Twenty five years ago, the Motion Picture Association of America gave a gift to avant-garde filmmakers and boundary-pushing studios in the form of the NC-17 rating. The new adults-only rating was to meant replace the pornography-tainted rating X and usher in an era of mature films for Americans aged 18 and older.
On the occasion of its silver anniversary, it’s obvious the NC-17 failed to live up to its promise and there’s no better illustration than Fifty Shades of a Grey, a movie whose S&M source material was begging for an NC-17 adaptation.
Initially, it seemed as though that’s what Hollywood would deliver, with the screenwriter promising a film explicit enough to earn the MPAA’s most restrictive rating. Instead, Universal balked, toning down the adaptation to earn a more acceptable R. (MA in Australia, FYI)
It’s hard to blame the studio. Despite the most optimistic expectations, theatres and advertisers have been just as reluctant to screen and promote NC-17 films as those rated X, giving studios an unwelcome choice between self-censoring or sacrificing profits.
How did it end up this way? Today, we look back at a timeline of the NC-17 and the rating it replaced.
November, 1968: The MPAA, led by Jack Valenti, introduces its four-tiered rating system to replace the outdated Hays Code, including G, PG, and R. The most severe rating is X, reserved for those movies that should admit only people 16 and over. That age would soon be revised upward to 17 or 18, varying by state.
May, 1969: United Artists releases Midnight Cowboy with a self-applied X rating. Though the movie is not explicit enough to receive an X on its own, United Artists chairman Arthur Krim decides to self-apply the X after a Columbia University psychiatrist shares concerns about the effect of the film’s "homosexual frame of reference" on young people. It will go on to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards and remains the only X-rated film to ever win an Oscar for anything.
December, 1971: Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange hits theaters with an X rating. It will eventually receive four Oscar nominations.
June, 1972: Deep Throat is released, and like many pornographic films of the early ’70s, it carries an X rating. Unlike the MPAA’s other ratings, the X isn’t trademarked, a choice made so studios can self-apply an X rating if they choose not to submit to the MPAA. But soon after Deep Throat, the X becomes synonymous with hardcore pornography. Newspapers and TV stations begin refusing ads for X rated movies and mainstream Hollywood stays as far away as possible.
April, 1990: Two films given an X rating by the MPAA, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, are released without a rating after their distributors decide an X would be a box-office death knell. In his review for The Cook, Roger Ebert suggests a new rating that would fit “a serious film for adults.”
June, 1990: Miramax sues the MPAA in a New York court over the X rating given to Pedro Almodovar’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! The studio argues that the MPAA applied a "capricious or arbitrary" standard in violation of New York State law. Though a judge rules that Miramax didn’t prove its case, he calls on the MPAA to adopt a new rating that could be applied to films with adult themes.
September, 1990: The MPAA abandons its use of the X rating and begins using NC-17 to designate movies that should only admit those 18 and over.
October, 1990: Universal releases the biographical drama Henry & June as the first NC-17 film. Five months prior, it received an X under the MPAA’s old system.
Summer, 1994: Two high-profile films that originally received an NC -17 rating, Pulp Fiction and Natural Born Killers, are re-edited in order to get an R rating. Those decisions by directors Quentin Tarantino and Oliver Stone, respectively, will later be pointed to as a turning point in the history of the NC-17 rating.
June, 1995: Miramax creates a new distribution arm called Excalibur Films to release Kids, Larry Clark’s controversial film about teenagers having sex and doing drugs in New York City. The move was a necessary one: Miramax’s then-parent Disney wouldn’t allow it to release NC-17 films. Excalibur appeals the rating, but then Kids is released with no rating at all.
July, 1995: Showgirls receives an NC-17 rating and MGM/United Artists decides to embrace it rather than alter the film to get an R. It’s the first major studio release since Henry & June to accept its NC-17 rating, which had become nearly as toxic as the X rating in the five years since its introduction. Regarding the decision to take Showgirls to theaters with an NC-17, MGM/UA chairman Frank Mancuso says, “We accept it. It’s a film for mature audiences. And frankly, I hope the stigma attached to the NC-17 rating can be removed.”
September, 1995: Showgirls makes a disappointing $8.1 million in its opening weekend and eventually grosses only $20.3 million domestically, less than half of its reported $45 million production budget. Along with poor reviews, the flop is blamed on the rating.
July, 1999: Warner Bros. edits Eyes Wide Shut for its U.S. release so the MPAA will reduce the film’s rating from NC-17 to R. “Shrouded digital figures were placed in front of couples engaged in sex, partly blocking the audience’s view,” according to the New York Times. Critic groups in New York and LA publicly criticize the MPAA for forcing the editing of the film after director Stanley Kubrick’s death.
October, 2000: Artisan Entertainment decides to release Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream without a rating after the MPAA slaps it with an NC-17. It’s the latest in a line of films, including Todd Solondz’ Happiness, whose studios decide to release them unrated, rather than alter them from the cut that got an NC-17 rating.
February, 2004: Fox Searchlight decides not to re-cut ’60s period drama The Dreamers so it can get an R rating. The New York Times says this signals “that after a long, troubled adolescence, the NC-17 may have finally come of age.” In the Times article, Stephen Gilula, Fox Searchlight’s then-president of distribution, says, “We found that the conventional wisdom that the rating is a liability is really not the case.” The movie went on to make $2.5 million at the box office.
November, 2004: Pedro Almodovar’s Bad Education is released. It’s the fourth major-studio NC-17 release of 2004 after five years without one. Bad Education goes on to earn more than $5 million at the domestic box office, the most for an NC-17 movie since Showgirls.
August, 2007: Focus Features accepts the NC-17 rating for Ang Lee’s sexually explicit World War II drama Lust, Caution without protest. Lee tells the LA Times he wants to prove the NC-17 doesn’t need to be avoided. “We hope to send the message in the U.S. that NC-17 is a respectable category, and that it’s not pornography. It’s just unsuitable for children,” he says. According to at least one film critic, the Boston Globe’s Ty Burr, Lust, Caution shows that NC-17 is “increasingly accepted by upscale filmmakers and audiences.”
December, 2010: Fearing a poor box office performance, The Weinstein Co. successfully appeals to have the MPAA change the rating of marriage drama Blue Valentine from NC-17 to R without making any changes to the film.
October, 2011: Steve McQueen’s drama about sex addiction, Shame, becomes the latest movie that pundits say could legitimize the NC-17 rating. In a quote that sounds remarkably similar to what Ang Lee said five years prior, Fox Searchlight president Steve Gilula tells The Hollywood Reporter, “I think NC-17 is a badge of honour, not a scarlet letter. We believe it is time for the rating to become usable in a serious manner.”
October, 2013: Palm D’Or winner Blue Is the Warmest Colour becomes the latest flashpoint for NC-17 outrage when the theater chain Cinemark decides to show it in one theater, despite the company’s blanket ban on NC-17 films, and a theater in New York decides not to enforce the ban on selling tickets to those under 18.
Adam K. Raymond writes for Yahoo Movies