Too Sexy For The MPAA: The Curse of the NC-17 Rating

Blue Valentine (Photo courtesy of the Weinstein Co.)

Blue Valentine, a realistic portrait of a disintegrating marriage, seemed poised for Oscar gold. A festival favorite (the film showed at Sundance, Cannes, Telluride, among others), the indie drama won critical acclaim and generated early Oscar buzz, particularly for its two leads, Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. And then last week, the Motion Picture Association of America slapped the film with what filmmakers consider the kiss of death: an NC-17 rating.

The MPAA’s ruling came as a surprise to many, who consider the NC-17 branding too harsh for the film. The MPAA defines its NC-17 rating as “content that is appropriate only for an adult audience,” and it can be based on “violence, sex, aberrational behavior, drug abuse,” etc.  Apparently, the film’s rating stemmed from the inclusion of a love scene between the film’s two main characters, in which Gosling’s character wants to have sex but Williams’ character doesn’t. The scene reportedly does involve some sex and minimal nudity, but contains no violence. The rating has many, including the film’s producers Harvey and Bob Weinstein, wondering why the MPAA didn’t give the film an audience-friendly R-rating instead of the dreaded NC-17. It’s been reported that Weinstein Co. is appealing the decision in the hopes of getting the film down to an R-rating.

The question is, what’s the big deal? It’s only one measly little rating, right? Except that that measly little rating has a notoriously substantial effect on a film’s success, both critically and commercially. Even in a cinematic landscape full of Borats and Jackasses, where crude and lewd films barely get a blink, an NC-17 film is still something of a taboo. Generally relegated to art houses, NC-17 films rarely receive wide releases because many believe the rating can cripple a film’s marketability and severely decrease its box office revenue.

Take, for instance, the awesomely awful Showgirls, the first (and last) NC-17 rated film to ever be given wide distribution. The film was infamously panned by critics and did abysmally at the box office when released in 1995, and thus cemented the notion that an NC-17 rating was box office poison for films. It’s become a vicious cycle: most theaters don’t show NC-17 rated films, so people don’t see them, and because fewer tickets are sold, fewer theaters are willing to show such films.

Not all NC-17 rated films are Showgirls-style shlock, however. There are a number of critically acclaimed NC-17 rated movies— Henry and June, Last Tango in Paris, Requiem for a Dream (which actually went to theaters unrated), Bad Lieutenant and Mysterious Skin, to name a few. Midnight Cowboy, which received an X-rating (this was replaced by the NC-17 rating in the 1990s), won three Academy Awards in 1969, including Best Picture. Stanley Kubrik’s A Clockwork Orange, notorious for its scenes of graphic violence and rape, was nominated for four Oscars in 1971. However, Midnight Cowboy has been the only X-rated film in history to win Oscar gold, and, with Clockwork, is one of only two X-rated films to ever be nominated for an Academy Award.

Graphic by Evan Caughey

Nowadays, few NC-17 rated films make it to award ceremonies. A major factor of the awards season is film campaigning, a yearly ritual of advertising, press, critical reviews, and interviews in the months leading up to the major awards ceremonies to get people talking and thinking about films. Because NC-17 films don’t receive wide releases, they don’t get widespread advertisements or press. When the MPAA was still using the X-rating, many newspapers and publications refused to even run advertisements for X-rated films. With the lack of ads, trailers aired on TV, billboards, and interviews on late night talk shows, for all intents and purposes, NC-17 films are an out of sight, out of mind phenomenon for mainstream American audiences.

Many films have taken to cutting down the problematic material to avoid the NC-17 rating and receive an R-rating instead. Films from Pulp Fiction to Scream to Boy Don’t Cry have done this dance and edited their initially NC-17 rated films down to an R-rating, and they’ve enjoyed critical and commercial success because of it. It’s not that moviegoers are afraid of “adult content” necessarily—the R-rated Jackass 3D, complete with male nudity, language, and “extremely crude and dangerous stunts,” grossed an impressive $50 million its opening weekend. Yet, there still lingers a hesitation among average audiences to see NC-17 rated films.

Although the MPAA claims, “NC-17 does not mean ‘obscene’ or ‘pornographic’ in the common or legal meaning of those words,” the stigma of obscenity is still attached to NC-17 films in many people’s minds. Pornographic adult films encouraged connection when they began to self-impose X-ratings on their own movies before the 90s, and the rating became synonymous with porn. The MPAA changed the X-rating to NC-17 to differentiate non-pornographic adult films from porno movies, but the association between graphic sexuality and NC-17 ratings still remains.

Hell, just take a look at some of the titles the MPAA has branded NC-17: Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, Orgazmo, Whore, A Dirty Shame, Inside Deep Throat, Lust, Caution. The MPAA has always been notoriously uptight about sexuality and nudity in films, much more so than violence. It’s a wonder how a film with simply one sex scene, like Blue Valentine, could get an NC-17 rating, while bloody gorefests like Human Centipede or “torture porn” like the Saw franchise gets away with an R. You can have a body count into the hundreds in an R-rated film, but if you have more than a few pelvic thrusts, you’re getting an NC-17.

This has been a popular debate amongst cinephiles, from Roger Ebert to the makers of the 2006 documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated, who feel that the MPAA’s rating system, particularly its criteria for an NC-17 rating, is wildly inconsistent. For example, Jason Biggs can hump baked goods in the R-rated American Pie, but if he had been humping another person? NC-17. A shot of a male’s rear end is rated lower than if the nudity were female, because, at least to MPAA standards, naked males are considered comedic, but naked females, sexual. Female genitalia on film generally warrants an R-rating, but male full-frontal nudity is usually met with an NC-17, except when it’s for comedic or non-sexual purposes, like in the R-rated Forgetting Sarah Marshall or the aforementioned Jackass 3D. I’ll say it so you don’t have to: WTF?

Frankly, the MPAA’s system is a mess. It’s too situational, too variable, and not concrete enough in its criteria to accurately categorize a film’s rating. It’s because of its lack of consistency that films like Blue Valentine, with no graphic or gratuitous sex, violence or language, can mysteriously wind up with an NC-17 rating.

Blue Valentine has a few options: Weinstein Co. can either continue its appeal of the MPAA’s rating and argue scene-by-scene why the film should receive an R-rating, bow to the MPAA and cut the problematic scene to get the R, or embrace the NC-17 rating, like Ang Lee did in 2007 with his film Lust, Caution. Luckily for the fate of Blue Valentine, all of this hooplah over the NC-17 rating has been working in the film’s favor and given it a lot of extra buzz. The fate of Blue Valentine is uncertain, but one thing’s for sure: the MPAA better keep that scene of a buff, naked Ryan Gosling if they know what’s good for them.

Blue Valentine will be shown in limited release on December 31st. Check out the trailer: Blue Valentine Official Trailer

About Chree Izzo

Chree Izzo (COM/CAS '11) loves pop culture more than Snookie loves tanned juiceheads, which is saying something.

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