We look into the MPAA's newest trend of handing out its harshest grade

By Maitland McDonagh
Updated May 18, 1990 at 04:00 AM EDT

It has been a tough 1990 so far for Miramax, the small independent production and distribution company whose recent successes include the much-talked-about sex, lies, and videotape and this year’s Oscar-winning Best Foreign Film, Cinema Paradiso. In the space of a few weeks, two of the films Miramax picked up for distribution in the United States — The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! — received X ratings from the Motion Picture Assn. of America (MPAA).

For Russell Schwartz, the company’s executive vice president, this is familiar territory. Last year Miramax fought a battle with the MPAA over Scandal, the British import that originally was rated X before cuts were made ) that got it an R. Braced for a new round of ”there’s another X in Miramax” jokes, Schwartz sighs and says, ”Looks like I’ve got to go back into the trenches again.”

Miramax’s problems might be shrugged off as a case of one company’s poor judgment or bad luck, if Tie Me Up! and The Cook were the only recent pictures on the X-rated spot. But they’re not. The low-budget Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer nearly suffered its own mute, inglorious death by rating. Made in 1986 by MPI Home Video, the picture received an X for its ”overall tone,” which effectively kept it off the market until it attracted critical acclaim at a number of film festivals. Henry finally is being released in some theaters this year — with no rating. (Since the rating system is voluntary, Miramax also decided to release Tie Me Up! and The Cook unrated.)

Two other movies released in the last month — Wild Orchid, starring Mickey Rourke and Jacqueline Bisset, and the film version of Sandra Bernhard’s Off Broadway show, Without You I’m Nothing — also went head-to-head with the MPAA’s Classification and Ratings Administration over their initial Xs. Both pictures had cuts made that earned them Rs.

That’s a lot of X-rated activity in a very short time. And, as most critics and industry analysts contend, the films in question aren’t exactly what could be called dirty movies. ”Maybe this is a fluke,” says Jonathan Krane, producer of Without You I’m Nothing and the head of M.C.E.G., which made last year’s surprise hit Look Who’s Talking. ”But if it’s a trend, it has to be addressed.”

Almost everyone plays the ratings game, trimming and resubmitting films for less restrictive designations. Usually, it’s the heavy-action gorefests — even those distributed by major studios — that wind up being put through the mill. Clive Barker’s Nightbreed, from 20th Century Fox, had its problems earlier this year. The British writer-director played chicken with the MPAA dangerously close to the film’s scheduled release in 1,500 theaters before he gave in. Barker trimmed a few frames of a knife being inserted into a neck and — presto! — an X became an R.

The biggest problem directors and producers face in the ratings review process is determining where the boundaries lie. The MPAA committee doesn’t usually identify what the problems are and how they can be fixed, although, as Wild Orchid producer Mark Damon says, ”sometimes they’ll informally let you know where they have problems.” In other cases, filmmakers are left to second-guess every scene.

Struggles over ratings aren’t limited strictly to Rs and Xs. John Waters’ experience in getting a PG-13 for Cry-Baby was enough to bring any director to tears. During a courtroom scene involving Patty Hearst and Traci Lords, the word f— occurred three times, but, in Waters’ words, the MPAA allows only ”one nonsexual f— ” in a PG-13 film, and ”no sexual f—” at all. ”You can say, ‘Oh, f— ,’ but not ‘I wanna f—.”’ When threatened with an R rating, he used talk-show-style bleeps for the first two.

Unfortunately, with all the attention focused on the recent X epidemic, the original purpose of movie ratings sometimes is overlooked: These classifications are aimed specifically at parents worried about what’s in the pictures their kids see. There’s no question that Henry is very, very disturbing. Even its director, John McNaughton readily admits that ”children probably shouldn’t see it.” The Cook and Tie Me Up! aren’t kid stuff either — they’re serious movies with adult concerns.

And that’s what the X rating meant when the present system was instituted back in 1968. MPAA guidelines point out that X doesnnt ”necessarily mean obscene or pornographic in terms of sex, language or violence.” Rather, the X rating was meant to designate films unsuitable for children. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, such major movies as A Clockwork Orange, The Damned, Midnight Cowboy, and Last Tango in Paris were released with X ratings prominently affixed.

But that was then, and this is now. With the growth in popularity of porno films and videos over the past 20 years, X has come to mean films containing explicit sex scenes. ”When was the last time a major studio released an unrated or X-rated film?” asks Waleed Ali, president of MPI Home Video. ”There was a time when it could be done,” echoes Schwartz. ”But that time is gone.”

The MPAA will not comment on specific cases. Their mantra is ”We are not censors,” and they have a point. The industry organization has no authority to impose constraints on filmmakers. Legally, no rating, including the dreaded X, can stop a film from being shown. So why do directors regularly sign contracts with studios that include a clause requiring an R-rated cut? Why will producers do just about anything to avoid an X?

