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''Natural Born Killers'' gets a NC-17 rating

Oliver Stone’s director’s cut revells in mindless violence

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”It felt at one point like I was throwing up on the canvas,” Oliver Stone says of Natural Born Killers. ”It was about capturing that mean season, from ’92 to ’94, when there was one bloody tabloid scandal after another.” And with this week’s release of his director’s cut on video, Stone’s scandalous road movie is still courting controversy.

When the movie debuted in theaters in summer 1994, Stone’s own mean season was just beginning. Even after the director made 150 cuts to secure an R rating, some critics and moviegoers were appalled by the film’s blackly humorous take on violence and the media. In May 1995, then-Senate majority leader Bob Dole singled out NBK in a campaign speech denouncing ”movies that revel in mindless violence.” There were accusations that the film had inspired copycat incidents in 1994 in Salt Lake City, and in 1995 in Ponchatoula, La., where teenager Sarah Edmondson, with pal Benjamin Darras, allegedly shot convenience-store clerk Patsy Byers in a holdup. Byers, now paralyzed, is suing Stone and Warner Bros., the film’s distributor, among others, for $20-30 million. Author John Grisham recently pilloried Stone and his movie in Mississippi’s Oxford American for purportedly inspiring the couple to shoot Byers and, in another incident, to allegedly kill a friend of Grisham’s.

The movie earned $50 million at U.S. theaters, and it stayed on the video rentals top 20 list for eight weeks. But Warner Bros., whose video arm released the R-rated version on tape, passed on a director’s cut and, in an unusual move, gave the rights to that version back to Stone. ”Warner Bros. has a firm policy that we will not release unrated or NC-17 videos,” says Warner worldwide publicity president Robert Friedman. ”The NBK director’s cut fell outside these parameters. The decision had absolutely nothing to do with any political speech making.” (The studio’s logo was removed from the opening of the director’s cut.) In March, the company postponed the video release of the R-rated version in Britain soon after a man gunned down 16 children at a Scottish school.

When Warner bowed out, Stone asked Walt Disney Motion Pictures chairman Joe Roth if his company would distribute the director’s cut. Roth, according to the director, ”was cool with it” — until Disney chairman Michael Eisner ”just said no.” A Disney spokesperson said the studio had no comment.

Ultimately, the unexpurgated NBK was adopted by Vidmark Entertainment. In addition to the restored footage, Vidmark’s two-cassette package appends scenes, featuring such actors as Ashley Judd and Denis Leary, that never made it into either version of the film. (Pioneer has released a three-disc laser edition.)

Although Stone says he stands by his cut, he acknowledges that the film couldn’t be made today. ”NBK came out at the height of the trash tabloid insanity,” says NBK producer Don Murphy. ”And that’s sort of waning now. No one big has killed anyone lately.”

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