Hollywood film codes: How not to cop an R

"Manhattan" and "Going in Style" share an odd distinction. Like most Hollywood movies, they applied for ratings from the Motion Picture Association of America. And like 45 percent of 1979's films, they were placed in the R (restricted) category.

Afraid that the sex-and-violence connotations of the R might damage their pictures at the box office, the producers decided to appeal the ratings, asking for a "softer" PG (parental guidance suggested). Both appeals were refused. In the case of "Manhattan" the refusal is not surprising, since the story involves sexual references and harsh language. The film was released as it stood, and became a major success.

By contrast, "Going in Style" received its R because of a single expletive, spoken only once during the film. Rather than release the film with a rating so strong -- and in the producers' opinion misleading -- the questionable word was deleted. The rating was promptly altered to PG, and the comedy reached the screen in time for Christmas.

In its details, the case of "Going in Style" is a minor matter -- a typical example of the politics of morality, Hollywood style. Yet its implications are far-reaching.

For one thing, it indicates a new stiffening of the MPAA -- through its Code and Rating Administration -- with regard to offensive language. For years now, the R tag has been routinely overturned in language cases, as long as the controversial words have been used sparingly. The "Going in Style" decision -- upholding the R until the single use of the word was omitted -- represents a clear return to strictness, especially as the film is otherwise free of R-worthy elements.

Critics of the rating system are using the "Going in Style" case as new ammunition. They assert that Hollywood's "self-regulatory" classifications are a disguised form of censorship. According to this view, "Going in Style" is a classic instance of MPAA manipulation: It holds that direct pressure -- the threat of a damaging R rating -- was put on the film's producers by the MPAA. To receive a less formidable PG, the filmmakers were forced to tailor their movie, suiting it to predetermined standards of fitness and acceptability.

Historically, the R rating has been bestowed on pictures containing graphic violence, explicit or unconventional sex, or foul language. In practice, only a couple of words have mandated the R tag, though a single such utterance has been enough to push a film out of the PG category -- as happened with "Nashville" and "Harry and Tonto," both of which chose to keep their R classifications rather than delete the offending syllables.

The turnaround took place when "All the President's Men" was released in 1976 with a PG, despite the presence of several expletives normally requiring an R. The MPAA and its chief, Jack Valenti, were widely accused of softening their stand in response to the film's allegedly anti-Republican politics. But the organization stood by its decision, insisting that the exception had been made in recognition of the film's unusual social and artistic value. Rating-board head Richard Heffner further maintained that no new precedent had been set for application of the R and PG classifications.

It soon became clear, however, that things were not the same. Such films as "The Front" and "A Bridge Too Far" were released with PG ratings, despite their language content. The public has not taken kindly to this, particularly in Midwestern and Southern areas. The entertainment newspaper Variety recently reported that public outcry over nudity and violence has abated considerably in the past few years, while protests continue about excessively harsh language.

In 1979 the PG and R categories accounted for 87 percent of the films released in the United States. Though some major movies have carried the X tag in recent years -- including "A Clockwork Orange" and "Last Tango in Paris" -- it has generally been reserved for exploitation pictures which actually seek the rating for promotional purposes.

The G (general audiences) tag has generally been unpopular with studios, who fear its connotations of blandness. The latest film from Walt Disney Productions, "The Black Hole," carries a PG rating; this is a first for Disney, which wants to attract more young adults to its offerings. Another coming Disney film, "Midnight Madness," will also carry a PG when it is released in February -- but will not carry the studio's name, as its content is considered a bit too strong for the Disney image.

The new MPAA strictness signaled by the "Going in Style" decision will not eliminate complaints about vagueness and irrationality in the rating system itself -- which grants a PG to a film with 20 repetitions of certain vulgarisms, then imposes an R on another film containing a single utterance of a harsher word.

Filmmakers still have the option of cutting their pictures to obtain a softer rating -- an option that can be exercised even after a movie has been released. Both "A Clockwork Orange" and "Saturday Night Fever" had second lives with milder ratings after a bit of judicious trimming.

But to many observers such finagling raises whole new questions of artistic integrity in the motion-picture business. Sometimes, they charge, it's hard to tell just what is the legitimate, "official" version of a movie -- and what is a doctored version, altered to suit MPAA rules rather than cinematic values.

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