1. Once (2007)
In early summer of 2007, two films were released with R ratings. One featured a scene where a naked woman is suspended from a ceiling while another naked woman slashes her with a scythe and bathes in her blood. The other featured two Dublin musicians singing songs together, falling in love, and opting not to act on it. In spite of their comically vast discrepancy in content, Hostel 2 and Once both required a parent or guardian to accompany minors under 18 years of age, and the contrast between them underscored the vagaries of the R rating. If a hyper-violent piece of torture porn could fit under the same umbrella as a sweetly melancholy, sex-and-violence-free tale of unrequited love, then what does the rating even mean? And by preventing indie-minded kids from checking out a big-hearted musical with a little salty language, what did the MPAA seek to accomplish?
2. The King’s Speech (2010)
In a very similar case, the MPAA recently took a great deal of flak for using an R rating to protect kids from the swearing in an otherwise solemn historical film without a hint of sex, violence, mature themes, or other tricky adult issues. In one bitterly hilarious scene in the straitlaced drama The King’s Speech, speech therapist Geoffrey Rush has future monarch Colin Firth get around his vocal stumbling and stuttering by uttering a string of naughty words, because speaking with force and anger often gets him around his mental blocks, as does dropping some of the layers of stiff formality enforced in his royal life. It’s a hoot to watch Firth’s sad stuffed-shirt trying to think up new forbidden things to say, while generally looking like a young child who realizes he’s getting away with being bad. Alas, Firth’s breakthrough moment includes more than one “Fuck!”, which earned it an automatic R. Thank goodness; our country has enough moral turpitude as it is without 17-year-olds being tempted to say “Fuck” because their cinema heroes are doing it.
3. Blue Valentine (2010)
Sex in cinema generally bears only the faintest resemblance to actual sex. Filmmakers, studios, and ratings boards seem to prefer soft-focus montages of acrobatic coupling to the real thing, and filmmakers with the chutzpah to depict sex in all its messy complexity are often punished for their efforts. Blue Valentine, for example, offers an unrelentingly candid autopsy of a troubled marriage between a loveable slacker (Ryan Gosling) and his more practical wife (Michelle Williams). In keeping with the film’s commitment to dispiriting verisimilitude, the sex scenes are harrowing, unblinking, and emotionally authentic, but they aren’t particularly lengthy or graphic. Yet the MPAA slapped the film with an NC-17, apparently because audiences need to be protected from reality.
4. The Wild Bunch (1969)
If proof were needed that the ratings system is hopelessly arbitrary, look no further than Sam Peckinpah’s hyperbolically violent end-of-the-road Western. On its initial release in 1969, the film’s brutally elegant carnage earned an R rating from the newly created ratings board. But when it came time for the expanded director’s cut to be re-rated for its theatrical release in 1995, The Wild Bunch was initially slapped with an NC-17, forcing Warner Bros. to delay the release until they could appeal it down to an R. It would be one thing if the restored 10 minutes were devoted to loving slo-mo shots of exploding heads or an elongated scorpion-torture sequence, but they weren’t. Although subsequent filmmakers have bastardized Peckinpah’s revolutionary use of slow motion, allowing bloodthirsty audiences to savor every arterial spatter, the film’s intent was to explore the sick fascination of violence, to leave viewers staring in frozen horror at the damage men can do. By rubber-stamping cartoon bloodshed and stigmatizing more realistic depictions, the MPAA “protects” younger viewers from the idea that violent acts have violent results. That isn’t one to grow on.
5. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971)
Melvin Van Peebles’ rough-hewn cult classic was as much a triumph of marketing as the cinematic arts. The X rating could have killed Van Peebles’ baby in its crib, but he turned the tables on The Man, advertising the film as “Rated X By An All-White Jury.” Although it opens with a juvenile Sweetback being initiated into the ways of love by a voluptuous foxy mama—a sequence that still falls afoul of child-pornography laws in the UK—the rating can’t be explained in content terms alone. It’s hard to argue Van Peebles’ contention that what troubled the board was the image of a black outlaw who isn’t punished for his crimes, and the closing promise that he would “com[e] back to collect some dues.”
