On November 1, 1996, young people across America began packing movie theaters—not to see an action movie or a teen comedy, but to watch Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (spelled “Romeo + Juliet” for those in the know). And to get very, very horny, possibly for the first time ever.
The soundtrack was sultry, Luhrmann’s camera movements were manic, and the leads were almost too pretty to look at. Leonardo DiCaprio—pre Titanic—had a face so delicate and angelic that tween girls couldn’t help but see themselves there—or at least, something equally non threatening, though possibly less narcissistic—and fall in love. Claire Danes, fresh off the cancellation of My So-Called Life, was leonine and regal, but with natural features still sweetly softened with the pudginess of youth. She was beautiful, but not in a way that far removed from the beauty in our own lives—of our older sisters or older friends. When we watched them kiss for the first time in the elevator at the Capulets’ party, the shot whirling around them, it was like we were being kissed for the first time, too.
There’s a reason they teach Romeo and Juliet in high schools—well, two. The first is lack of originality, but the second is that it’s deeply relatable to teenagers, since it’s almost impossible at 15, 16, 17 (or 29) to imagine anything more powerful than love—and horniness—nor anything more harrowing than the forces trying to tear that love apart. It’s a feeling that a generation of us first experienced while watching DiCaprio’s Romeo and Danes’ Juliet foolishly give up their lives to be together. And, before that, make out in a pool.
When I consider the film now, I can be as cynical as I want to be: DiCaprio was too much of a pretty boy, the couple was too vanilla, Paul Rudd’s Count Paris seemed like a stabilizing choice in the end and who can’t appreciate a man who can get a little silly on the dance floor? “The colors of the film are much too saturated for my tastes,” I can say, having been permanently ruined by an Intro to Film class I took at my community college. “And the acting. Well...”
But that is just bullshit. I love this movie. I love the colors, the overwroughtness, the passion of it. When I watch it now (and watch it I do), I’m still seized by the feeling I got when watching it in the theater at nine or 10—overwhelmed by emotion, maybe crossing my legs a little too hard, and hoping that no one noticed the sweat that broke out on my upper lip.
I once had a wonderful Shakespeare professor who encouraged us to, along with our readings, view film adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays. “These were written to be watched,” he would say, and he was absolutely right. These plays are supposed to be relatable and make you feel something—whether you were royalty or stuck standing with the peasants in the pit. Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet was targeted at the MTV generation, and was criticized for it, but again who—in 1996 or even now—could relate better?