The Controversial NC-17
By Sal LoCicero | September 22, 2022
For almost 55 years, the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) has set restrictions for a numerous amount of movies in Hollywood. They are responsible for these four film ratings: G, PG, PG-13, R, & NC-17. However, when the organization debuted, the rating system consisted of G (General Audiences), M (Mature Audiences), R (Restricted), and X (No one under 17 admitted).
From 1968 to 1983, the rating system stayed exactly as it was, until July 1984, when the MPAA added a new rating to their system with, PG-13 (Parents Strongly Cautioned). When ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple Of Doom’ hit theaters, it sparked controversy around parents. The movie contained disturbing and grotesque images that the majority agreed was not PG material. Three months later, ‘Red Dawn’ (1984) became the movie with a PG-13 rating.
In 1990, the MPAA altered their X rating and replaced it with NC-17 (No One Under 17 Admitted). The first ever film to be hit with the new adult rating was ‘Henry and June’, a highly erotic biographical drama, about Anaïs Nin, who kept a diary of her sexual awakening. Later on, earlier films like ‘The Evil Dead’, ‘Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls’, ‘Arabian Nights’, ‘The Canterbury Tales’, ‘The Cook, The thief, His Wife & Her Lover’, ‘Emmanuelle: The Joys of a Woman’, ‘La Grande Bouffe’, ‘Last Tango In Paris’, and ‘Story Of O’ became NC-17.
Many filmmakers started testing the limits of cinema even further. Movies were digging deep into some of the most graphic (and most obscure) subject matter that audiences had never been introduced to before. Films like ‘GoodFellas’, 'Reservoir Dogs’, ‘Pulp Fiction’, ‘Casino’, and ‘Fight Club’ became pop culture phenomenons, and yet, each had contained (either) explicit sexual content, full frontal nudity, graphic violence, or strong language. Some had originally received an NC-17, but most producers do not accept that (because then that feature will have minimal success in ticket sales), so they would edit a small portion of a certain scene, and this is when the term “hard R” came into play.
Even with some of the “hard R” entertainment, there were a few features that kept its NC-17 rating. ‘Bad Lieutenant’, starring Harvey Keitel, features graphic depiction of rape and drug use, as well as full frontal nudity. Paul Verhoeven (best known for directing ‘Robocop’ ), made a feature titled ‘Showgirls’. Verhoeven’s filmography consists of explicit content, and recently he went on to criticize Marvel movies for being “sexless” - which is unethical to say the least. While ‘Robocop’ was able to tone its mature content down (a tiny bit), ‘Showgirls’, on the other hand, was not. Consisting entirely on heavy sexual content and violence, it remained NC-17 during its run in theaters.
On July 28, 1995, Director Larry Clarke released the film ‘Kids’, written by Harmony Korine. ‘Kids’ is about a group of sexually active teens who spread aids, in a brutal and disturbingly raw take on New York City. This was the film that pushed censorship to its very limits, by showing on-screen acts of strong sexuality, drug use, domestic violence, and toxic masculinity - all involving minors. This is a prime example as to why the MPAA created an “adults only” rating.
In the 2000s, more movies and tv shows were heading in new directions. HBO was (and still remains) big on television, with their series ‘The Sopranos’, ‘Sex and The City’, ‘Oz’, and ‘The Wire’. Movies were still in the same position as they were before - regarding censorship - but film distributors were already establishing ways to present their exact cut to the public, using VHS and DVD (which became even more of a trend later on).
By 2010, everyone was able to gain access to a variety of content. NC-17 was (almost) unheard of, and most of the explicit content that the MPAA would censor was turned into mainstream pop culture. People of most ages are now exposed to all sorts of subject matter. However, that does not mean that the rating system went away, the MPAA still impacts the success of Hollywood. But, if the rating is attached to a movie and the film’s company doesn’t agree with it, they have the ability to bring attention to the matter and possibly get the rating changed on an appeal. ‘Blue Valentine’ was originally met with an NC-17 “For a scene of explicit sexual content”, but its producers argued about the movie rating, and just a day before it’s theatrical release, Blue Valentine got its R-rating.
This year, Netflix will release the movie ‘Blonde’, starring Ana De Armas, a fictional depiction of Marilyn Monroe’s life and the toxicity around her fame. This will also be Netflix's first NC-17 movie. The reason for this rating is “reportedly” due to a few scenes involving rape. Director Andrew Dominik said in an interview “I thought we’d color inside the lines”. “If I was given the choice, I’d rather go and see the NC-17 version of Marilyn Monroe’s story. Because we know that her life was on the edge, clearly, from the way it ended.”
This decision also raises questions as to what exactly makes a film deserving of its rating, and why? Before ‘Blonde’, most films were given the R-rating no matter what was shown on screen. ‘The Wolf Of Wall Street’ is rated R: “For sequences of strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language throughout, and for some violence. It features plenty of graphic sex scenes and full frontal male and female nudity. ‘The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’ is rated R: “For brutal violent content including rape and torture, strong sexuality, graphic nudity, and language. The movie contains a graphic and disturbing rape scene, as well as other explicit sequences. ‘The Last Duel’, directed by Ridley Scott, is rated R and it also features an extended rape scene.
Just this month, ‘Blonde’ star Ana De Armas criticized her movie’s rating by saying “I didn’t understand why that happened. I can tell you a number of shows or movie that are way more explicit with a lot more sexual content than Blonde. But to tell this story it is important to show all these moments in Marilyn’s life that made her end up the way that she did. It needed to be explained. Everyone [in the cast] knew we had to go to uncomfortable places. I wasn’t the only one.”
The (now) MPA has always been strict with movies, in some cases, filmmakers and studios have criticized the organization for their intolerance to certain content - no matter the intent - depicted on screen. Bo Burnham’s 2018 coming-of-age dramedy ‘Eighth Grade’, distributed by A24, received an R rating “For language and sexual material”. Burnham’s film focused on the life of teenagers in the modern age all seen through the perspective of the main character Kayla (played by Elsie Fisher). Given that it featured some profanity, a scene involving a girl watching a youtube video on how to perform oral sex, and an attempted sexual assualt between a 15 year old boy and a 14 year old girl, the MPA had decided that young teens couldn’t go see a movie that was focused on young teens. This is when both the director and the studio took action by allowing the targeted young audience to get free theatrical showings of ‘Eighth Grade’ for one week.
Since ‘Blonde' is the first movie in a while rated NC-17, and the cast behind it do not agree with the rating, it causes many questions about the MPA’s fragileness. The only possible solution that could fix this controversy, is if it gets an R rating on an appeal during its first week on Netflix.
Has this controversial movie rating brought enough problems to studios and should be removed, or has it been underused and could allow for necessary censorship?
What are your thoughts?