6. Scary Movie (2000)
In 1995, the British film Angels And Insects—a costume drama for adults—was initially tagged with an NC-17 for a distant, brief shot of an actor with an erection. In 1998, Todd Solondz’s indie comedy Happiness chose to forgo a rating rather than take the NC-17 it received for a scene of ejaculate splattering against a bedroom wall. And yet the 2000 horror-parody Scary Movie received an R rating, even though it features one scene where an erect penis—prosthetic, but still—spears a man in the head, and another scene where a woman gets shot up against the ceiling by gallons of her lover’s spewing semen. The MPAA takes a lot of deserved knocks for being too restrictive, but critics might not be so vehement if they had some sense that the MPAA was consistent. Raunchy comedies nearly always gets a pass that serious dramas don’t, even though comedies are more likely to appeal to the children that the MPAA is (theoretically) empowered to protect.
7. Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999)
Mike Myers’ saucy ’60s spy-movie parody Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery was a modest hit at the box office in the summer of 1997, and then a huge hit on home video, so for the sequel, Myers and the original’s director, Jay Roach, doubled down on what they apparently felt worked best in the first film: double-entendres and gross-out gags. (Even the title is overtly about sex, and had to be handled gingerly in the UK advertising.) The Spy Who Shagged Me features a plot that involves the theft of the hero’s “mojo” from his testicles and a sequence that involves the hero drinking another character’s stool sample—which is all fine as far as it goes. But when the MPAA routinely gives R ratings to movies because characters use the word “fuck” as an interjection, it doesn’t make much sense to stamp a PG-13 on a film that is actually about fucking, roughly 25 percent of the time.
8. Rushmore (1998)
Rushmore is rated R “for language and brief nudity.” The language was the primary deal-breaker: Rushmore is all about one sexually frustrated high-school boy going for the gusto, so it’s peppered with profanity, automatically dooming it to an R. So the “brief nudity” seems like a joke: once you’re saddled with the rating, why not throw more stuff in? After Max Fischer’s triumphant restaging of Heaven And Hell, the camera cuts to a series of leering centerfolds at the post-production party, then moves back from the small children ogling it to the main conversation. ”This is one of the reasons we got an R rating, 'cause there’s this nudity right here,” Jason Schwartzman notes on the commentary track. “I remember some people complained about it when we test-screened it,” adds Owen Wilson. “‘Why do you have centerfolds hanging from the wall where there are young children?’” “Those posters are there,” Wes Anderson continues, “because Max is uncompromising in his depiction of the war and he believes that is the truth of what it was like inside the barracks, so even for the party decorations, he’s not going to alter it to make it more palatable for people with more conservative tastes. And also, we just thought it’d be funny if little kids were looking at the centerfolds.” True, but the MPAA’s reaction is arguably just as funny.
9. Longtime Companion (1989)
The MPAA is notoriously squeamish when it comes to gay issues; as Kirby Dick effectively documented in This Film Is Not Yet Rated, gay characters who participate in the same sex acts as their straight screen counterparts earn their films more restrictive ratings. But here’s the thing about Longtime Companion: It has no real sex acts of any kind, and certainly nothing explicit. Released in the late ’80s, when movies were well behind the curve in addressing the AIDS crisis, Longtime Companion is a sensitive ensemble drama about the issue that seems quaint by today’s standards. Yet in 1989, it was more or less rated R for gayness. “Pervasive strong language” was used to describe its content, but that fell under the vague “adult situations” banner that could be used to restrict a film without requiring any specific demerits. As it stands, Longtime Companion could show on network TV today with minimal alterations.
