Shame, a candid and powerful look at sexual addiction from director Steve McQueen (no, another Steve McQueen) is out in limited release tomorrow, and as we reported last month, it’s going out with the NC-17 rating—no children under 17 admitted, under any circumstances. The rating, many have surmised, is due to the film’s copious male nudity, and that’s how the American ratings system works: all the naked ladies you want, but the erect male member= automatic NC-17.
The rating was initiated by the MPAA back in 1990, and was intended to be an alternative to the porn-stained (if you’ll pardon the pun) X rating; NC-17 movies, like Henry & June (the inaugural film to carry the rating), Bad Lieutenant, The Dreamers, and Lust, Caution would be for adults, by adults. But it quickly became the kiss of death for filmmakers and distributors. Just as with the X rating before it, newspapers and television outlets wouldn’t carry ads for NC-17 films, while larger theatrical chains and home video outlets refused to carry them. Smaller films would take the mark or (as Kids and Happiness did) go out unrated, while the editing process for big releases became something of a con game: if a film was rated NC-17, the distributor would make the trims necessary for an R-rating, enjoy the publicity, and then restore the cut material for the inevitable “unrated” DVD release (frequently carried by the very chains that refused to stock NC-17 films). By the late 1990s, studios wouldn’t even bother with the first step, cranking out unrated versions of raunchy comedies and adult thrillers as a standard step in their home video release plans.
While the politics of who gets an R and who doesn’t are shady at best (check out the terrific documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated ), we can’t help but wonder about what would have happened if the NC-17 could have been what its creators wanted it to be. Fox Searchlight’s decision to release Shame with the scarlet letters/numbers has prompted another round of “will the NC-17 finally become respectable?” questions (answer: dubious), but what if that question weren’t necessary, because the NC-17 had never been stigmatized? Had that been the case, we might have seen the uncut movies we’ve assembled after the jump.
Stanley Kubrick’s erotic drama was still in post-production when the filmmaker died in March of 1999, though he had completed (and shown to stars Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman) a cut that he was satisfied with. However, there was still one obstacle: the MPAA. The ratings organization gave Eyes Wide Shut an NC-17 due to a sequence showing an explicit orgy at a country mansion. Rather than make any physical cuts to the sequence, Warner Brothers inserted digital figures to block out the more graphic imagery. Critics and commentators were perplexed that the great filmmaker’s final work was being bowdlerized for the American movie-going public (several international markets released the film in its original form). Had Warners decided to leave Kubrick’s film alone, the rating might have finally had a film with some gravitas to attach itself to.
As Eyes Wide Shut and other films on our list show, the ratings board tends to be much more sensitive about sex than violence; male nudity or a female orgasm are a bridge too far, but with bloodshed, the sky’s the limit. However, Oliver Stone’s ultra-violent 1994 satire was too much, even for them. In order to deliver the contractually-mandated R-rated version, Stone had to snip four minutes from his final cut, mostly brief shots of additional blood and gore in Mickey and Mallory’s numerous kills. But there were significant cuts to the climactic prison riot sequence, including the graphic demise of prison warden McClusky (Tommy Lee Jones), culminating with a notorious shot of the warden’s head on a spear.
Paul Verhoeven’s 1992 erotic thriller courted controversy on several fronts, most notably for its portrayal of its bisexual female lead (gay rights activists protested the production and boycotted its release). The film also got into hot water with the MPAA, primarily over the first encounter between Detective Nick Curran (Michael Douglas) and suspect Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone). The sex itself wasn’t the problem; apparently the foreplay, or at least the 45 seconds of it during which Mr. Douglas focused on Ms. Stone, was a bit too graphic. (Roger Ebert, on seeing the uncut version at Cannes: “‘It didn’t seem like 45 seconds to me,’ I said to my date. ‘It never does,’ she said.”) Independent distributor Carolco buckled and went for the R rating, but the 1992 home video release of the restored “uncut version” started a trend that continues to this day. Had the filmmakers gone for the NC-17 we would have, if nothing else, been spared that consumers’ nightmare for a bit longer.
Let’s be honest: sex scenes in most movies are utterly gratuitous, an excuse to leer, a cheap thrill to sell tickets and/or DVDs. (Your author, who has done plenty of leering, is as guilty as anyone in this equation.) But some films use those most intimate of moments to propel their story forward, and to tell us something otherwise unknowable about their characters. Such is the case with Marc Forster’s brilliant 2001 drama Monster’s Ball, in which two desperate and despondent characters (played by Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton), both of whom have recently suffered unimaginable losses, are drawn together in a sex act that is downright primal in its need and urgency. Alas, Forster had to trim about a minute from that scene in order to get the R rating; had the NC-17 stood, Monster’s Ball would have been precisely the kind of mature film the rating had been intended for.
