Thursday, March 6, 2014

NC-17: The Radioactive Rating



I know that in the minds of many, the phrase “adults only” is synonymous with “pornography” and “no redeeming value.”  For a long time, I had hoped that an adults-only Hollywood movie would challenge this conception.  For a long time, I had hoped that a major motion picture with content best restricted to adult audiences — but also clearly of redeeming value — would shake up such reductive categorizing.  And in the years 1998 and 1999, I thought that my hope might become a reality. 

It was in those years that I learned from the entertainment press that two prestigious big-studio productions — Steven Spielberg’s combat film Saving Private Ryan in the earlier year and Stanley Kubrick’s psychological drama Eyes Wide Shut in the next — were having ratings problems.  In their respective years, it was rumored that they might be “slapped” with NC-17s, Hollywood’s adults-only rating.  Saving Private Ryan was in danger of receiving the usually unwelcome rating for the intensity and grisliness of its World War Two violence, and Eyes Wide Shut might earn an NC-17 due to an orgy scene.  I remember wishing that the two films by famous auteurs, both starring big-name movie stars, would be designated as such in order that they could thereby prove to the movie-going public that an NC-17-rated film wasn’t a euphemism for “smut.”

To better explain my state of mind, it helps to take a look back:

When Hollywood switched from its Production Code to its age-based rating system in 1968, its X rating, the rating telling audiences that the film was for adults only, was supposed to be value neutral.  The trade organization the Motion Picture Association of America copyrighted its other ratings — G (general audiences), M (mature audiences — later GP and then PG for “parental guidance”), and R (restricted audiences) — it did not copyright the X rating.  (The MPAA added a fifth rating in 1984: PG-13, to occupy a middle ground between PG and R.)  But the X rating was not copyrighted so that films could assign themselves the adults-only rating without the members of the board needing to sit through one pornographic film after another.  (As a child, I remember watching a brief film explaining the new ratings system.)

Poster for ‘Midnight Cowboy’ (1969): note the X rating in the bottom left corner

In 1969, when the makers of Midnight Cowboy, an early Hollywood production to deal openly with the issue of homosexuality, wanted to declare up front that their film confronted controversial subject matter, they voluntarily gave their movie an X rating without screening it for the board.  Midnight Cowboy became a hit (“I’m walkin’ here!”) and won the Academy Award for Best Picture of the Year.  Afterwards, the producers submitted their film for an official rating, whereupon it received an R.  To date, Midnight Cowboy is the only X-rated film with an Oscar for Best Picture.  This is one high-profile example of “adults only” not having its usual connotations.

However, after Midnight Cowboy and a few other prestigious X-rated productions (such as Kubrick’s 1971 futuristic drama A Clockwork Orange) had been released, the MPAA’s adults-only rating became synonymous with pornography.  Why?  This was because the intervening years saw the massive popularity of Deep Throat (1972) and other titles to show unsimulated sex in exacting detail, something that the big screen was never allowed to show legally before.  The greater accessibility of hard-core pornography in some mainstream theatres — as well as some porno movies boasting about their X rating or even hyperbolizing it as “XXX” — stigmatized the rating among U.S. audiences.  As a result, exhibitors became increasingly reluctant to show any film, however meritorious, with an X.  With the profitability of such films now imperiled, the major studios eventually seemed to go out of their way to avoid an X rating.

British poster for William Friedkin’s ultimately R-rated ‘Cruising’ (1980)

I didn’t really keep my ear to the ground, ratings-wise, when I was a teenager, but I remember hearing in the newspapers about the ratings tussle over William Friedkin’s Cruising (1980), and how it was cut and re-cut to dodge an X rating.  I thought to myself at the time, “Why doesn’t Cruising just accept the X — the same way that Midnight Cowboy and A Clockwork Orange did — and be done with it?”  When Cruising was eventually released with an R rating, and I learned that both Midnight Cowboy and a slightly edited Clockwork Orange had been re-rated with Rs, it finally dawned on me that the meaning of the adults-only rating had changed. 

