Olivia Hussey was born April 17, 1951. She fits as an April baby. Romeo and Juliet has long sat as a Spring read for me (I first read it in the romantic/tragic days of the Spring just after my 16th birthday), and Hussey is the greatest of the Juliets, a truth about which I will hear no arguments. That she was equally suited as the first Final Girl in slasher movie history in Black Christmas might seem strange, but it’s true.
Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragic story about star-crossed tween lovers who’ve known each other for 5 minutes is a gorgeous film, staying true to the stage play while fully realizing the potential of the film format. Hussey and Leonard Whiting are transcendent as the leads, fresh-faced and innocent in the way they have to be for the story to work. Hussey, in particular, is mesmerizing, blending the ethereal grace of her more mature roles with an energy that speaks of her youth (she was 17 when the film released). She’s stunningly beautiful, to be sure, but her performance is pitch perfect.
She didn’t appear in another film for three years, in 1971’s All the Right Noises, a film that luridly tried to capitalize on Hussey’s youthful beauty by casting her as a fifteen-year-old actress who is the object of a married man’s advances. After a couple other duds, she appeared in her second great role, Bob Clark’s iconic Black Christmas, the film that launched the slasher genre. Clark, of course, went on to be better known for another Christmas film, 1983’s A Christmas Story. For horror fans, his best holiday film is the first one, a truly creepy movie that pioneered many later tropes of the genre.
Hussey plays Jess, a college student living in a sorority house. She is pregnant by her neurotic and manipulative boyfriend, and wants to have an abortion, which enrages him. The sorority girls begin receiving sinister and perverse phone calls and, not long after, begin dying grotesquely. Eventually, it’s down to Jess, horror’s first Final Girl. Hussey is phenomenal in a role and a film that could easily have devolved into camp. She brings a maturity and poise to the film that allows the sinister events taking place to feel threatening rather than comic. There is an other-worldly quality about her on screen that makes her impossible to look away from.
Hussey’s career never really went anywhere after this. She appeared in a variety of mid-level thrillers over the following years, and still occasionally acts. She deserved more, and we deserved more iconic Olivia Hussey roles. But we’ll always have Romeo and Juliet and Black Christmas.