One of the many double-standards spotlighted by Kirby Dick in This Film is Not Yet Rated is the ratings board’s lax standards for heterosexual sex scenes when compared to similar same-sex couplings in other films. In the film, Boys Don’t Cry director Kimberly Peirce notes that while only minor trims were required to create R-rated versions of her film’s graphic rape scene, the tender sex scene between “Brandon” (Hilary Swank) and Lana (Chloe Sevigny) had to be cut extensively to avoid the NC-17.
Filmmaker Matthew Bright’s 1996 cult hit is one dark, grisly little item, a modern take on “Little Red Riding Hood” with gang members, serial killers, incest, child porn, and heroin addicts thrown into the mix. It was apparently all a little too much for the MPAA, which slapped the picture with an NC-17 for graphic language. Though that version was released to theaters in the UK and Australia, trims were required to give the picture its R rating; we’re not sure how much more unsettling that version would have been, but once you’ve committed to this kind of story, you might as well go all the way with it, right?
The graphic and brutal recreations of the “Son of Sam” murders in Spike Lee’s harrowing 1999 drama presented no problem to the ratings board—no, it was the visit to Plato’s Retreat that got it the NC-17. The film is set in the summer of 1977, and New York City’s fear of the serial killer is a major element, but the bulk of the story centers on the rocky marriage of Vinny (John Leguizamo) and Dionna (Mira Sorvino). When the couple is turned away at Studio 54, they end up taking a trip to the notorious adult club, and the resulting hedonism had to be pulled back in order for Lee to deliver an R-rated cut. The message was delivered: random, bloody shootings are cool, but don’t you dare follow that married couple into the sex club!
Quentin Tarantino was still an unknown, pounding out cinema-quoting scripts between shifts at the Video Archives, when he penned the screenplay to True Romance and sold it to Warner Brothers. But by the time the Tony Scott-helmed film was released in 1993, QT had already directed his breakthrough movie, Reservoir Dogs. As released, True Romance is an interesting hybrid of Tarantino’s talky, movie-crazy sensibility and Scott’s slick aesthetic, which seems to render the writer’s trigger-happy script even more violent and nihilistic. That darkness led to an NC-17 rating, requiring heavy cuts in both the action and dialogue sequences (in the final version, Samuel L. Jackson’s single scene — featuring a conversation on oral sex — is cut to a point of total obscurity). The most interesting change occurs in the final shoot-out, which finds an army of mafia enforcers and federal agents going at each other in a Hollywood producer’s hotel suite, with our heroes Clarence (Christian Slater) and Alabama (Patricia Arquette) caught in the crossfire. In the R-rated version, Detective Dimes (Chris Penn) is shot and killed by an unnamed mafia gunman. But in the later DVD “unrated” version, the cop is killed by our heroine, Alabama. The unrated version also includes Tarantino’s original ending, which Scott (and not the MPAA) altered to a more conventional “happy ending.”
South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone had already been through the ringer with the MPAA over their porn spoof Orgazmo (released, with an NC-17, in 1997) when they locked horns with the ratings board over their 1999 South Park feature. First came the title trouble — the film’s original moniker was South Park: All Hell Breaks Loose, which was summarily rejected for including the profanity “hell.” (Okay, sure.) In true South Park form, the boys replaced it with the far filthier yet utterly acceptable genital reference of the final title, which sailed right past the MPAA. The film itself wasn’t so lucky; Parker and Stone had to submit the film for ratings consideration no less than seven times to move it from an NC-17 to an R. The duo have also claimed to have received detailed notes for trims from the ratings board, a stark contrast between South Park (released by major studio and MPAA member Paramount) and Orgazmo (they received no suggestions for cuts to make to that independent release). The MPAA has denied their claims of preferential treatment, as well as the charge that the final cut, submitted two weeks before the film’s release, was changed from an NC-17 to an R with no further trims following pressure from producer Scott Rudin. Of course, the best part of all of this is that the film itself is a brutal and ruthless satire of the ratings system and the never-ending cycle of hand-wringing and punditry over Hollywood’s influence on teenage viewers. Ah, the irony.
As long as we’re rehashing “the ratings board is terrible stories,” we can’t resist including this one. Sam Peckinpah’s immortal and notoriously violent Western was, of course, released long before the NC-17; it came out in 1969, and received an R rating. Then, in 1994, Warner Brothers prepared a 25th-anniversary theatrical re-release of the director’s cut, with ten minutes of (non-violent) scenes restored. As a formality, the studio submitted the new version—and was shocked to see it branded with the NC-17 for violence. So, yes, the MPAA decided that what was R-rated violence in 1969 was NC-17-rated violence in 1994. The studio ultimately won an appeal on something of a technicality; come to find out, the director’s cut was the one that originally received the R rating, which Warners then trimmed after the initial release (without Peckinpah’s knowledge). Thus, they merely reverted to the 1969 R, rather than accept the 1994 NC-17. But the appeals and maneuvers ended up delaying the re-release, which didn’t occur until spring of 1995.