I later found out that a movie branded with an X rating was shut out of many cinemas, and such offerings were also frequently ignored by newspapers that refused to advertise or review them.  I learned that an X-rated movie, whatever its value, was immediately thought of by a lot of people as pornography, with all the pejorative associations that come with that category.  In short, by 1980, a movie with an X rating, unlike the early years of the designation, had a harder time making its money back.  I thought — and still think today — that the easy equation of “adults-only” with “porn” was unfortunate.  Just because a work might find its best audience exclusively among adults, that ought not to mean ipso facto that the work is obscene.  So, I was dismayed by this turn of events. 

Film critics Gene Siskel (left) and Roger Ebert: they discussed the new
NC-17 rating on a 1990 episode of their eponymous TV show

So were some like-minded film critics.  Among them, one critic was named Siskel, and another Ebert.  Starting in 1987, they pushed the MPAA for an adults-only rating that wouldn’t instantly connote pornography.  On their various film-review TV programs, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert lobbied the association to create something new: an “A” rating — A for “adults only.”  The head of the MPAA at the time, Jack Valenti, pushed back.  The film-ratings system was supposed to be an objective means by which parents could judge whether a film was appropriate for their children to see, Valenti said in his interviews and press releases at the time, and to introduce an A rating would be asking the board to assess film quality: to assess artistically redeeming sex and violence from sex and violence that was not artistically redeeming, a task reputedly outside the rating board’s systematic purview.  However, Valenti never substantively addressed the fact that X-rated feature films were usually stigmatized by audiences and exhibitors and therefore economically disadvantaged.  For years, the forces that favored a different kind of adults-only rating and those that didn’t fought each other to a standstill.

‘Henry & June’ (1990): the first film
to be rated NC-17
Things seemed to get especially testy around 1990, when the MPAA saddled Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover and Wayne Wang’s Life Is Cheap…but Toilet Paper Is Expensive, independent films of edgy subject matter but recognized artistic worth, with X ratings.  The feud over the ratings system then moved into the headlines of the entertainment press.  Then came Philip Kaufman’s Henry & June (1990), produced by Hollywood heavyweight Universal Pictures.  This fact-based feature about the erotically charged encounter between Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin in 1930s Paris garnered an X by the MPAA, hitting Universal in the pocketbook.  The studio reportedly protested to Valenti.

Given the months of mounting controversy, I assume that Henry & June was the straw that broke the MPAA’s back.  Before long, Valenti announced the creation of a new rating: NC-17, the designation for a film in which no children under 17 years of age were to be admitted (later revised to disallow anyone 17 or younger).  The copyrighted rating replaced the X; it did not, as Siskel and Ebert urged, stand as an intermediary between the respectable R and the pornographic X. 

Maria de Medeiros (left) and Uma Thurman in ‘Henry & June’

Many film enthusiasts cheered the change and hoped that NC-17 would mark a new beginning for films reserved for adults.  But almost immediately afterwards, exhibitors, especially those in the more conservative parts of the U.S., let it be known that they regarded the NC-17 as nothing more than the smutty X by another name, and they refused to screen films with the rating.  Some newspapers, such as the Los Angeles Times, said basically the same thing and refused to advertise them.  Now, instead of editing their adult-oriented films to avoid an X, the major studios edited them to avoid an NC-17.  Furthermore, in what was a rarity and clearly a test case, Hollywood’s NC-17 release with the highest profile, Paul Verhoeven’s sudsy and salacious melodrama Showgirls (1995), bombed at the box office (but did respectable business on video), furthering NC-17’s association with poor quality and further repelling the major studios from the rating.  The new beginning turned suddenly into the same old thing.

‘Saving Private Ryan’ (1998)
That’s why I hoped that first Saving Private Ryan and then Eyes Wide Shut would receive the NC-17 rating: so that they would prove that the rating isn’t synonymous with pornography.  I remember at the time reading a Spielberg quote saying that if the MPAA gave his cut of Ryan an NC-17, he would respect the decision and distribute the film with the adults-only rating (a promise few other directors could make, because Spielberg co-owned his distribution company, Dreamworks SKG).  The stage was set, I thought, for the NC-17 to be given a new lease on life. 

