By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 5, 2023)
*sigh* Everything old is nude again. From Sam Adams’ Slate review of Ira Sach’s Passages:
Movie theaters are full, Eurodance is big: Close your eyes and it’s the 1990s again. Adding to the throwback vibe, there’s a new controversy about sex in movies. The story of a love triangle between a German film director (played by Franz Rogowski), his husband (Ben Whishaw), and an elementary school teacher (Adèle Exarchopoulos), Ira Sachs’ Passages premiered to strong reviews at Sundance but was given an NC-17 rating by the Motion Picture Association for its explicit sex scenes. The film’s distributor, Mubi, has opted to release it in theaters unrated, but not before a round of interviews in which Sachs called the MPA’s decision “a form of cultural censorship” and pointed to the ratings board’s long history of disproportionately stigmatizing sex, especially when it’s between same-sex partners.
Created in 1990 to replace the disreputable X, the NC-17 rating, which bars admission to anyone under the age of 17, has fallen almost completely out of use in recent years. Last fall, the Marilyn Monroe biopic Blonde became the first major NC-17 release in almost a decade, and it appeared in only a handful of theaters before making its way to Netflix. In an environment where smaller, non-studio films often find their biggest audiences on streaming, ratings have come to feel increasingly less important, verging on irrelevant.
The NC-17 label has also become less important because it’s so rarely called for. Twenty-first-century cinema, particularly in the U.S., has become overwhelmingly sexless, and since violence has never much bothered the MPAA, it’s left the group with precious few chances to whip out its scarlet letter. A reaction against the leering, gratuitous nudity of the 1990s, along with a more recent reckoning with the conditions under which sex scenes are shot, has combined with mainstream movies’ overriding lack of interest in everyday life to leave the movie landscape largely void of moments of physical intimacy. […]
The online discourse about sex scenes often focuses on whether or not they’re “necessary.” Do they advance the plot? Do they tell us something about the characters we don’t otherwise know? Or are they just there to gratify the audience’s voyeuristic urges? I’d argue that, in the case of Passages, sexual explicitness is essential to the plot. […]
I’d also argue, though, that “is it necessary?” isn’t the right question, or at least the only one. Part of what makes movies (and art more generally) important is that they serve as an implicit rebuke to a strictly utilitarian view of the world, the spiritual parsimony that says that the only necessary things are the ones we can’t live without. We don’t need movies the way we need food or water, but we need them to remind us that being alive is more than drawing breath.
I made a similar argument in my 2014 review of Lars Van Trier’s Nymph()manic, Vol. 1:
A word about the “controversial” sex scenes, which are being labeled “pornographic” by some. Really? It’s 2014, and we’re still not over this hurdle? I have to chuckle, for two reasons: 1) this is really nothing new in cinema, especially when it comes to Scandinavian filmmakers, who have always been ahead of the curve in this department. Am I the only one who remembers the “controversial” full frontal nudity and “pornography” in the Swedish film I Am Curious (Yellow)…which played in U.S. theaters 47 flippin’ years ago, fergawdsake? And 2) at the end of the day, Nymph()maniac Vol. 1 isn’t about the sex, any more than the director’s apocalyptic drama Melancholia was about the end of the world. And as any liberated adult who may have glimpsed genitalia in a film (or locker room), and lived to tell the tale, will attest, that ain’t the end of the world, either.
Back to the MPAA. So who are these people who get to decide when it’s “necessary” to slap an “NC-17” rating on a film, what is their criteria for deciding as such, and how did this rating system even come to be in the first place? First, a little history.
55 years ago, Hollywood submitted to a new voluntary film rating system developed by the Motion Picture Association of America. Films were classified based on their “suitability” for young viewers: ‘G’ for general audiences, ‘M’ for mature audiences, ‘R’ for no one under 16 admitted without a parent or guardian (later raised to 17), and an ‘X’ indicated no one under 17 would be admitted.
