This year marks the 20th anniversary of the MPAA's notorious NC-17 rating, a designation whose checkered history continues. It all began when, for some reason, the MPAA failed to copyright its "X" rating, which recommended that no children under the age of 17 be admitted. Regular, even prestigious movies could earn an X rating, like Midnight Cowboy and A Clockwork Orange, and no one would blink an eye. But then the porn industry (legally) stole the X and started using it as a marketing ploy, even going so far as to invent the "XXX" rating, for (presumably) extra-naughty movies. Years later film critics like Siskel & Ebert, recommended an "A" rating for "Adult," which would come somewhere between the "R" and the "X," but the MPAA -- in their infinite wisdom -- came up with the NC-17 (no children under 17), which was the equivalent of the "X."
Predictably, the NC-17 rating was therefore equated with porn; many newspapers refused to run ads for NC-17 movies, and some video chains refused to carry NC-17 movies. And, subsequently, almost every NC-17 movie has flopped, no matter how good. Slapping a movie with an NC-17 rating meant certain death. Filmmakers were often contractually obligated to deliver an "R" rated movie, and were forced to edit if the MPAA deemed their movie too sexy or violent. Frankly, it became a form of censorship.
But censors can be fooled. Some filmmakers attempted to trick the MPAA by shooting extra-gory or extra-sexy "dummy" footage that was never intended to be a part of the finished film; in perspective, the "real" footage didn't seem so bad. Studios also invented the practice of releasing R-rated movies in theaters and then the "unrated" versions on video. And the silliness remains to this day.
Following some historical highlights of the controversial rating:
Henry and June (1990)
Philip Kaufman's excellent biopic of Henry Miller and his intense relationships with June Miller (Uma Thurman) and Anais Nin (Maria de Medeiros) went out in good faith with the new rating, little knowing what kind of problems would come up. Total gross: $11 million
The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1990)
Peter Greenaway's movie had some sex in it, but it was mostly a test for artistic temperaments and strong stomachs. Those who passed no doubt bragged about it to their friends, and the box office was fairly respectable. Gross: $7.7 million
Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990)
Pedro Almodovar's sexy comedy gladly adopted the NC-17 after being rated X. Total gross: $4 million.
Bad Lieutenant (1992)
This intense character study with just about every form of debauchery in the book remains Abel Ferrara's biggest hit. (But somehow, Werner Herzog's 2009 equally immoral "remake" got away with an "R.") Gross: $2 million
Man Bites Dog (1993)
If I remember correctly, I unknowingly shelled out for a ticket to the edited version of this, and then the full-length, NC-17 version showed up later. It was so disturbing even in its short form that I never went back. An export from Belgium, it's a movie about a documentary crew that follows a serial killer. Gross: $200,000
Wide Sargasso Sea (1993)
I never saw this one, but it has something to do with Jane Eyre -- with sex. Gross: $1.6 million
Tokyo Decadence (1993)
I remember the poster for this one, even if I never saw the film. It's supposed to be a critique of the sex industry while telling the story of a prostitute that specializes in bondage and sadomasochism. Gross: $277,000
Screenwriter Joe Ezsterhas and director Paul Verhoeven willfully tried for an NC-17 rating in an attempt to break the taboo. Unfortunately they did not plan on making such a hideously bad movie. It's so awful it became a kind of Ed Woodian cult classic a few years later. Gross: $20 million
According to my research, David Cronenberg's masterpiece went out with a NC-17 rating, though in my memory, it opened with an R rating, and the uncut version was not available until home video. Now the DVD comes with both cuts; let's all take a guess as to how many people choose the R-rated version. Gross: $2 million
Clive Owen and Mick Jagger starred in this depressing-sounding movie about the Nazi persecution of gays during WWII. I didn't see it and neither did most people. Gross: $496,000
This middleweight film about a "chicken hawk" (Brian Cox) and his young target (Paul Dano) was meant to shock, but it's really just a standard-issue coming of age film. Gross: $1.1 million
Wadd: The Life & Times of John C. Holmes (2001)
This documentary on legendary porn star John Holmes isn't particularly great as a documentary, and though it does contain porn clips, Holmes' reported 13 1/2" member is not very clearly shown. Gross: n/a
Bad Education (2004)
Almodovar's second NC-17 release was probably tagged not so much for sex, but for its gay characters and references to priests and sexual molestation. It's as good as -- but did about half the business of -- Almodovar's other films from this same period. Gross: $5 million.
A Dirty Shame (2004)
John Waters had already experienced trouble with the MPAA when the 2001 re-release of his Female Trouble garnered an NC-17, but both films went out uncut. A Dirty Shame is lesser Waters; it has sex on the brain but it's good clean fun. Gross: $1.3 million.
The Dreamers (2004)
Bernardo Bertolucci is no stranger to sex in films, but this one felt a bit routine and a bit too clean. Nonetheless, the MPAA decided it was still a bit on the dirty side, with its tale of a three-way romance in Paris in the 1960s. Gross: $2.5 million
Young Adam (2004)
While on a barge, Ewan McGregor has sex with married Tilda Swinton, and also smokes a lot. Some critics found something to like in this dreary art house release, but I didn't. Gross: $767,000
Where the Truth Lies (2005)
Most critics hated this Atom Egoyan showbiz sex movie (also with a great poster), but I found it engaging and genuinely sexy. (Egoyan is also no stranger to sex in films, as seen in his early Exotica and in his upcoming Chloe.) Gross: $875,000
Lust, Caution (2007)
Ang Lee's follow-up to his Oscar-winning Brokeback Mountain inspired critics to complain that there was too much caution and not enough lust. Gross: $4.6 million.
Additionally, some movies received both R and NC-17 cuts for different versions that were released on video, and some older classics were retroactively rated NC-17, such as John Waters' Female Trouble, Russ Meyer's Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Nagisa Oshima's In the Realm of the Senses and Bernardo Bertolucci's 1990.
What do you think, dear readers? Does the system need to be revamped again? Or is the problem that there just aren't that many good NC-17 films?