September 27, 1990 was predicted to be a major breakthrough for filmmakers across the country. It was to the be the day that any film possessing rather explicit violence or strong sexual content, but with true artistic value and integrity, would no longer be lumped into the dreaded “X” rating along with hardcore pornography. Finally, filmmakers could express what they had been longing to express on screen, without the Motion Picture Association of America breathing down their necks and threatening to shatter their film’s potential for success by forcing it into a category shared with disrespected smut and poor production values.
According to an article in Entertainment Weekly, a slew of renowned directors including Francis Ford Coppola, Ridley Scott, and Sydney Pollack had long been pushing for a new classification that would distinguish between sophisticated films with mature themes and those lacking artistic integrity. All together, thirty-one directors signed a Daily Variety petition to instate a new rating. They wanted the rating to “destigmatize non pornographic adult movies, make them more acceptable and less controversial in the marketplace (Svetkey, 31-2).
A new rating meant new freedom. No longer would auteurs have to edit ut substantive scenes and dialogue to keep their films from being nixed by the “X”– the scarlet letter of theatrical film. In addition, they would finally be allowed to tackle films with explicit sex and violence inherent to the film’s plot. Voices in Hollywood pleaded with MPAA head Jack Valenti to create a new category, which would allow them to have real artistic freedom and continue to protect the impressionable sensibilities of underaged movie-goers.
Tension regarding the issue of the MPAA’s sometimes subjective ratings and the potential for box-office success had been brewing for some time. Many elt the rating system was intended less to educate audiences about upcoming releases, and more to force indirect, self-imposed censorship on filmmakers who would edit their work, not because they felt it was the best artistic choice, but to prevent certain financial failure when tagged with an “X. ” The dam finally broke when a controversial film titled Henry and June, was issued an “X” rating.
Director Philip Kaufman disagreed with the rating and refused to cut five lesbian scenes that he felt were integral to the plot. Due to Kaufman’s involvement with Universal Pictures, who ahd a policy against releasing “X-rated and unrated films, Mr. Kaufman was forced to make the cuts. Enraged by being forced to what he felt was mutilating the film, Mr. Kaufman “filed an appeal to the review board… charging the MPAA with censorship and threatening anti-trust action” (Miller, 245).
Valenti, already disturbed by the take-over of MPAA’s highest rating by the porn industry, was receptive to the idea. For him, this meant that “the producers of pornography could no longer self impose the CARA’s highest rating, nor would they be likely to pay the CARA to impose the new rating for them. ” MPAA lawyers advised him against a suggested rating intended to “[distinguish] etween a ‘good X’ and a ‘bad X,’ ” which could set them up for more lawsuits by producers (Miller, 245). ” So, on September 27, 1990, the filmmakers in Hollywood were liberated.
The new classification, ‘NC-17’ was born. ‘NC-17’ essentially implied the same thing as the ‘X’ rating (ie. , No Children Under 17 Admitted). There was one key difference, however, in that ‘NC-17’ films were eligible for copyright protection. In addition, the new rating implied that films carrying ‘NC-17’ were not pornographic, but serious, artistic films to be recognized as such and appreciated for their bold examination of adult-oriented themes. Seemingly a victory for filmmakers and anti-censorship groups alike, the ‘NC-17’ rating resulted in a filmmaker’s nightmare.
In its four short years of existence, ‘NC-17’ has emerged as an indirect, but undeniably significant censorial device. The problems began almost immediately. Henry and June was the first film to be endorsed with the new rating, and on October 5, 1990, the film opened on 76 screens and grossed nearly $850,000 in its first weekend of release (Miller, 246)– seemingly a victory. At the same time that Henry and June was enjoying an unsuspected success, censorship groups were sharpening their angs and beginning to emerge from woodwork.
According to Frank Miller’s book, Censored Hollywood, a religious radio station in Costa Mesa staged protests at two Santa Ana theaters that had chosen to screen it. The film was banned in a suburb of Boston due to the fact that theaters there had policies against showing ‘X’-rated films (Miller, 246). Thus, popular opinion adopted the view that ‘NC-17’ was nothing more than Hollywood’s underhanded attempt to push ‘X’-rated trash back into mainstream theaters. This misconception would ultimately curse the new rating and undermine the progress filmmakers had labored so ong to achieve.
The backlash was imminent. Aside from the mindset that ‘NC-17’ films do not uphold the moral values of the times and should not be marketed to the general masses, a series of concrete setbacks began to come down hard on the new rating. For example, many of the studios, in response to the public’s negative opinion of the rating, chose not to be associated with the rating’s poor connotation and forbade filmmakers from making them. Disney, the notoriously conservative studio that refused to make an ‘R’-rated film until 1986, will not release a film doomed with the mark of ‘NC-17.
On the marketing end, an essential component in the success of any film, significant newspapers refuse to run ‘NC-17’ movie ads. As if that’s not enough, the stigma has settled with exhibitors as well. Blockbuster Video, the largest video chain in the nation, will not carry these videos (Svetkey, 32), obliterating a film’s potential success, even if the public wants to see it. The ‘NC-17’ rating literally became useless as soon as it became usable. Even Henry and June’s success fragmented quickly and the film ultimately lost money.
