Today marks the 20th anniversary of the MPAA’s most restrictive rating: NC-17. The first NC-17 rating was given on October 5, 1990 to Henry & June , a film about the love triangle between Henry and June Miller and Anaïs Nin back in the ’30s — which is rather fitting as Miller’s 1934 novel Tropic of Cancer faced an obscenity trial when it was first published in the early ’60s. Of course content too sexual or violent for an R rating was released on film long before 1990. Click through for a comprehensive timeline of letter ratings — and the films that they kept people out of.
1912 – The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) is founded. They have two certificates: U for universal, meaning suitable for children, and A for adult, meaning children must be accompanied by an adult.
1922 – The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) is founded, with former US Postmaster General Will H. Hays in charge.
1930 – The MPPDA creates the Motion Picture Production Code (aka the Hays Code), which forbid films from lowering moral standards of viewers or ridiculing law, among other things.
1932 – The BBFC adds the H certificate (for horror) to the U and A certificates. Only Britons 16 and older could be admitted to a film with an H certificate.
1951 – The BBFC replaces the H with an X.
1968 – The MPPDA is replaced by The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and begins to assign ratings, including Britain’s X rating for films unsuitable for minors. 1968’s Greetings , directed by Brian De Palma and starring Robert De Niro, becomes the first American film to receive an X rating, despite being non-pornographic (it was later re-rated R).
1969 – Midnight Cowboy receives an X rating from the MPAA. It goes on to win Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay, becoming the first X-rated film to win an Academy Award.
1971 – The MPAA gives Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange an X rating.
1972 – Fritz the Cat becomes the first animated film to receive an X rating from the MPAA.
Early 1970s – The MPAA’s X rating also referred to non-trademarked films, meaning that any filmmaker could give a film an X rating without even submitting to the MPAA. Thus, beginning in the 1970s, many pornographic films carried an X rating, later evolving into the use of multiple X’s (i.e. XX, XXX) to indicate just how unsuitable for minors the film was. Again, these were not MPAA-sanctioned ratings — the MPAA only gave single X ratings.
1990 – The MPAA replaces the X rating with NC-17, thus separating non-trademarked works from those rated as unsuitable for minors (only the MPAA can give an NC-17 rating). The acronym stands for “No Children Under 17 Admitted.” Henry & June , released October 5, 1990, becomes the first movie to receive the new rating. Some papers refuse to run ads for the film, or future NC-17 titles.
1995 – Showgirls is released by United Artists with an NC-17 rating. Despite the rating, the film is distributed in 1,388 cinemas upon release, however its financial failure does much to steer producers clear of the NC-17 rating. (That said, with a $20 million box office, it is the top-grossing NC-17 film all of time. Food for thought.) Many films, upon receiving an NC-17 rating, have gone back and edited out contentious material until the MPAA downgrades the rating to R. Both American Pie and Grindhouse were originally rated NC-17 and later edited down to R.
Late 1990s – The MPAA changes the wording of the NC-17 rating from “No Children Under 17 Admitted” to “No One 17 And Under Admitted.”
2008- Kevin Smith’s Zack and Miri Make a Porno becomes the first film to win an R rating after appealing the MPAA’s NC-17 designation.