NEW YORK — IN years to come, film-history books will state that 1990 saw the end of the X rating in its traditional form. A footnote will add that ``Henry & June'' was the first movie to arrive on-screen with the new ``NC-17'' label, meaning exactly what the X used to mean: no children under 17 allowed. Since this implies a small measure of immortality for ``Henry & June,'' it's too bad a more distinguished film didn't come along to inaugurate the new rating. Jack Valenti, chief of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), said so loudly and so publicly that the X would never be replaced, modified, or supplemented that the change came as something of a surprise, even though some film-industry representatives had been lobbying hard for it. Then again, Mr. Valenti insisted just as loudly and publicly that no rating would ever be inserted between the PG and R categories. Yet the PG-13 was born after all, prompted by the violence of ``Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom'' in 1984 - with Steven Spielberg, director of that movie, arguing as forcefully as anyone that the picture was too rough for a mere PG, if also too mild for an R.
It's revealing that the new NC-17 tag has come in response to a big-studio film by a big-name director, just as the PG-13 did. The rating authorities stuck loyally to their X as long as independent and non-American productions were the focus of the battle. Such movies as ``The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover'' and ``Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!'' were never meant as mainstream offerings, the MPAA seemed to feel, so who cared if an X rating (or no rating at all) kept it out of mainstream theaters and newspaper ads in important American markets?
The issue took on new urgency when ``Henry & June'' reared its head - a picture full of nudity and sexuality, but released by a major Hollywood studio (Universal) and bearing the signature of Philip Kaufman, whose ultra-mainstream credentials range from ``The Right Stuff,'' which he wrote and directed, to ``Raiders of the Lost Ark,'' which he helped George Lucas develop. Not to mention his last picture, ``The Unbearable Lightness of Being,'' a film of unquestionably high seriousness, if not particularly high achievement. If filmmakers like Mr. Kaufman were going to flirt with X-type material - and then protest the X rating with outcries and court challenges - maybe it was time to retire the X after all.
Not that the X has really been retired. Purveyors of pornography are still welcome to affix an X onto their sleazy productions, and will presumably do so with more gusto than ever, now that the label is reserved exclusively for their kind of trash. The new NC-17, meanwhile, still carries one of the X's liabilities: the fact that it places a restriction not only on children (which the R effectively does, when enforced) but also on adults, by forbidding parents to bring their own youngsters to certain films.
And new difficulties may arise in the wake of another MPAA decision: to start informing exhibitors and critics as to why a movie has received an R rating. This change seems innocuous, but it could make for confusion - unless the notification lists every word and action that could conceivably offend any moviegoer, of any sensibility, in any part of the US. That's a tall order.
Nor will the new procedures do away with mediocrity in the treatment of sex, violence, and other movie bugaboos. ``Henry & June'' has all the ``respectability'' needed to nudge the MPAA into reversing itself on the X issue: It's about major literary figures (Henry Miller and Ana"is Nin), and it chronicles the personalities and ideas of a key place (Paris) during a key period (the early '30s) in modern literary affairs. But it's a superficial movie in most respects, failing to delve very deeply into its characters or the cultural scene they inhabited. It isn't even very involving, largely because Maria de Madeiros's fine performance as Nin isn't matched by Fred Ward's earnest Miller or Uma Thurman's weird performance as June, his wife.
Miller and Nin weren't great writers to begin with, in my view, and Kaufman's treatment does little to convince me I should be more interested in them or their work. In terms of quality as well as controversy, ``Henry & June'' is ultimately just a footnote.