It’s interesting that these guidelines (the brainchild of then-association head Jack Valenti, who had resigned his special assistant post with LBJ’s White House two years earlier to take the job) were devised on the cusp of a liberated and boldly creative period of American film-making; one that ushered in the golden era of the 1970s “mavericks” (Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Hal Ashby, John Cassavetes, Brian De Palma, Robert Altman, Terrence Malick, Peter Bogdanovich, and Bob Rafelson, to name a few).
Early on, a fair number of adult-themed Hollywood releases, as well as foreign films distributed here, were slapped with an ‘X’ for “explicit” content. By the mid-70s, the MPAA was reserving most of its X’s for straight-up porn, which due to crossover success of films like Deep Throat, Behind the Green Door and The Devil in Miss Jones had broken free of the underground to enjoy wider distribution and more public interest. This loosened the reins a bit as to what defined “X-rated” in a mainstream Hollywood release.
By the early 80s, you could count the annual number of ‘X’ certifications for mainstream releases on one hand, and by the end of the decade, a newly modified system was set in place. ‘M’ eventually morphed into ‘PG-13’, ‘R’ pretty much stayed the course, and ‘X’ became ‘NC-17’ (no one under 17 admitted). Then there is the sometimes confounding ‘NR’ (not rated) which indicates either a film that has not yet been submitted for a rating, or that it is an uncut version of a film that’s already been submitted. Get it? Got it? Good.
The current iteration of the MPAA ratings system (G, PG, PG-13, R, & NC-17) has been in place since 1990, with sporadic additions of content qualifiers (e.g. “violence”, “language”, “substance abuse”, “nudity”, “sexual content”, and since 2007, “smoking”). The intent of these qualifiers (one assumes) is to help parents make informed decisions.
But is there a limit? One has to wonder if there is a point at which such guidelines become so finicky and specific that they cross the fine line between self-policing and creative suppression (e.g. to this day, an ‘NC-17’ rating is considered box office poison by studio execs, which sometimes puts pressure on the filmmakers to compromise their original vision and re-cut for a more fiscally viable ‘R’). Or perhaps it’s a question of whether the MPAA has remained in lockstep with changing mores. In 1990, which was the year ‘NC-17’ ostensibly became the new ‘X’ (and all it implies) Roger Ebert wrote:
As a category, I think [the “NC-17” rating] may not have entirely solved the problem. The title “NC-17” is so innocuous that it is unlikely to develop the kinds of lurid associations that X had. […] NC-17 is low profile and places the emphasis not on adult content but simply on the fact that such movies are not intended for children. […]
Ratings reformers such as myself thought the new rating should come between the R and the X, instead of replacing the X. That way, you’d have a clear-cut category for movies that were adult in content but did not deserve to be lumped with hard-core. […]
Just as some directors get the right of final cut on their movies and others do not, some directors may be able to float NC-17 projects and others will not. Much will depend on how the rating is accepted in the marketplace. […]
Strangely, sex itself is no longer considered a strong selling point in the movie industry, and even R-rated movies are not as sexy as they used to be. Today’s audiences seem to prefer action and violence. There may be a lesson there somewhere.
20 years later, in a Chicago Tribune piece, film critic Michael Philips didn’t hold back:
I’ve had it with the Motion Picture Association of America’s ratings and classifications board. It has become foolish and irrelevant, and its members do not have my interests at heart, or yours. They’re too easy on violence yet bizarrely reactionary when it comes to nudity and language. Especially language. […]
In 1976 “All the President’s Men” won a PG rating on appeal, despite its 11 uses of the f-word. That was a lifetime ago in pop culture terms. More recently the documentaries “The Hip-Hop Project” (17 uses of the f-word and its multifaceted variations) and “Gunner Palace” (42 f-words) secured PG-13 ratings. Even more recently a politically pointed (and very good) documentary, “The Tillman Story,” had 16 uses of the f-word, yet its makers’ appeal for a PG-13 rating was denied.
Here’s the paradox among these inconsistencies: Context and tone, those purely subjective notions, are routinely ignored by the MPAA’s ratings decisions. […]
I don’t care if MPAA head Graves frets about perceived language sensitivities in the South and the Midwest compared to the coasts, which amounts to a generalization even the coasts might find patronizing. I do care about the increasing coarseness and sadism in our mass entertainment. I care about the messages the American movie rating system sends to all of us.
