platinum and led to a second, gold-certified volume. But both albums were missing a song written specifically for the movie: Radiohead’s “Exit Music (for a Film).” The British band had composed the song for the Romeo + Juliet end credits at Luhrmann’s request, but didn’t formally release it until their album OK Computer dropped the following year. However, their song "Talk Show Host" does appear on the soundtrack.

10 Things You Might Not Know About Robert De Niro

RALPH GATTI, AFP/Getty Images
RALPH GATTI, AFP/Getty Images

Robert De Niro is part of the pantheon of independent-minded filmmakers who cut through Hollywood noise in the 1970s with edgier fare to create what became known as “The New Hollywood.” Following stints with Brian De Palma and Roger Corman, De Niro teamed up with Martin Scorsese for the first time with 1973's Mean Streets, which launched a fruitful artistic collaboration that has produced some of the best movies of the past half-century.

Even after his shift into commercial comedies like Meet the Parents, “dedication” has remained De Niro’s watchword. The two-time Oscar winner has earned Hollywood legend status with panache and bone-deep portrayals. Here are 10 facts about the filmmaker on his 75th birthday. (Yes, we’re talkin’ to you.)

1. HIS FIRST ROLE WAS IN A STAGING OF THE WIZARD OF OZ—AT AGE 10.

Robert De Niro got bit by the acting bug early. He threatened to thrash a hippopotamus from top to bottom-us as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz at the tender age of 10. (This is the remake and casting the world needs right now.)

2. HE DROPPED OUT OF HIGH SCHOOL TO PURSUE ACTING.

Robert De Niro arrives at the UK premiere of epic war drama film 'The Deer Hunter', UK, 28th February 1979
John Minihan, Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

De Niro’s mother, Virginia Admiral, was a painter whose work was part of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, and his father, Robert De Niro, Sr., was a celebrated abstract expressionist painter. So the apple falling into drama school instead of the art studio still isn’t that far from the tree. Having already gotten a youthful dose of stage life, De Niro quit his private high school to try to become an actor. He first went to the nonprofit HB Studio before studying under Stella Adler and, later, The Actors Studio.

3. HE’S A DUAL CITIZEN OF THE UNITED STATES AND ITALY.

De Niro is American, Italian-American, and, as of 2004, Italian. The country bestowed honorary citizenship upon De Niro as an honor in recognition of his career, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing to the passport office. A group called the Order of the Sons of Italy in America strongly protested the Italian government’s plan due to De Niro’s frequent portrayal of negative Italian-American stereotypes.

4. HE GAINED 60 POUNDS FOR RAGING BULL.

Preparing to play the misfortune-laden boxing champ Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull required two major things from De Niro: training and gaining. For the latter, De Niro ate his way through Europe during a four-month binge of ice cream and pasta. His 60-pound-gain was dramatic enough that it concerned Martin Scorsese. It was one way to show dedication to a role, but the training element was even more impressive. De Niro got so good at boxing that when LaMotta set up several professional-level sparring bouts for the actor, De Niro won two of them.

5. HE AND MARLON BRANDO ARE THE ONLY ACTORS TO WIN OSCARS FOR PLAYING THE SAME CHARACTER.

De Niro won his first Oscar in 1975 for The Godfather: Part II, for portraying the younger version of Vito Corleone—the wizened capo played by Marlon Brando, who also won an Oscar for the role (Brando’s came in 1973, for The Godfather). No other pair of actors has managed the feat, although Jeff Bridges came close in 2010 when he was nominated for playing Rooster Cogburn in Joel and Ethan Coen's True Grit (a role originated by John Wayne in Henry Hathaway’s 1969 movie of the same name). Oddly enough, Bridges was in contention for the role of Travis Bickle, the role that earned De Niro his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role.

6. HE DROVE A CAB TO PREPARE FOR TAXI DRIVER.

If you’re looking for commitment to a role, ask Hack #265216. De Niro got a taxicab driver’s license to study up to play Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and spent several weekends cruising around New York City picking up fares. It’s possible that having his teeth filed down for Cape Fear is the most intense transformation he’s undergone for a role, but picking up a part-time job to live the lonely life of Bickle is more humane.

7. ONE OF HIS FILMS POSTPONED ONE OF HIS OSCAR WINS.

The 53rd Academy Awards—where De Niro won for playing Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull—were originally scheduled for March 30, 1981 but were postponed until the following day because of an assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. The would-be assassin, John Hinckley, Jr., claimed the attack was intended to impress Jodie Foster, who Hinckley grew obsessed with after watching Taxi Driver.

8. HE LAUNCHED THE TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL IN THE WAKE OF 9/11.

Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal speak onstage at the 'Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives' Premiere during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival at Radio City Music Hall on April 19, 2017 in New York City
Theo Wargo, Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

Producer Jane Rosenthal, philanthropist Craig M. Hatkoff, and De Niro founded the Tribeca Film Festival in 2001 as a showcase for independent films that would hopefully “spur the economic and cultural revitalization of lower Manhattan” after the devastation of the 9/11 terror attacks. With its empire state of mind, the inaugural festival in 2002 featured a “Best of New York Series” handpicked by Martin Scorsese and drew an astonishing 150,000 attendees.

9. HE WAS ONCE INTERROGATED BY FRENCH POLICE CONCERNING A PROSTITUTION RING.

One of the most bizarre chapters in De Niro’s life came when he was publicly named in the investigation of a prostitution ring in Paris. The 1998 incident included a lengthy interrogation session (De Niro filed an official complaint) and a pile of paparazzi waiting for him when he left the prosecutor’s office. De Niro railed against the entire country, vowing to return his Legion of Honour and telling Le Monde newspaper that, "I will never return to France. I will advise my friends against going to France.” (He had cooled off enough by 2011 to act as the Cannes Film Festival’s jury president.)

10. HE LOVED THE CAT(S) IN MEET THE PARENTS.

Meet the Parents’s Mr. Jinx (Jinxy!) was played by two Himalayans named Bailey and Misha, and De Niro fell in love with them. He played with them between scenes, kept kibble in his pocket for them, and asked director Jay Roach to have Mr. Jinx in as many scenes as possible.

National Portrait Gallery Celebrates Aretha Franklin With Week-Long Exhibition

Courtesy of Angela Pham BFA
Courtesy of Angela Pham BFA

With the passing of Aretha Franklin on August 16, 2018, the world has lost one of its most distinctive voices—and personalities. As celebrities and fans share their memories of the Queen of Soul and what her music meant to them, the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery will pay tribute to the legendary songstress's life with a week-long exhibition of her portrait.

Throughout her career, Franklin earned some of the music industry's highest accolades, including 18 Grammy Awards. In 1987, she became the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Nearly 30 years later, in 2015, the National Portrait Gallery fêted Franklin with the Portrait of a Nation Prize, which recognizes "the accomplishments of notable contemporary Americans whose portraits reside in the National Portrait Gallery collection." (Madeline Albright, Spike Lee, and Rita Moreno are among some of its recent recipients.)

Milton Glaser's lithograph of Aretha Franklin, which is displayed at The National Portrait Gallery
© Milton Glaser

Franklin's portrait was the creation of noted graphic designer Milton Glaser, who employed "his characteristic kaleidoscope palette and innovative geometric forms to convey the creative energy of Franklin's performances," according to the Gallery. The colorful lithographic was created in 1968, the very same year that the National Portrait Gallery opened.

Glaser's image will be installed in the "In Memoriam" section of the museum, which is located on the first floor, on Friday, August 17 and will remain on display to the public through August 22, 2018. The Gallery is open daily from 11:30 a.m. until 7 p.m. and admission is free.

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