Thirty years ago yesterday, on August 10, 1984, John Milius’ Cold War wet dream Red Dawn rolled into theaters, helping launch the careers of Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen, Lea Thompson, and Jennifer Grey. But it also launched a significant chapter in movie history: it was the first film released to theaters carrying the new PG-13 rating, a Goldlocks-ish “just right” nestled between the PG and the R, prompted by the outcry from parents of terrified children after the release of the PG-rated Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom earlier in the summer. But as with all things MPAA-related, the PG-13 became a giant clusterfuck in the three decades hence, as its desirability led studios and filmmakers to push the rating to its absolute breaking point — loading up their PG-13 blockbusters with dead bodies while the ratings agency’s bean counters tallied “F-words” and bare butts. So to celebrate this dubious anniversary, let’s take a look back at ten cases where the 30-year-old rating was woefully misapplied.
Boyhood MPAA rating: R Should have been: PG-13 Why: If there were ever a better example of twisted MPAA logic, I can’t think of it — you literally have to be as old as Mason Jr. is at the end of Boyhood to buy a ticket and watch him grow up. The ratings board gave Boyhood an R for “language including sexual references, and for teen drug and alcohol use.” So, in other words, since the film shows teenagers talking like teenagers talk and doing stuff teenagers do, teenagers can’t see it. Well, most can’t; New York’s IFC Center waved a middle finger at the MPAA, announcing on its website, “IFC Center feels that the film is appropriate viewing for mature adolescents. Accordingly, the theater will admit high school age patrons at its discretion.” Now if we could just get the rest of the theaters in the country to go along…
The Breakfast Club MPAA rating: R Should have been: PG-13 Why: Then again, the MPAA has a long history of shutting teenagers out of films about teenagers — at least, the ones where they say “the F-word” too much. John Hughes’ 1985 comedy/drama features about 30 uses of the word “fuck,” and goodness knows that would’ve been the first time teen audiences had heard such salty language; the movie also includes the smoking of marijuana, which might have been acceptable in a PG-13 movie in 1985 if they’d just thrown in a Nancy Reagan cameo, reminding these kooky kids to “Just Say No.”
Almost Famous MPAA rating: R Should have been: PG-13 Why: The MPAA had few louder critics than the late, great Roger Ebert, who was particularly incensed that Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical 2000 comedy/drama (Ebert’s pick for the best film of the year) was branded with an R rating for “language, drug content and brief nudity.” (Among its many other crimes, the MPAA apparently does not believe in the Oxford comma.) “Consider,” he wrote. “Coyote Ugly, which glorifies girls who dance on top of bars to sell more drinks, gets a PG-13 because there is technically no nudity. But Almost Famous, which shows a bright teenage boy successfully negotiating the minefield of a rock tour and forming a value system with the support of his mother, gets an R because of brief and insignificant nudity and language, and drug use presented as a cautionary lesson. If you were to see the two movies side-by-side you might be as mystified as I am why the MPAA thinks one is appropriate for 13-year-olds, while the other is questionable for 17-year-olds. But of course the MPAA cannot have values; it can only count beans, or nipples, or four-letter words.”
The King’s Speech MPAA rating: R Should have been: PG-13 Why: The King’s Speech’s R rating caused a fair amount of controversy back in 2010, when the totally harmless period drama got an R for “some language,” which means, in ratings logic, that the frustrated King George VI yelling a few nonsexual “fucks” posed exactly the same danger to our nation’s youth as the intricate torture of that year’s Saw 3D. So after The King’s Speech won the Oscar for Best Picture, distributor The Weinstein Company decided to play along, resubmitting the film with the bad words muted and receiving the PG-13 it should have gotten all along. And then they just replaced the R-rated version, still in theaters, with the PG-13, which was totally dishonest false advertising, but hey, one bad turn deserves another.
A Film Unfinished MPAA rating: R Should have been: PG-13 Why: Of all of the ratings controversies, this is probably the most infuriating. Yael Hersonski’s 2010 documentary concerns an incomplete Nazi propaganda film called Das Ghetto, mixing staged and on-the-street footage shot in a tiny Jewish ghetto. It’s a difficult, essential film, examining both the Holocaust itself and the very nature of propaganda. Perhaps its most stomach-turning scene finds a group of Jews stripped and forced to take a “ritual bath”; it’s about the least titillating thing you’ve ever seen, but the “nudity” of the scene prompted the MPAA to slap the film with an “R” rating. Yes, the organization determined that Holocaust nudity should keep educators from showing an important historical documentary to their teenage students, and in spite of appeals, citing of previous precedent, and common sense, the R rating was upheld. A Film Unfinished was released unrated.
Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me MPAA rating: PG-13 Should have been: R Why: Hey, look, I like a good dirty joke as much as the next guy, and let’s be honest: keeping teenagers out of an Austin Powers movie pretty much eliminates their entire target audience. But, lest you’ve forgotten (and it’s been 13 years and those movies all kinda blur together, so that’s understandable), the 2001 sequel actually includes a scene where one character drinks a cup of shit. Couple that with the film’s endless string of double entendres, and you’ve got a movie that’s far dirtier than much of its R-rated brethren; as the A.V. Club noted, “when the MPAA routinely gives R ratings to movies because characters use the word ‘fuck’ as an interjection, it doesn’t make much sense to stamp a PG-13 on a film that is actually about fucking, roughly 25 percent of the time.”
Much Ado About Nothing MPAA rating: PG-13 Should have been: PG Why: Hey, who’s cleaner than Shakespeare, right? Wrong — Kenneth Branagh’s sunny 1993 adaptation of the Bard’s classic comedy got a PG-13 for, get this, “momentary sensuality.” This is apparently a reference to a very brief scene early on where several characters of both sexes bathe and dress, featuring (very) fleeting glimpses of a few bare butts. So rest assured, parents of 1993: the MPAA was making sure your kids could not get their jollies by checking out the bare backsides in that Shakespeare movie.
World War Z MPAA rating: PG-13 Should have been: R Why: The rules for the PG-13, in the 30 years since its establishment, have become pretty clear: no explicit nudity or sex and only one, nonsexual use of “fuck.” But violence? Have at it. As long as it’s not too bloody, you can pretty much kill all the people (or robots, or zombies, or whatever) you want — and studios tread this line very carefully, since the last thing they want is to make a $100 million-plus movie that theaters have to turn anyone away from. Thus we have World War Z, in which the world is taken over by hordes of terrifying flesh-eaters, who are frequently taken out by automatic weapons. It’s all gruesome, intense, and scary as hell. And PG-13 for the whole family!
The Dark Knight MPAA rating: PG-13 Should have been: R Why: Hey, look, there’s no bigger fan of Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy than your film editor. But holy Jesus is this movie dark. The MPAA gave it a PG-13 for “intense sequences of violence and some menace,” and they got that right: we’ve got hangings, maulings, burnings, a bomb that explodes inside a guy, and a character impaled on a pencil. FYI: the year’s R-rated movies — and thus the films the MPAA deemed less acceptable for younger audiences — included Slumdog Millionaire, Changeling, Milk, and Frost/Nixon.
Red Dawn MPAA rating: PG-13 Should have been: R Why: And just to bring us full circle, consider this: the first film to ever received the PG-13 rating was condemned, at the time of its release, as literally the most violent movie ever made. The National Coalition of Television violence counted 134 acts of violence in an hour (that’s 2.23 per minute), which got the film a listing in the Guinness Book of World Records. So you gotta give the MPAA this: from the beginning of the PG-13, they’ve at least been consistent.