Scared by the potential failure associated with the rating, most ilmmakers opted the lesser of the evils, choosing to once again compromise artistic integrity for the safe ‘R’-rating which would at the minimum give their films a fighting chance for box-office success. There’s an exception to every rule, and this was no different. No sooner than the ‘NC-17’ rating’s misuse by the MPAA and fanatical political and religious groups took hold, did Hollywood directors begin to search for a loophole. And one was found.
A mass media blitz was launched, promoting the success of ‘NC-17’ films made by large studios– an expensive endeavor that was also financed by the studios effected. While the campaign was moderately successful in altering public perception of the rating, it proved to have an adverse effect on the smaller studios and independent production companies, sending them deeper into economic repression. Nearly twenty years ago, Bryan Forbes, author of the novel The Distant Laughter, put the plight of the smaller directors simply.
[M]aking a film nowadays is a political and economic act before it can dare to have any artistic pretensions” (Phelps, 252). Unfortunately, little has changed in the past two decades and now the ‘NC-17’ loophole has fallen to a similar fate. Criticism n the industry raises an important question– why do some studios seem to get the ‘R’ easier, quicker, or without being forced to cut scenes similar to those that the CARA mandates are cut from smaller films? The answer is two-fold. First, the underlying politics and relationships between studio execs and members of the CARA play an important role in factoring which films receive which ratings.
Second, the nature of the rating system itself creates an atmosphere for such political wheeling and dealing, as there are no written, specific guidelines that help the members of CARA distinguish what should be rated R’ and what should receive an ‘NC-17. ‘ It is not a matter of counting nude body parts or tallying obscene words. The process boils down to a group of people sitting in a room and deciding, based on their own individual definitions of morality, what the rating should be.
In Benjamin Svetkey’s article, he quotes Meyer Gottlieb of the Samuel Goldwyn Company who complains about the advantage the big guys have, saying, “It’s not a level playing field. The ratings serve the major studios. The feeling you have is that they get better service. On any number of studio movies you ask why it got an R and a similar indie movie ot an NC-17” (Svetkey, 32). Svetkey notes that notable examples from the studios are Natural Born Killers and Interview With a Vampire. Both exhibited extreme violence and sexual overtones associated with violence.
Interview also included a controversial scene that alluded to Kirsten Dunst’s character demonstrating a sexual/violent urge to feed when she becomes a vampire. After all, Stone’s NBK is one of the most violent films of all time. Although it, too, had to cut some violent scenes to escape the NC-17, among them a shot being filmed through a hand that had been blown open by a ullet hole, and one where a victim is murdered by being cooked in an oven, the film still depicted 52+ explicit deaths ranging from being burned alive to being crucified (Russo, 36). That’s an intense amount of violence.
In the other protagonist-as-serial-killer flick, Interview With a Vampire (a Geffen Pictures release), blood, sex, and youth are a dangerous, but acceptably R-rated mix. Although the part written for a much younger child, played by Kirsten Dunst was changed to that of a girl in her pre- teens, and some of the stronger homo-erotic undertones were removed, the film still runs top of the list in carnage and mayhem. From the double murder of two young women about to engage in a mnage-a-trois with the vampire Lestat, to the mass killing of several French vampires burned to death in a theatre basement, the thriller shows multiple violent murders.
Yet, it never seemed to be in danger of the NC-17. Why? Could it be the fact that it was an adaptation from a best-seller by a respected author (Anne Rice)? Or that it had names like Tom Cruise, Neil Jordan, and Christian Slater (who replaced the late River Phoenix) attached? Or could it have been the film’s $50 million dollar budget? Or a combination of all things combined? Whatever the reason, it was rewarded with an R rating. So if films like NBK and Interview are welcomed on the screen, then why not a film like Ken Russell’s Whore?
According to Frank Miller, the “NC-17 rating had drawn flack in the press, with reviewers noting that there was little sex or nudity and that the film’s overall message was a grim condemnation of prostitution” (Miller, 248). The story behind Whore has a surprisingly twisted but upbeat ending. Although the film failed miserably at the box office, four separate versions were released on home video: the original NC-17 version, a director’s cut with two extra minutes f footage that was released unrated, the theatrically-released version, and a version with five minutes cut out and an R-rating.
Even the R-rated version was sold in stores with two different titles: Whore and If You Can’t Say It, Just See It. Then, the film got a following. It became a success for the small company that released it and its most popular version was the director’s cut (Miller, 249). Finally, filmmakers could improve their circumstances by dropping the entire NC-17 rating in video release. NC-17 would no longer mean mandatory censorship in video stores because they simply released the same film without a rating.
Although not necessarily the choice situation, the video problem was pretty much solved. Still, a film’s biggest financial predictor is its actual box office success. And that was still being plagued by the not-so-liberating NC-17. It’s no understatement to say that Basic Instinct had an enormous effect on the whole NC-17 controversy. It, like Whore, was threatened by the curse and forced to make cuts. However, to achieve the R-rating, only 42 seconds were cut from the original film.
