Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting were respectively 15 and 16 years old at the time of filming, the complaint points out.

They were each awarded a Golden Globe for their performance in this film.

Now in their seventies, the two actors had filed a complaint in December in California: they accuse the Paramount studio, which produced the film, of having sexually exploited them while they were still minors, by broadcasting an intimate scene that reveals their buttocks and bare breasts.

On Thursday, a Los Angeles judge dismissed the lawsuit and ruled in favor of Paramount, ruling that the scene in question was not "child pornography". The magistrate also ruled that the film was covered by provisions protecting freedom of expression.

The plaintiffs did not present sufficient evidence demonstrating "that the film in question can be considered sufficiently sexually suggestive to be considered permanently illegal," the judge wrote in a decision reported by Variety.

This specialized magazine had pointed out that Olivia Hussey had defended the offending scene in its columns during an interview in 2018. At the time, she felt that Franco Zeffirelli had shot it appropriately.

"It was necessary for the film," she said at the time.

But in their complaint, the duo of actors blamed Italian director Franco Zeffirelli -- who died in 2019. According to the document, the filmmaker heavily insisted that they shoot this scene, otherwise "the film would fail", whereas it was originally to be done with flesh-colored underwear.

The two actors explain that they have suffered from anguish and emotional distress in the more than five decades since the film. They are seeking compensation to the tune of several hundred million dollars.

Their lawyer "strongly denounced" the judge's decision on Thursday. He announced his intention to bring the case soon before the US federal courts, in a statement sent to AFP.

"The exploitation and sexualization of minors in the film industry must be confronted and dealt with legally to protect vulnerable people," he said.

© 2023 AFP