A couple years ago, when "Dinner for Schmucks" came out and no one raised an eyebrow over the Yiddish vulgarism in its title, I predicted on this site that it wouldn't be long before other rude words invaded movie titles. I figured they'd be words imported from other languages, like "Schmucks," but maybe we'll leapfrog such exotic euphemisms and go directly to classic Anglo-Saxon barnyard obscenities.
That's what I thought with the news this week in Variety (subscription required) that said Amy Adams was joining Bradley Cooper and Jeremy Renner in the cast of David O. Russell's crime drama "American Bulls--t," a picture that's been in development for a long time.
Or rather, as the article put it, Adams is joining the cast of the currently untitled movie formerly known as "American Bulls--t," because it's a given that no major Hollywood studio (Sony, in this case) would ever release a movie with that title, and no newspaper, TV network, or theater marquee (or, ahem, family-friendly movie website) would advertise it. So of course the studio will be forced to change the name.
But what if they didn't? What if they pushed the envelope and sought to prove that America is ready for "American Bulls--t"? Here's a movie with three A-list stars and an Oscar-caliber director in Russell ("The Fighter," "Three Kings") -- surely the studio can sell that to discerning moviegoers, no matter what the title.
Granted, major mainstream newspapers might look askance at promoting "Bulls--t" in their pages. Then again, they might not. After all, the New York Times already has an "American Bulls--t" page in its movie database. And newspapers like the Chicago Tribune that syndicate Variety's content have run this week's "Bulls--t" story's headline ("Amy Adams buying Russell's 'Bulls--t': Thesp to play female lead in con artist drama") on their websites. So their "Bulls--t" filters can't be that rigorous.
Network TV also has a shifting set of standards. A couple years ago, Kevin Smith was forced to change his detective spoof's title from "A Couple of D-cks" to "Cop Out" because the networks refused to run commercials with the original title. A few months later, they adapted the infamous Twitter feed "S--t My Dad Says" (obviously, the actual Twitter account doesn't censor the curse word) into a sitcom, though the title was carefully re-imagined as "$#*! My Dad Says," with the first word pronounced aloud as "Bleep." This year, ABC launched the sitcom "Don't Trust the B---- in Apt. 23," with the blanks masking a word that is commonplace in spoken primetime TV dialogue. So it's far from clear how TV would handle Russell's title, but it seems like there's some wiggle room.
As for TV listing services, whether in newspapers or in the scrolling feed on your cable, they may also feel comfortable using the actual title, or they may fudge it the way they did when Penn & Teller had their Showtime series, called simply, "Bulls--t." (Of course, that aired on premium cable, where an occasional expletive or exposed breast is just proof you're getting your money's worth.) They called it "Penn & Teller," or "BS." Expect squeamish newspapers, advertisers, TV outlets, marquee letterers, and other venues for the title to make similar compromises.
The MPAA, which issues movie ratings and oversees movie advertising, probably wouldn't be too thrilled. There's no way a movie with that title would ever get a green-band trailer (the kind suitable to show to general audiences). But recent years have made red-band trailers (with R-rated content) increasingly common on the Internet. For a kid, they're just a click away, like the offending pages in the Tribune and Times websites.
I'm not saying the filmmakers should deliberately contribute to the coarsening of our culture by making vulgarity and obscenity even harder to avoid. But I am saying that they are hard to avoid anyway, and that a little cheekiness in advertising isn't going to mark the tipping point toward the end of civilization as we know it. We're already doing a poor job of keeping "Bulls--t" out of our discourse; maybe we should just admit it.
Besides, if it turns out that the movie stinks, the reviews will write themselves.
'The Great Dictator' (1940)
Charlie Chaplin's most successful film, about a poor Jewish barber who is inadvertently mistaken for a very Hitler-like leader, was one of the first pieces of entertainment to come out against the Nazi regime. It was banned in many parts of Europe (for obvious reasons).
'To Be or Not To Be' (1942)
Though now regarded as a comedy classic, this film -- about a group of actors who use their performing skills to evade Nazi troops in occupied Warsaw -- was initially not welcomed by the public (supposedly the father of director Ernst Lubitch walked out of the premiere, due to the film's comedic use of Nazis).
'Pink Flamingos' (1972)
The breakthrough film of cult filmmaker John Waters was a midnight hit with young audiences. But the story of "the filthiest person alive" -- which features the infamous dog poop-eating scene -- was banned in Australia, Norway and parts of Canada.
'Fritz the Cat' (1972)
The first X-rated animated film ever, about a hedonistic talking cat in 1960s NYC, suffered public scrutiny and lost advertisers due to the movie's sexual nature. The comedy went on to become the most successful independent animated film of all time.
'Blazing Saddles' (1974)
Mel Brooks' Western parody struggled throughout production due to the movie's racial humor, screenwriter Richard Pryor's reputation and a notorious flatulence scene. Nevertheless, "Saddles" went on to become one of the first movies to make over $100 million at the box office.
'Monty Python's Life of Brian' (1979)
The religious satire about Brian Cohen, born just next door to Jesus Christ, was banned in several British communities, Ireland and Norway. The film went on to become a box office hit and is regarded as one of the greatest comedies ever. To this day, it still receives protests when religious leaders screen the film for discussion.
Before they became kings with "The Book of Mormon" and "South Park," Trey Parker and Matt Stone made this farce about a sensitive Mormon in the adult film industry. The movie's jokes were so over-the-top, it received an NC-17 rating, crippling its box office performance.
The adaptation of the black comedy-action video game from infamous German director Uwe Boll was delayed from release, then lost its deal to open in 1,500 theaters, due to the movie's political humor (in particular, an opening scene that lampooned 9/11).
'Four Lions' (2010)
The British satire about angry young Muslims who aspire to become Jihadists -- but go through serious rookie struggles -- was named one of Time Magazine's best movies of 2010 and earned a BAFTA award for writer/director Chris Morris.