Billy Elliot is an 11-year-old English lad from a coal-mining family who dreams of being a ballet dancer, a pursuit that doesn’t sit well with his father, who’d rather see his boy as a boxer. USA Today heralded this British import as an ”infectious, feel-good bundle of ambition.” Newsweek called it ”fall’s must-see film.”
Billy Elliot grossed $2.2 million in its opening weekend in the U.K., a figure that put it in the same league as The Full Monty. The film, the first for Universal’s artistic arm, Universal Focus, seemed destined to be embraced by audiences Stateside as well… except for one small factor: The Motion Picture Association of America (the agency responsible for rating films) slapped Billy Elliot with an R rating. Why? Because Billy (played by Jamie Bell) and the rest of the proles in Everington, England, pepper their language with the F-word.
The studio says it wasn’t surprised by the rating. ”It was expected,” Universal’s executive VP of publicity, Terry Curtin, says of the film that was cleared for audiences 15 and older in the U.K. ”Our marketing strategy has always been to a more adult, sophisticated audience.”
That said, it seems reasonable to wonder why a film like Billy Elliot — which doesn’t feature any sex, extreme violence, or mature themes — should get the same rating as, say, Scary Movie (in which a gay man is impaled by a phantom penis) or 8MM (full of some of the most disturbing imagery this side of hell). Roger Ebert offered his take in his Chicago Sun-Times column: ”The MPAA should concede the melancholy fact that every teenager has heard this and most other nasty words thousands of times.”
MPAA president and CEO Jack Valenti begs to differ. ”I’ve visited middle America, and people don’t relish [the F-word],” says Valenti. ”Now, people in New York, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles [may] find it kind of like saying ‘Pass me the salt,’ but that’s not the way most Americans look at it.” According to Valenti’s calculations, there are at least 40 uses of the F-word in Billy Elliot, which is way too many times for anything less than an R rating. Whether or not one agrees with Valenti, the question still remains: Should the industry rectify a system that doesn’t take into account the vast discrepancy between a film rated R for adult language and an R-rated movie packed with sex, violence, and general moral depravity?
In the wake of the recent congressional hearings charging Hollywood studios with marketing R-rated films to 10-year-olds, revamping the ratings system is a hot topic. Movie critics and film producers have been calling for new, more specific categories, but Valenti, who created the ratings guidelines 32 years ago, feels the system works just fine the way it is. ”[It] was not designed for movie critics or directors,” says Valenti. ”It was designed for parents. And I don’t get any letters from parents that say we ought to change the system.” What will change, Valenti says, is that starting next week, all advertisements for an MPAA-sanctioned film will not only include the rating but also detail why that rating was received.
So what about Billy Elliot? Curtin thinks the film has the makings of a hit, regardless of the rating. ”It hasn’t been an issue at all,” she says. And so far, she’s right: With opening weekend grosses of $220,000 on only 10 screens, and a national rollout forthcoming, Billy Elliot looks poised to pirouette into profitability.