The X rating gets replaced -- A look at the new NC-17 label

By Melina Gerosa and Anne Thompson
Updated October 12, 1990 at 04:00 AM EDT

In the most significant revision of the movie rating code since it was introduced in 1968, the Motion Picture Association of America has scrapped its controversial X rating and replaced it with a new one: NC-17, which means no children under 17 admittete What else the switch may mean is just about anybody’s guess. MPAA president and CEO Jack Valenti, who had stoutly insisted that the system was working just fine and shouldn’t be tampered with, seemed to have done a puzzling about-face. And while a change had been urged with increasing fervor by the MPAA’s many critics, the one that suddenly came left producers, directors, actors — and audiences — wondering how the new rating will affect the sort of movies that get made and the ways they are displayed.

The first movie to carry the new rating, and the one that many saw as the decisive test case, is director Philip Kaufman’s Henry & June. A look at the life of novelist Henry Miller, Henry & June contains a number of erotic scenes, but it is hardly the hard-core porn much of the public associates with the X rating. That is the dilemma that has fueled the calls for a change — and the problem evolved, ironically, because the MPAA never copyrighted its most restrictive rating. Producers who didn’t care to submit their movies to the organization were free to slap the rating on themselves, and that suited the makers of hard-core to an X.

Critics of the system, led by film reviewers Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, argued that when porn makers thus effectively claimed the X banner, producers of artistic adult movies were left without an acceptable category. Because newspapers and theater owners generally refuse to handle X movies, the rating long ago became the kiss of death at most box offices. The debate reached the boiling point this year when a succession of serious movies — including The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! — were stung with X’s. But Valenti and the MPAA didn’t budge until a major studio-MCA’s Universal Pictures, which is releasing Henry & June– got involved. Director Kaufman (The Right Stuff) credits MCA Motion Picture Group chairman Tom Pollock with forcing the issue. ”He saw the movie, felt it was an R, and went to bat for it,” Pollock says. ”Other studios’ heads would have fought me to cut the movie.”

Despite the apparent freedom the new rating will provide, Pollock believes , major studios will still shy away from making NC-17 films. ”We’re in the business of making large-scale entertainment,” he says, adding that independents that distribute art movies will ”most benefit.”

Nevertheless, NC-17 films have some hurdles to clear. Porn producers will surely stick with the X — but the new system doesn’t exclude them from seeking an NC-17. ”What if Debbie Does Dallas is submitted for an NC-17?” asks New York film distributor Mark Lipsky. ”Valenti should have added an additional rating between R and X [X] distinguish art movies from traditional porn.” Some viewers see no reason to make this distinction. The U.S. Catholic Conference and the National Council of Churches have urged exhibitors, advertisers, and the media to shun NC-17 movies as religiously as they would X movies, but the call may not be widely heeded. ”There will be some theater chains in small towns that won’t accept the NC-17 rating,” admits Pollock, ”but those theaters wouldn’t have booked Henry & June anyway.” Other institutions will seek a compromise: NBC, for instance, has agreed to run NC- 17 ads, but only after 11:30 p.m.

MCA’s Pollock credits the MPAA’s long-besieged chief with pushing for the change behind the scenes. ”Jack Valenti brought the consensus together,” he maintains. ”Henry & June wasn’t the catalyst.” But Roger Ebert sees the scenario differently. ”Valenti is a good soldier,” he says. ”When the heads of the studios said it was time to change, he changed. He probably got slapped on the back for holding the fort as long as possible.”