The MPAA has forced "Eyes Wide Shut" to blink, "South Park" to wash its mouth out, and "American Pie" to be less spicy. Now the backlash begins.

By Andrew Essex
Updated August 13, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT
  • Movie

Who knew an orgy could leave so many people unsatisfied?

Four weeks after the debut of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, the late filmmaker’s final work continues to generate controversy. The crisis began July 20, when the Los Angeles Film Critics Association fired off a scathing open letter condemning Warner Bros.’ decision to obscure 65 seconds of nudity with digitized figures in the film’s American version, a decision made to avoid an NC-17 rating. ”…[The] deeply chilling effect the ratings system is having,” the letter said, had resulted in the censorship of Kubrick’s creative expression.

That same day, longtime Motion Picture Association of America president Jack Valenti, 77, wrote an angry column in Variety defending the MPAA ratings system and dismissing his critics as an ”ill-humored” band ”infected with a bad case of the whines.” Apparently suffering from the infection was critic Roger Ebert: In a July 22 rebuttal in Variety, he called Valenti’s column ”an embarrassment to the filmmaking community” and used the opportunity to lobby for a new ”A” — for ”adult” — rating, a label that would distinguish between adult movies of legitimate artistry and NC-17 — which, says Ebert, is ”crippled with the curse of pornography.”

It’s been a hot summer for the MPAA. Before Eyes, the ratings board was already under attack over a surreal South Park MPAA memo, acquired by EW, that revealed many of the hairline inanities that separate R and NC-17. Universal’s teen comedy American Pie earned publicity when it was forced to cut two pie thrusts to win an R. And after Littleton, the MPAA was denounced for being easier on violence than sex while theater owners were chastised for not enforcing the system.

But Eyes Wide Shut seems to have brought the brouhaha to a boiling point. By July 26, that 65-second orgy segment had devolved into an honest-to-God melee: Twenty-nine members of the New York Film Critics Circle (including EW’s Owen Gleiberman, the Circle’s current president, and Lisa Schwarzbaum) signed another open letter attacking an ”out of control” MPAA process that is ”effectively trampling the freedom of American filmmakers.” Piling on were Variety editor in chief Peter Bart and South Park cocreator Matt Stone.

Given the hue and cry, has the time come to reevaluate movie ratings again? Not while Valenti calls the shots. ”When I invented this system, which is totally voluntary,” Valenti says, ”it was not to placate critics — it was to protect parents. I haven’t heard from a single parent who said, ‘Gee, I wish you’d kept that orgy in there.’ ”

But according to director Walter Hill (The Warriors), who’s been forced to recut several of his films to earn an R, ”The notion that this is voluntary is just nonsense — you’re hammered by this system. I think it’s basically designed to control us rather than inform the public.”

Since it replaced the X in 1990, NC-17 (no one under 17 admitted) has reinforced what its critics call a double standard: A film like Wild Wild West, which begins with a decapitation, can receive a PG-13 rating; the polymorphously potty-mouthed South Park gets an R; but 65 seconds of tepid sex — the same stuff available nightly to millions of cable-TV watchers — means NC-17, a rating that ensures commercial suicide. Director David Cronenberg learned this the hard way with the NC-17-rated Crash. ”If you’re interested in making movies about the way adults communicate without the presence of children,” he says, ”this rating was a good idea. The problem is, most mall landlords don’t allow theaters to show NC-17.”

This may explain why departing Warner Bros. cochairman Terry Semel recently said of the Eyes edit, “We’re not in the NC-17 business.” It also explains why Kubrick was contractually bound to deliver an R, and why, as his widow said in a June statement, he had personally made plans to digitally alter the scene. On this matter, Ebert is surprisingly understanding: “I don’t blame Warner Bros. for not taking the NC-17. I blame the MPAA for not having an adult category that a studio would be willing to take.”

“If I institute an A rating,” Valenti responds, “we’ll be forcing the board to make qualitative judgments—in other words, be critics. The A rating would be for ‘quality,’ and the NC-17 would be for ‘sub-quality.’ The producer of an NC-17 film could sue us for punitive damages.” But the alternative—being purely quantitative—forces its members into absurd tasks, like counting the number of thrusts into a pie. Valenti offers the following compromise: “If Mr. Ebert’s employers would legally indemnify the ratings system, then I’d seriously consider an A rating in a week.”

Some directors have developed their own tricks to subvert the ratings system. Says one, who prefers to remain anonymous: “You know you’re gonna have to cut something, so you put in five over-the-top things hoping they’ll leave everything else alone. The whole thing is a silly poker game.” But others think Eyes is the wrong place to start the revolution. Editing to avoid a harsh rating “has happened in the past, and often to the detriment of the film,” former New Yorker critic Pauline Kael tells EW, citing Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill, which was trimmed to receive an R. “Something good is almost always taken out,” she continues, “but I don’t know that anything could [redeem] Eyes Wide Shut,” a film she calls “a piece of crap.”

Still, there’s reason to believe the MPAA may have to change. In the age of Clinton and Lewinsky, it’s difficult to believe American adults can’t see 65 seconds of arty sex at the megaplex. Even Valenti will admit the sense of what’s acceptable has shifted. “Of course there’s been change,” he says. “A lot of things just aren’t that shocking anymore.” But Valenti will go no further. “The ratings board isn’t infallible, but I don’t understand why a bunch of critics are so certain that an orgy is something the rest of America would find casual. I think this system is doing exactly what it was intended to.” And for now, at least, Valenti gets final cut.

Eyes Wide Shut

  • Movie
  • R
  • 159 minutes
  • Stanley Kubrick