The Motion Picture Association of America’s NC-17 rating is generally considered the kiss of death at the box office, and films bearing that rating almost never come from Hollywood distributors that are MPAA members. Nonetheless, 20th Century Fox’s Fox Searchlight division announced Monday that it would release Oscar-winning director Bernardo Bertolucci’s ”The Dreamers” without trimming it to avoid the dreaded NC-17. The film’s release on Feb. 6 will mark the first time in more than six years that an MPAA member has released an NC-17 film; the last one was MGM’s ”Bent,” which starred Clive Owen and Mick Jagger in a story about the persecution of gays in Nazi Germany.
The announcement came as a surprise because last fall, when Fox Searchlight picked up the film for U.S. distribution, the Los Angeles Times reported that the parent studio would demand cuts in the film, which uses graphic sex scenes and full frontal male nudity to tell the story of three college students who break sexual taboos in 1960s Paris. At September’s Venice Film Festival, Bertolucci complained that ”Dreamers” would be ”amputated and mutilated.” A censored print was reportedly scheduled for the film’s American premiere next Tuesday at the Sundance Film Festival. Now, however, Fox and Bertolucci appear to have kissed and made up.
Studios are reluctant to release NC-17-rated movies because many newspapers won’t advertise them, many theaters won’t book them, and Blockbuster won’t carry them on video. Critics of the ratings system have long argued that the MPAA is too quick to brand movies that explore sexuality with a scarlet NC-17 while letting violent films squeak by with an R. Bertolucci suggested as much in a statement, saying: ”’The Dreamers’ is finally making it to the U.S. in its uncut version. I’m relieved — in so many ways — that the distributor has had the vision to release my original film. After all, an orgasm is better than a bomb.”
Talking to The Hollywood Reporter, Fox Searchlight exec Steve Gilula said the distributor’s research suggested that the NC-17 may not carry the stigma it once did. ”There are films with similar content that get played as unrated movies, so by using this rating you are just testing audiences’ perception,” he said. ”And we found that the rating doesn’t carry as much baggage as it did some time ago.”
Gilula noted that Bertolucci had a history of making critically acclaimed features that explored sexuality, most notably, 1973’s ”Last Tango in Paris.” (Released two decades before the MPAA invented the NC-17 rating, ”Last Tango” earned an X, at a time before X was associated exclusively with hardcore pornography.) ”We believe that NC-17 is the appropriate rating for ‘The Dreamers’ given that this is not a film for children under 17; it is an audacious and original film for intelligent critics and discerning adult audiences,” Fox Searchlight president Peter Rice said in a statement .