Revamped Film Rating System: Why It Changed, How It Works
Makers of explicit art films wanted out from under X's stigma. FILM
LAST week the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) revamped its rating system, sinking some teeth into the R rating and lopping off the X rating altogether. Replacing the X was a new rating, ``NC-17'' - meaning ``no-children under 17 admitted.'' The industry hailed the revision as a necessary change in an outdated system. The R rating (``Restricted'' - children must be escorted by an adult) will now be accompanied by a brief explanation of why the film was so rated - whether for profanity or violence or sexually explicit material. The idea is to provide parents with more data to help them decide what their children should or should not see.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The big news, of course, is the discarding of the infamous X, which had become synonymous with pornography. Many filmmakers, distributors, and exhibitors felt the stigma of the X rating should not taint films with serious artistic content - no matter how explicitly sexual or violent they may be.
The decision on the new system was reached with the approval of the National Alliance of Theater Owners, since it is the theaters that will be responsible for enforcement.
``The original meaning of the X rating was ``for adults only,'' said a spokesman for the MPAA, when president Jack Valenti could not be reached for comment. ``The NC-17 restores that meaning to the system.''
Films like ``Midnight Cowboy,'' ``A Clockwork Orange,'' and ``Last Tango in Paris'' received X ratings soon after the code was introduced. But pornographers seized the X for their own purposes, though their films were not submitted to the MPAA for rating. Because of the pornography stigma, many newspapers and other media won't accept advertising for X-rated films. Many theaters won't show them.
An escalation in the past year of films with artistic pretensions and with enough explicitness to fall into the X category (11 in all, compared to only five from 1985 to 1989) stirred up the controversy. Pedro Almodovar's ``Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down,'' Peter Greenaway's ``The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover,'' Wayne Wang's ``Life is Cheap ... But Toilet Paper Is Expensive,'' and John McNaughton's ``Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer'' were all stamped ``X'' before their makers decided to release them unrated, since an X rating would have spelled economic suicide for most nonpornographic productions. Miramax Films Corporation even sued the MPAA over the Almodovar film but lost the case.
The big studios cannot afford to release films without a rating because their audience must be assured. So when Philip Kaufman's ``Henry and June,'' a Universal release, received an X and Kaufman refused to cut the offending (explicitly sexual) sequences, Universal's president, Tom Pollack, stood behind him and forced the MPAA's already wavering hand. ``A lot of people thought the change was inevitable,'' said Mr. Kaufman when reached by phone, ``but we forced the issue.'' ``Henry and June'' became the first NC-17 film.
Director Kaufman supports the MPAA decision to put films with adult content out of the reach of children by using the NC-17 rating. ``People must understand that the subject matter is strictly for adults and was not meant to attract children,'' he says.
One big question, however, is whether NC-17 really will keep adult-content films out of the reach of children. The US Catholic Conference and the National Council of Churches and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops have issued a joint statement denouncing the new rating on the grounds that the MPAA ``has caved in to the commercial interests of those who are attempting to get sexually exploitative material into general theatrical release.''