But such was not to be.  Despite the ferocity and the bloody carnage of its opening D-Day scene, Spielberg’s cut of Saving Private Ryan received a respectable R.  I think that any reservations an MPAA member might have had about the opening scene’s graphic violence was offset by the rest of the film: a heartfelt salute to the World War Two generation, an affectionate tribute wrapped in star-spangled sentimentality.  As for Eyes Wide Shut, the digital insertion of a figure to block the view of a couple at the orgy — a remedy conceived by Kubrick himself — was all it took to remove the danger of an NC-17.  Eyes Wide Shut was released (after the director’s death, sadly) with an R rating.  I was dismayed that these two films didn’t challenge the negative connotations of the NC-17.  That would need to wait for another day — or another millennium.

However, it wasn’t very long after Eyes Wide Shut’s release that I discovered the book Hollywood v. Hard Core: How the Struggle over Censorship Saved the Modern Film Industry by university professor Jon Lewis.  This is the thesis of Lewis’ scholarly book:


• Hollywood movies are commodities that, in order to maximize their profitability, need to circulate in as free a market as possible. 

• Perhaps the greatest hindrance to any film’s circulation is for it to be labeled “obscene” and being taken off the market for that reason. 

• Thanks to a 1974 Supreme Court decision, films rated G to R by the MPAA are effectively shielded from any charge of obscenity, but films rated NC-17 are not. 

• By reserving the NC-17 for “obscene” films, those rated G, PG, PG-13, and R are able to circulate freely without fear of obscenity accusations, thereby maximizing their profitability.  This is why adult-themed movies sometimes struggle so mightily to avoid an NC-17: they are simultaneously avoiding the uneconomical prospect of being tagged as obscene.


What Lewis says makes a lot of sense, and Hollywood v. Hard Core gives a thorough history of both the Production Code and the ratings system, analyzing the pertinent court cases (Supreme and lower) to make Lewis’ point.  Had I known this in 1998 or 1999, I might not have anticipated Saving Private Ryan and Eyes Wide Shut as films with censorship-challenging missions.

‘Eyes Wide Shut’ (1999)
Today, I’m not as preoccupied as I used to be with what particular movies are rated, and with what those ratings mean.  While some outlets still understandably bemoan the seeming inscrutability of the ratings system, such as Kirby Dick’s MPAA documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated (2006), the debate has lost any real meaning for me.  The only context in which an NC-17 can really hurt a film’s performance is the theatrical market, and movies now have a longer and more important life on video.  Only when it comes to buying a ticket for a movie at a cinema’s box office does the rating carry any real stigma. 

Theatrical films originally rated NC-17 but edited to achieve an R can now release their first cut as an “unrated” edition for home video, perhaps alongside its R-rated iteration, thus maximizing profits even more.   And so many “films” (some now even shot directly on high-definition video) are now watched at home on DVD and tape that any trouble with the MPAA can be seen as a momentary hiccup in its monetary circulation, a mere initial inconvenience in its long march to video.  Moreover, some recent non-Hollywood NC-17 films have been screened in the prestigious theatres of large cities, films such as Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution (色,戒, 2007) and Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Color (La Vie d’Adèle, 2013), a sign that the rating might be losing some of its ignominy, at least in major metropolitan areas.

So, the NC-17 seems to be sliding slowly into irrelevance, except for a controversial film’s (i.e., future unrated video’s) theatrical release.  And given new electronically based media and distribution systems, I sometimes even wonder if our entire contemporary conception of “movies” and “theatrical releases” may be slowly slouching towards irrelevance as well.  Gradually, mainstream audiences — particularly home-video audiences — seem to be realizing what I thought and tried to communicate all along: “adults only” need not be the same thing as “pornography.”

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