Chris Willman looks at the current ratings quagmire -- and offers his own modest proposal

By Chris Willman
Updated October 27, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

When does a naked woman on film earn an R?

Here’s a trivia question that ought to be easy but almost never fails to stump the band: What major filmmaker followed up a G rated movie with an X rated flick?

Right about now you’re probably trying to think of a Disney stock director who had a psychotic break and went porno (or maybe even flipped out midshoot, like Richard Mulligan’s director character in the old Blake Edwards comedy ”S.O.B.”). But those associations weren’t yet locked in in the late ’60s and early ’70s when — admit it, you didn’t see this one coming! — Stanley Kubrick’s ”2001: A Space Odyssey” was rated G and its successor, ”A Clockwork Orange,” was saddled with an X. Both movies were intended for adults, but the former feature didn’t have any sex, graphic violence, or bad language, while the latter had the above in spades, and it was as simple as that.

The ratings system is anything but elementary now. We’ve seen a terminal case of ratings creep over the years; though there are five MPAA designations, the lion’s share of movies get a PG-13 or R, these two being the only commercially viable ratings for films aimed at adults or teens.

No wonder that, with all the political talk about adult material being marketed to kids, there’s been such a cry for additional ratings. MPAA chief Jack Valenti pooh poohs any talk of significant changes or additions to the existing system, yet film biz insiders have told Daily Variety they believe something between an R and an NC-17 is inevitable. And remember, the last time Valenti dismissed talk of additional ratings was right before we got the PG-13 (the beginning of the whole damnable ”letters combined with numerals” ratings trend that has since carried over into our TVs).

I have my own immodest proposal for an overhaul of the ratings sytem. Under my bold plan, we’d have a mere four ratings: G, M, R, and X.

Those of you with long memories will recall that these were the original four MPAA designations. I’m not being completely facetious in calling for their return. When I was a kid, we knew exactly what these letters stood for. A G was something we were pretty certain we didn’t want to see, though not because it was only applied to Disney musicals or lost animal dramas, as now; it also got tagged onto ”A Man for All Seasons,” ”Funny Girl,” ”An Enemy of the People,” and all sorts of other grown up fare that didn’t happen to involve naked ladies. An M was a James Bond film, or something full of double entendres or suggestions that soon, off screen, there would be naked ladies. An R had actual naked ladies, more often than not, if only for an instant. An X probably had a naked man somewhere.

Okay, so the system wasn’t without its double standards even then. But at least the original ratings of the late 1960s were based strictly on offering parents warnings about outrightly objectionable material, not tone. Thus were we spared anything like the animated ”Prince of Egypt” being rated PG for its biblical literalism, or ”Twister” being rated PG-13 for its depiction of ”very intense weather.”

You probably know that the M got changed after a few years into GP, and then, a few years later, the G and P were reversed to make the rating into an actual acronym. It wasn’t till the ’80s that we got a fifth rating, PG-13, as a result of complaints about the gruesomeness of ”Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” being too much for kids. In an earlier era, savvy parents would have known that a PG meant the ”Indy” pic had stuff the smallest fry shouldn’t see, but by this point, of course, the MPAA had allowed PG to become the equivalent of the old G.

This kind of accomodation marked the beginnings of the quagmire that Valenti now finds himself in — and, having been an advisor to President Johnson during the Vietnam era, the MPAA guru should know all too well about quagmires.

Ratings creep has gotten worse. There’s been a lot of carping that ”Nutty Professor II: The Klumps” should have gotten an R for its crude humor; in essence, the people making this argument are suggesting that even PG-13 films are essentially regarded as kiddy fare now, and they’re not wrong. There’s also been some outrage over ”Scary Movie,” which had a revolting shot of an erect penis being used as a murder weapon, got a mere R — the sad implication being that, hey, if you give a movie like this a family friendly R rating, every kid in the land will see it. So, naturally, there’s considerable momentum for another tweener rating. ”Scary Movie” may well be remembered as this year’s Willie Hortonesque ”Temple of Doom,” leading us to a sixth rating, something that’ll be the equivalent of the NC-17 without the stigma, just like NC-17 was supposed to be like an X without the stigma. Where will it stop?

G. M. R. X. In an M (that’s Mature) society — as opposed to one that looks for 10,000 different varieties of parental guidance outside the home, where so little of it seems to take place — this streamlined ”new” system of mine would be an MF-17-in’ shoo in.