Censorship in Cinema

Censorship in Cinema

Fall Semester 1994

NC-17: No Public Access
A study of the newest MPAA rating and its effect on American audiences

September 27, 1990 was predicted to be a major breakthrough for
filmmakers across the country. It was to the be the day that any film possessing
rather explicit violence or strong sexual content, but with true artistic value and
integrity, would no longer be lumped into the dreaded “X” rating along with
hardcore pornography. Finally, filmmakers could express what they had been
longing to express on screen, without the Motion Picture Association of America
breathing down their necks and threatening to shatter their film’s potential
for success by forcing it into a category shared with disrespected smut and
poor production values.

According to an article in Entertainment Weekly, a slew of renowned
directors including Francis Ford Coppola, Ridley Scott, and Sydney Pollack had long
been pushing for a new classification that would distinguish between
sophisticated films with mature themes and those lacking artistic integrity. All
together, thirty-one directors signed a Daily Variety petition to instate a new
rating. They wanted the rating to “destigmatize non pornographic adult movies,
make them more acceptable and less controversial in the marketplace (Svetkey,

A new rating meant new freedom. No longer would auteurs have to edit out
substantive scenes and dialogue to keep their films from being nixed by the
“X”-- the scarlet letter of theatrical film. In addition, they would finally
be allowed to tackle films with explicit sex and violence inherent to the
film’s plot. Voices in Hollywood pleaded with MPAA head Jack Valenti to create a
new category, which would allow them to have real artistic freedom and continue
to protect the impressionable sensibilities of underaged movie-goers.

Tension regarding the issue of the MPAA’s sometimes subjective ratings
and the potential for box-office success had been brewing for some time. Many
felt the rating system was intended less to educate audiences about upcoming
releases, and more to force indirect, self-imposed censorship on filmmakers who
would edit their work, not because they felt it was the best artistic choice,
but to prevent certain financial failure when tagged with an “X.” The dam
finally broke when a controversial film titled Henry and June, was issued an
“X” rating. Director Philip Kaufman disagreed with the rating and refused to
cut five lesbian scenes that he felt were integral to the plot. Due to
Kaufman’s involvement with Universal Pictures, who ahd a policy against releasing
“X-rated and unrated films, Mr. Kaufman was forced to make the cuts. Enraged by
being forced to what he felt was mutilating the film, Mr. Kaufman “filed an
appeal to the review board... charging the MPAA with censorship and threatening
anti-trust action” (Miller, 245).

Valenti, already disturbed by the take-over of MPAA’s highest rating by
the porn industry, was receptive to the idea. For him, this meant that “the
producers of pornography could no longer self impose the CARA’s highest rating,
nor would they be likely to pay the CARA to impose the new rating for them.”
MPAA lawyers advised him against a suggested rating intended to “[distinguish]
between a ‘good X’ and a ‘bad X,’ “ which could set them up for more
lawsuits by producers (Miller, 245).” So, on September 27, 1990, the filmmakers in
Hollywood were liberated. The new classification, ‘NC-17’ was born.

‘NC-17’ essentially implied the same thing as the ‘X’ rating (ie., No
Children Under 17 Admitted). There was one key difference, however, in that
‘NC-17’ films were eligible for copyright protection. In addition, the new
rating implied that films carrying ‘NC-17’ were not pornographic, but serious,
artistic films to be recognized as such and appreciated for their bold
examination of adult-oriented themes. Seemingly a victory for filmmakers and
anti-censorship groups alike, the ‘NC-17’ rating resulted in a filmmaker’s nightmare.
In its four short years of existence, ‘NC-17’ has emerged as an indirect,
but undeniably significant censorial device.

The problems began almost immediately. Henry and June was the first film
to be endorsed with the new rating, and on October 5, 1990, the film opened
on 76 screens and grossed nearly $850,000 in its first weekend of release
(Miller, 246)-- seemingly a victory. At the same time that Henry and June was
enjoying an unsuspected