The immediate answer is that an X hits moviemakers where it hurts: at the bank. ”An X,” says Wild Orchid producer Damon, ”is commercial punishment.” It makes booking theaters tougher. ”No chain has a blanket policy against accepting a film with an X rating,” Schwartz says. ”But they all reserve the right not to play them.” Of the three largest theater chains in the United States, one declined to comment, another hasn’t booked an X-rated feature ”in recent memory,” and the third says theater managers decide, nodding to neighborhood sensibilities.

Even if bookings are obtained, distributors can expect headaches placing newspaper ads and TV spots. And that leads to the bigger issue. ”What an X does is keep a movie out of the newspapers, out of the public eye,” M.C.E.G.’s Krane says. ”That’s censorship.” Still, some argue that ”art films” with limited audience appeal aren’t affected adversely at the box office by an X rating, and are maybe even helped.

The current rating system has been in effect since the late ’60s, part of a long Hollywood tradition of self-censorship as an alternative to government interference. The industry’s own Motion Picture Production Code, dating back to 1930, demanded that movies abhor ”crime, wrongdoing, evil, or sin,” uphold ”correct standards of life,” and foster respect for ”law, divine, natural, or human.” Scripts automatically were submitted to the Production Code Administration and altered at the first sign of trouble, leaving many of the films made during that era mired in a state of perpetual adolescence.

By the ’60s, boundaries of acceptable expression had changed dramatically, and so had the marketplace. Losing its audience in droves to television, the movie community was desperate to get people into theaters and standards were relaxed. Hollywood’s new brand of frankness caused an uproar, and the threat of government censorship loomed again. Something had to give. The MPAA decided that an industry-administered ratings system was the solution. Films wouldn’t be censored, only classified according to a simple code that would help moviegoers make up their own minds.

The new system debuted with four ratings, G, M, R, and X, and has undergone fine-tuning over the years. Within two years the widely misunderstood M (”Mature”) turned into GP (”All Ages Admitted, Parental Guidance Suggested”), and in 1972 it became PG to stress parental guidance. A new category was added in 1984 following controversy over Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Big-budget, major-studio megahits aimed at a youthful audience, they pushed the limits of acceptable PG violence without seeming tough enough to merit Rs. The two films went out with the new PG-13 rating, designed to bridge the gap.

From the start, however, X was a rating of a different color. Unlike the other ratings, it was never copyrighted, so while a movie can be rated PG only by the MPAA, any producer can call a movie ”triple X.” A little of that goes a long way toward giving a letter a bad name. It didn’t take long to realize the porno industry had co-opted the rating. And any movie that didn’t want to be judged by the company it kept had better steer clear.

Discontent with the system’s inherent subjectivity is industry-wide, but independents particularly always have complained that the majors get a softer deal on ratings. Miramax’s Schwartz says that at Tie Me Up!‘s appeal he ”reeled off easily a dozen films containing equally or more heated sequences, like Body Heat, Looking for Mr. Goodbar, Fatal Attraction, An Officer and a Gentleman, Lethal Weapon. . .. In Dead Ringers a woman is made love to while she’s tied up — all major studio releases that were rated R.”

”We weren’t taken completely by surprise by the X,” Damon says of Wild Orchid, ”because it’s a highly erotic film.” Selective recutting alleviated the problem, and overall Damon feels the movie emerged unscathed. But the process left him uneasy. And Sandra Bernhard’s Without You I’m Nothing was also trimmed successfully, although producer Krane is greatly disturbed by the implications of the ratings experience.

”I know movies where people lie together naked and don’t get an X. I’ve seen movies where people say ‘f—, f— ,’ and they didn’t get an X. So you start to get paranoid, wondering if there’s a hidden agenda here. You get to thinking the problem isn’t that Sandra’s saying ‘f— ,’ but that she’s saying it as a comment on a particular cultural idiom and the MPAA doesn’t like her view.”

The recent brouhaha over X ratings has resurrected the argument that the MPAA ought to devise a new category bridging the gap between R and X. ”If anything good comes out of this,” Schwartz says, ”it will be dialogue about the fact that there’s a letter missing.” ”Keep the X for explicit sex,” Krane proposes, ”and let R+ or something else designate maturity or intensity of plot or theme or treatment. . .. To have some bureaucratic body decide the result isn’t worthy of being advertised and shown to the American public is infuriating.” And ultimately it doesn’t play fair with moviegoers, either. ”Viewers today are sophisticated,” Damon says, ”and I don’t think that’s reflected in the current system. America is growing up.”

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

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  • John McNaughton