If “The King’s Speech” and “Saw 3D” warrant the same rating, then the system underneath leaves me speechless.
Or, as Jack Nicholson once famously (or infamously) put it (albeit in a more succinct and less film-scholarly fashion). “If you suck on a [breast] the movie gets an ‘R’ rating. If you hack the [breast] off with an axe, it will be a ‘PG’.”
The MPAA doesn’t see a scintilla of a hint of even the tiniest most infinitesimal possibility that their ratings system smacks of censorship. From the MPAA 2018 report:
The MPAA has resisted government censorship since its early days, and the rating system was developed as a voluntary, industry-led alternative to government censorship boards. The focus on providing information to parents about what’s in a film, rather than dictating what can and cannot go into films, serves the dual purpose of providing information to parents to help them make suitable viewing choices for their children and protecting the free speech rights of filmmakers from government intervention. […]
Filmmakers are free to put whatever content they want into their films. The rating board reviews each film on a case-by-case basis and reacts just as parents would, assigning a rating that corresponds with the level of content in each film. The rating board does not take into account the artistic merit of the films it rates. A rating is not a judgment of whether a film is good or bad.
Fair enough (and you’ll note that I have steered clear of the “c” word until now). But what about “context and tone”, as Michael Philips pointed out in his piece? If members of the board are in fact ignoring those factors (as Philips implies) …doesn’t that make its decisions arbitrary, therefore a form of censorship? Most importantly, who ARE these folks who judge what your kids should or shouldn’t see? From the same MPAA report:
The rating board is comprised of eight to 13 raters who are themselves parents. Raters must have children between the ages of five and 15 when they join the rating board and must leave when all of their children have reached the age of twenty-one. Raters can serve for up to seven years, at the discretion of the Chair. With the exception of the senior raters, the identities of raters are kept confidential to avoid outside pressure or influence.
Look on the bright side. At least it isn’t a lifetime appointment, like the Supreme Court.
Anyway, in this 55th anniversary year of the MPAA ratings system we all either love or loathe, I thought it would be fun to mosey over to the media room and curate a top 10 collection of vintage ‘X’-rated movies that may not seem quite so ‘X-rated’ by today’s standards. That said, I strongly caution parents that none of these should be considered “family-friendly”!
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls – In spite of the title, Russ Meyer’s campy, over-the-top 1970 backstage satire has little in common with Valley of the Dolls (1967). For one thing, the 1967 film had something resembling a coherent narrative. But if you’re familiar with the Russ Meyer oeuvre, you know that “story” is an afterthought. Meyer’s brand was more synonymous with a bevy of buxom babes who beckoned from lurid movie posters; we’ll just say he had a fetish for certain attributes in his leading ladies and leave it there.
It’s not difficult to glean how this entry has built a sizable cult audience over the decades. An all-female band (“The Carrie Nations”) makes the time-honored trek to La-La Land to become rock ‘n’ roll stars. They do make it “big”, but along the way, there’s enough back-stabbing, drug-taking, lovemaking, and heartbreaking to circle the Earth three times.
Roger Ebert (yes, the late film critic) co-wrote with Meyer. There are some memorable lines, like “You’re a groovy boy. I’d like to strap you on sometime” and “You will drink the black sperm of my vengeance!” Ebert also co-wrote Meyer’s 1979 tongue-in-cheek sexploitation cheapie Beyond the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens (wisely using a pseudonym).
A Clockwork Orange –A nightmarish vision of a dystopian England in the near-future. Malcolm McDowell leads an excellent cast as “Alex”, a charismatic psychopath who leads an ultra-violent youth gang. Alex and his “droogs” get their jollies terrorizing the citizenry and mixing it up with rivals. Alex ends up in prison, where he volunteers as a test subject for an experimental “cure” for antisocial behavior. After completing the program, a now docile Alex is let back into society, only to suffer much karmic payback.
Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ eponymous novel still lives up to its “ultra”-violent reputation, but one hopes that its intended anti-violence message is more obvious to modern audiences (who may also puzzle over its ‘X’-rating). Like many of Kubrick’s films, A Clockwork Orange becomes more prescient by the day. Watching the nightly news will tell you that we are currently living in the “dystopian near-future”.
The Groove Tube – While many of its pop culture references are now arcane, Ken Shapiro’s 1974 omnibus of irreverent comedy sketches still tickles the funny bone. Loosely framed as a programming sampler from an imagined TV channel, Shapiro and his most *definitely* not ready for prime-time players utilize this platform to skewer sitcoms, talk shows, local newscasts and commercials.
It’s lewd, crude, and guaranteed to offend just about everybody (especially now…oy), but in the fullness of time it’s been acknowledged as a tangible influence on Saturday Night Live (which went on the air the following year). Chevy Chase appears in several sketches, and even more tellingly, a news anchorman character signs off with “Good night…and have a pleasant tomorrow”, which later became a signature SNL catchphrase.
Not for all tastes, but I think it’s a hoot. I should note that while contemporary DVD and Blu-ray reissues indicate an ‘R’ rating, the film was originally released as ‘X’ -rated due to male and female frontal nudity.
Henry and June – Fred Ward (who passed away in 2022) delivers one of his finest performances portraying gruff, libidinous literary icon Henry Miller. Writer-director Philip Kaufman’s 1990 drama is set in 1930s Paris, when Miller was working on his infamous novel Tropic of Cancer. The film concentrates on the complicated love triangle between Miller, his wife June (Uma Thurman) and erotic novelist Anais Nin (Maria de Medeiros).
Despite the frequent nudity and eroticism, the film is curiously un-sexy, but still a well-acted character study. Richard E. Grant portrays Nin’s husband. Adapted from Nin’s writings. For better or for worse, the film holds the distinction of being the first recipient of the MPAA’s “NC-17” rating.
If…. – In this 1968 class struggle allegory, director Lindsay Anderson depicts the British public-school system as a microcosm of England’s sociopolitical upheaval at the time. It was also the star-making debut for a young Malcolm McDowall, who plays Mick Travis, one of the “lower sixth form” students at a boarding school (McDowall would return as the Travis character in Anderson’s two loose “sequels” O Lucky Man! and Britannia Hospital). Travis forms the nucleus of a trio of mates who foment armed insurrection against the abusive upperclassmen and oppressive headmasters.
Some critical reappraisals have drawn parallels with Columbine, but the film really has little to do with that and nearly everything to do with the revolutionary zeitgeist of 1968 (the uprisings in Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, etc.). That said, you can see how Anderson’s film could be read outside of original context as a pre-cursor to Massacre at Central High, Rock ’n’ Roll High School, Heathers, The Chocolate War and Rushmore. David Sherwin and John Howlett co-wrote the screenplay.
The film was eventually granted an ‘R’ but ran with an ‘X’ rating for its initial theatrical engagements in the U.S. (male and female frontal nudity).
Inserts –If I told you that Richard Dreyfuss, Veronica Cartwright, Bob Hoskins and Jessica Harper once co-starred in an X-rated movie, would you believe me? This largely forgotten 1976 film from director John Byrum was dismissed as pretentious dreck by critics at the time, but 47 years on, it begs reappraisal as a fascinating curio in the careers of all involved.
Dreyfuss plays “Wonder Boy”, a Hollywood whiz kid director who peaked early; now he’s a “has-been”, living in his bathrobe, drinking heavily and casting junkies and wannabe-starlets for pornos produced on the cheap in his crumbling mansion. Hoskins steals all his scenes as Wonder Boy’s producer, Big Mac (aptly named; as he has plans to open a chain of hamburger joints!). Set in 30s Hollywood, this decadent wallow in the squalid side of show biz is a perfect companion for The Day of the Locust.
