When I read this morning's news that the Weinstein Company is appealing the adults-only NC-17 rating given its upcoming 'Blue Valentine,' I felt like it was 1990 all over again. Early in that year, the Weinsteins, who had been fighting the MPAA's skull-and-crossbones "X" rating for years, hired controversial lawyer William Kunstler to sue the MPAA over its refusal to change the X rating given to Peter Greenaway's 'The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover.'
Reporting on that story as both a columnist and the Movie Editor at the Los Angeles Times, I found myself talking to Kunstler not about such heady clients as the Chicago Seven, Catonsville Nine and "Black Panther Party, but whether children under 17 should be prohibited by the MPAA from viewing a movie whose crucial dramatic scene is a dinner at which a mobster is forced to eat the baked flesh (the penis, to be precise) of a man he's just murdered.
It was a grotesque scene, but context is everything, and I -- like most critics of the X rating -- felt that the MPAA's ratings board had no business deciding for every parent in America whether it could be shown to their children. I don't know which scenes in 'Blue Valentine' that the board -- paid parent volunteers -- feel are too dangerous for the eyes of children, but today I find myself on the side of the Weinsteins again. The arguments against an adults-only rating are the same whether the designation is X or NC-17.
There is perfectly good rating built into the system to allow for serious adult movies to be made and distributed. It's the R, which restricts the audience to adults and children under 17 who are accompanied by their parents or guardians. It is only because the MPAA doesn't trust theater operators to enforce the R or parents to take responsibility for what their children see that the MPAA assumed the role of babysitter.
Some background is in order. When the late MPAA President Jack Valenti created the modern ratings system in 1968, he was told by his lawyers that the ratings system had to have an open-ended category, a designation that anyone could apply to their own movie without submitting it to the ratings board. Without that open-ended rating, which Valenti marked with an X, he was told the MPAA could be sued for restraint of trade.
The system Valenti created was otherwise ingenious. In the midst of a social and sexual revolution, it prevented small towns and cities from creating their own ratings systems, which would have forced filmmakers to cut movies to suit each community's standards. A bankrupting prospect, to be sure. But then, in a move Valenti really should have anticipated, the porn industry co-opted the X and -- faster than you can say Pussycat Theater -- it became untenable for serious filmmakers to create content for discerning adults.
In the brief window before the X went Triple, a few good adults movies got released with the X rating. One of them, John Schlesinger's 1970 'Midnight Cowboy,' even won the Best Picture Oscar. But soon, newspapers and broadcast outlets began refusing advertising for X-rated movies, the major theaters chains made it policy not to book them and studios began writing contracts specifying the delivery of final cuts with less than X ratings.
For more than two decades, filmmakers dramatizing adult themes were compelled to make them child-friendly or have their movie taken away from them and edited by the distributor. It was not government censorship, but it was just as final.
It didn't have to be that way. Valenti should have changed the adult rating the minute he saw the Xs flying from the Pussycat marquees. Instead, he stubbornly defended the overall ratings system by quoting annual statistics showing that most parents found it useful or -- and I love this -- "somewhat useful."
In maintaining the status quo, Valenti endured tremendous criticism from people inside and outside the industry. According to Kevin Sandler's definitive history of the ratings system, "The Naked Truth: Why Hollywood Doesn't Make X-rated Movies," Valenti's major media opposition came from critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, speaking out frequently on their syndicated television show, and me, writing for the industry's hometown paper, the Times.
I had a cordial relationship with Valenti; he inevitably took my calls and responded to every challenge. Writing about the ratings system was frustrating work for someone with a rational mind and a love of movies. It made no sense to prevent the best filmmakers from making movies aimed at adult audiences. But however well we made the case, Valenti stood his ground.
In private conversations I had with studio executives, they were as bemused as I by Valenti's stubbornness and wanted the distraction of ratings controversies to go away. Whether or not his arguments made any sense, Valenti was very persuasive in getting them published in newspapers whose critics were attacking him. He was an important guy -- Lyndon Johnson's press secretary -- before taking the MPAA job, and whenever I took up the cause for change, he would write an op-ed piece that was published within days.
That Valenti was wearying of the battle became clear to me when he put in an appearance in the Times Washington bureau to discuss various issues facing the movie industry on Capitol Hill. One of the bureau reporters sent me a message afterward saying that Valenti had mentioned me in passing twice, once saying I wanted to be his biographer and a second time saying that I couldn't mention his name without "comparing me unfavorably to 'Caligula.'
I loved the hyperbole, and the truth is I liked Valenti personally. He was a charming character, a raconteur, a scholar and -- with the exception of his role in the MPAA -- a social liberal.
Though Kunstler and the Weinsteins lost their appeal for 'The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover,' the publicity, which included a scathing attack by Ebert in his review of the movie and through an interview he did with its star Helen Mirren, took its toll on Valenti. His defense of the system was getting old, even to opinion page editors. When the Times refused to publish his submitted rebuttal to the last column I wrote on the X and instead published one of their own calling for a ratings change, he called me and for the first time asked if he could go off the record.
"Jack, the Times is kicking my ass," he said. "What am I going to do?"
"Change the rating," I said. "When you created the system, you designed a Ferrari. It's still a Ferrari, but it has a flat tire. Change it."
At the end of that conversation, he said something was about to happen. I asked if he would let me be the first to know. He said he would and he did. Within days, the Times broke the story that the X was being replaced by NC-17.
Soon after that, in fact 20 years ago this month, Universal Pictures announced it would be the first to release a movie with an NC-17 movie: Philip Kaufman's 'Henry & June,' a biographical drama about the sexual triangle of writer Henry Miller, his wife June and her lover Anais Ninn. I was assured by publicists that the studio would be lending its full support to Kaufman and his ratings pioneer, but instead of giving an interview, studio boss Tom Pollock issued a time statement.
In my column about the announcement, I wrote of Pollock's statement that "We haven't seen that kind of support since the town folk lit out and made Gary Cooper go it alone in 'High Noon.'" And indeed, we haven't seen that kind of support for the NC-17 rating in the last 20 years. But that's another story ...