10. Bad Education (2004)
Pedro Almodóvar’s 2004 drama wasn’t the first of his films to fall afoul of the dreaded adults-only tag: 1990’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! was among the group of films whose collective Xes were transformed into NC-17s after their distributors protested the porn-tinged tag. But Bad Education is easily the more egregious mis-rating. Sure, there’s plenty of man-on-man action—we expect no less from Sr. Almodóvar—but there’s nary a cock in sight, and the priestly molestation that sets the story in motion is discreetly camouflaged. Evidently the MPAA agrees with frat boys that while sex between chicks is hot, two dudes getting it on is too icky for anybody below 18.
11. Midnight Cowboy (1969)
Actually, Midnight Cowboy’s X-rating would make sense if the X had kept its original meaning as a film appropriate for adult audiences. Its depiction of the grimy underside of New York at the end of the ’60s was frank, though nothing in it is worth an X by modern standards. Midnight Cowboy even won three Oscars, including the Best Picture trophy, making it the only X-rated movie to take home an Academy Award of any kind. That made its X-rating look even stranger as the “X” became synonymous with pornography. Midnight Cowboy has since been recalibrated to an R.
12-13. Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom (1984) and Gremlins (1984)
In 1984, Steven Spielberg released a pair of movies—one he directed, the other he executive produced—that stirred up so much controversy, they prompted a new MPAA rating. Released in late May 1984, Indiana Jones And The Temple of Doom features child enslavement, a dinner consisting of eyeball soup and chilled monkey brains, an unfavorable representation of Hindus, and those infamous Mola Ram heart-ripping human-sacrifice scenes. The movie was more violent than its predecessor, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, and that film had melting Nazis. Just two weeks later saw the debut of Gremlins, a clever, dark slapstick comedy-horror film about a town terrorized by little green creatures. It’s scary and gory, with the gremlins helping several townsfolk meet untimely ends, and sometimes meeting their own demises in inventive ways. After the PG-rated movies scared the hell out of unsuspecting children across the nation, parents unleashed a deluge of criticism upon the films and Spielberg. In the wake of the criticism, Spielberg worked with Jack Valenti, then-president of the MPAA, to develop the PG-13 rating, about which Spielberg has since said, “I’ve always been very proud that I had something to do with that rating.” The whole affair served to affirm the close ties between the studios and an organization they collectively called into existence. It’s hard to think of a director other than Spielberg who would ever be given so much power to help create an entirely new rating. In a bit of a postscript to the story, Temple Of Doom was later re-rated PG-13 while Gremlins remains a family-friendly PG.
14. Mutual Appreciation (2005)
When Mutual Appreciation was first released to theaters, Andrew Bujalski’s sophomore slacker portrait was unrated; the film’s audience was too small to require one. For DVD release, though, the film got one: “Rated R for language,” presumably to get the film into big stores that won’t carry unrated material. It’s an unhelpful rating on two levels: the characters swear, but less than the average 16-year-old. The other reason it’s silly is because of all the things that do happen in the movie that concerned parents would presumably like to know about, things normally annotated by the MPAA’s sin-counters: “brief mild sensuality” (two people making out in a kitchen), “mature themes” (whether or not a partial act of potential infidelity is a relationship deal-breaker) and (red alert!) drug use, in the form of a pot-smoking scene. If you’re going to slap a movie whose characters behave more decorously than most people can manage with an R rating, might as well go all the way.
15. Henry & June (1990)
Based on the memoir by French author Anaïs Nin, who had affairs with author Henry Miller and his wife June, Philip Kaufman’s Henry & June was the first movie ever released with an NC-17 rating. The new rating was intended to add legitimacy to adult-oriented films that were too hot for the R rating but deserved some distinction from the porn associations of the X. As a trial balloon, Henry & June famously popped: Far from granting films legitimacy, the NC-17 made it easier for theater chains and video outlets like Blockbuster to identify and ban them from exhibition, prompting studios to force filmmakers under contract to cut their films to an R. But more than that, Henry & June exacerbated a longstanding complaint against the MPAA: that it comes down hard on films with strong sexuality while treating violence (and sexual violence) with a much lighter hand. Had Henry just suspended June from the ceiling, cut her open with a scythe, and bathed in her blood, it might have changed the course of ratings history.