While I wouldn’t consider the sex scenes in the film overly explicit (especially compared to what you now routinely encounter in any HBO or Showtime original series), my DVD copy (released in 2005 by MGM) indicates it earns contemporary assignation of ‘NC-17’.
Last Summer – This underrated 1969 gem (later re-cut to earn an R rating) is from husband-and-wife team Frank Perry (director) and Eleanor Perry (writer). Adapted from Evan Hunter’s novel, it is tough to summarize without possible spoilers.
Initially, it’s a standard character study about three friends on the cusp of adulthood (Bruce Davison, Barbara Hershey and Richard Thomas) who develop a Jules and Jim-style relationship during an idyllic summer vacation on Fire Island. When a socially awkward stranger (Catherine Burns) enters this simmering cauldron of raging hormones and burgeoning sexuality, the lid blows off the pressure cooker, leading to unexpected twists. Think Summer of ’42 meets Lord of the Flies; I’ll leave it there. Beautifully acted and directed. By the way, if you’re a fan of the Netflix series Ozark, keep your eyes peeled for Davison and Thomas, who both give great supporting performances (although they don’t have any scenes together).
Last Tango in Paris –Bernardo Bertolucci’s dark and polarizing 1972-character study about a doomed affair between a middle-aged American ex-pat (Marlon Brando) and a young Parisian woman (Maria Schneider) sparked controversy with audiences, critics and censors from day one (although by today’s standards, it seems much ado about nothing).
Brando is grieving over the suicide of his wife; he and Schneider meet by pure chance when they both show up at the same time to view an apartment for rent. Minimal exposition leads to wild, spontaneous sex between the two strangers.
Whether the ensuing psychodrama makes a bold statement about life, death, social isolation, and the unfathomable mystery of sexual attraction, or plunges the hapless viewer into 2 long hours of histrionics, navel-gazing, and pretentious blather is up to you. Now that I’m older (and presumably wiser) I’ve come to appreciate Brando’s performance more that I did back in the day; there is a raw, unfiltered honesty and vulnerability I never saw in his other roles.
Medium Cool – What Haskell Wexler’s unique 1969 drama may lack in narrative cohesion is more than made up for by its importance as a sociopolitical document. Robert Forster stars as a TV news cameraman who is fired after he complains to station brass about their willingness to help the FBI build files on political agitators via access to raw news film footage and reporter’s notes.
He drifts into a relationship with a Vietnam War widow (Verna Bloom) who has a 12-year-old son. They eventually find themselves embroiled in the mayhem surrounding the 1968 Democratic Convention (in the film’s most memorable scene, the actors were sent in to improvise amidst one of the infamous “police riots” as it was happening). Many of the issues Wexler touches on (especially regarding media integrity and journalistic responsibility) would be extrapolated further in films like Network and Broadcast News.
The film was originally rated ‘X’; however, Paramount later appealed the ruling. In 1970 the MPAA overturned its initial ruling and granted the film an ‘R’ rating (with no cuts).
Midnight Cowboy –Aside from its distinction as being the only X-rated film to earn Oscars, John Schlesinger’s groundbreaking, idiosyncratic character study Midnight Cowboy (1969) also ushered in an era of mature, gritty realism in American film that flourished from the early to mid-1970s. The film was Schlesinger’s first U.S.-based project; he had already made a name for himself in his native England with films like A Kind of Loving, Billy Liar, Darling, and Far From the Madding Crowd.
Dustin Hoffman has seldom matched his character work here as Ratso Rizzo, a homeless New York City con artist who adopts country bumpkin/aspiring male hustler Joe Buck (Jon Voight) as his “protégé”. The two leads are outstanding, as is the supporting cast, which includes John McGiver, Brenda Vaccaro, Barnard Hughes and a teenage Bob Balaban. Also look for cameos from several of Andy Warhol’s “Factory” regulars, who can be spotted milling about here and there in a memorable party scene.
In hindsight, the location filming provides a fascinating historical document of the seedy milieu that was “classic” Times Square (New York “plays itself” very well here). Schlesinger won an Oscar for Best Director, as did Waldo Salt for his screenplay.