Stille being one of the industry’s raunchiest films with the notorious interrogation scene of Sharon Stone, the film ultimately grossed more than $385 million niversally, with the 42 seconds re-added in the European countries (Miller, 249). Many sources are disappointed that director Verhoeven didn’t go ahead and release it with its original rating. They feel that the success of that film may have helped in breaking down the mindset against NC-17 films. With that type of track record, it could have been the first financial blockbuster even without the “safe” R. But, it didn’t.
Basic Instinct remained R while small studios remained petrified to submit envelope-pushing films to CARA for a rating. While the large studios can afford to submit the same film multiple times o the board, each with some minor cut, the independents cannot. The financial expense becomes enormous, yet they cannot risk sending out a film that they know will be a financial flop with an NC-17. This presents a real problem. Plus, with allegations that larger studios are forced to cut much less than independent films, these artists are stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Valenti denies favoritism of any kind, saying, “Since day one there have been people saying that the board treated them differently than the other person. But the thing about this ratings system-it can’t hide. It’s on the screen” (Svetkey, 33). Exactly. And that’s why the allegations are being made. In counter-attack, Valenti claims the reason they are accused of unfairness so much is for free publicity. He says, “Miramax does this brilliantly. You’ve got a little movie, you don’t have a lot of money to spend on advertising, what do you do?
You accuse the ratings board of censorship, racism, discrimination. Suddenly… some magazine is doing a story about you. I don’t blame them. They get all this free publicity. It works” (Svetkey, 33). Maybe that’s true. Maybe it does work, but if it does, it’s still small compensation for what we already know doesn’t work… NC-17. And if omething doesn’t work, it needs to be fixed. So far, the real problem, the forced censorship by religious organizations, political power of a right-wing government, and the all-around silencing of the expressive voice, has not been solved.
The skewed turnout of the NC-17 rating, despite its good intentions, has actually imprisoned ambitious filmmakers rather than liberate them. What then, does the future hold for forces against censorship? Will we ever be able to fight censorial groups, preserving artistic freedom? And on which side will NC-17 stand in the ongoing war? The future not only of censorship, but the rating system is an mportant issue to Hollywood and the public. After all, what they can’t make, we can’t watch.
A flyer put out by Century Cable in the 1990s featured the Disney Channel as “channel of the month. It also ran an article announcing the then-new initiative Voices Against Violence. Created to take steps against violent programming, this group advocated “enforcing a rating system for all on-screen entertainment; supporting screening technology so viewers can control what comes into their homes; and scheduling [violent] programs… when children are less likely to watch… ” (Century Cable Connector). This would imply that the rating system, or a similar one, will be a significant element in the response to growing media violence. But where does it stop?
In light of Howard Stern’s recent drop by Clear Channel, who was fined by the FCC for Howard’s sexually explicit and “crude” on-air references, it’s safe to say that censorship advocates don’t plan to stop with a mere rating system. It is safe to believe that the current MPAA rating system will have to adapt in order to serve both the public’s need to accurately reflect the sex and violence concern, while simultaneously working with filmmakers to stablish a fair means of representing their work. What does that mean for NC-17? Although NC-17 did nothing to fulfill its original purpose, its conception has merit.
The best case scenario would be that a film with the grossing potential of Basic Instinct would be released with the NC-17 rating and prove that NC-17 films are more than X-rated porns, enlightening the public’s opinion and opening theaters to run them and respectable newspapers to advertise them. Realistically, it won’t happen overnight. With The Dreamers being the first NC-17 release from a studio since 1997, it’s slow going (Isidore, 4/5/04). The difficult task won’t be in creating the new ratings or trying to place films within the guidelines, but obliterating the preconceived stigma that surrounds the existing ones.
Maybe then, NC-17 will mean more than Hollywood’s cheap attempt to push decadent material off on a resisting public. Maybe then, NC-17 will allow filmmakers to express themselves fully and protect children at the same time. Maybe then, we can abolish the devices censorial groups try to use against the artists it was intended to help. Both sides are crying for help and the MPAA is doing little to help either. The MPAA is in a prime position to create a middle ground, yet it tends to hinder the potential progress by playing favorites to the big spenders and catering to conservative politics.
Sadly, what courageous filmmakers, tired of struggling against the system had hoped would help them and help others to understand them, was turned against them. Mr. Phelps states in his book Film Censorship that there are “elements of superiority and paternalism inherent in all censorship” (Phelps, 277). These factors of control by those who are afraid of change, and sometimes afraid of the truth, have forced a onnotation on the NC-17 rating that was never meant to be.
And in doing so, they have forced a new censorship on those inventive artists who have not been allowed to express themselves feely, who have been forced to cut their films according to random standards just to achieve an R-rating or watch their works crumble financially. ‘No children under 17’ was never meant to read ‘No Public Access. ‘ So far, the censors are winning. Maybe with the help of the MPAA, the future of Hollywood and creative expression will be brighter and filmmakers will get what they deserve: freedom.