Amid the recent kerfuffle over the Motion Picture Association of America’s curious decision to slap Derek Cianfrance’s sensitive marital drama (and Oscar hopeful) “Blue Valentine” with a commercially inhibiting NC-17 certificate, I failed to note that the MPAA’s most drastic rating celebrated rather a significant anniversary last week.
October 5 made it 20 years since Philip Kaufman’s sexually explicit literary biopic “Henry & June,” the first film ever to be given the NC-17 classification, opened in US theaters.
Like “Blue Valentine,” Kaufman’s film was a high-end prestige item aiming for critical kudos and even a shot at year-end awards (indeed, it did wind up nabbing a solitary Oscar bid) that the sage folks on the ratings board nonetheless deemed a little too adult for the adults.
For decades before then, the X rating (now defunct, but still prevalent in everyday speech) had been their standby for such films — of which one, “Midnight Cowboy,” managed to override the X-rated stigma to win the Best Picture Oscar — but had since become too closely associated with grimy pornographic material.
NC-17 was therefore coined as a respectable “artistic” alternative to the X, though that hardly made the rating any more desirable to producers and distributors: in two decades, only one NC-17 title has been granted a wide theatrical release and hit the upper reaches of the box-office charts. (That I’m talking about “Showgirls” hardly aids the cause.) But while a number of risky films either cut offending material or go unrated altogether in order to avoid the rating, several worthy titles over the years have helped ensure it’s no badge of dishonor.
Today’s list is something of a celebration of those rebels; given that I was all of seven years old when “Henry & June” blazed the trail, many of them are films I only caught up with years after the fact, but they’re no less arresting for it. Should Cianfrance and his team fail to appeal and end up stuck with the NC-17, may thislist at least remind them that they’re in fine company.
10. “Bad Lieutenant” (Abel Ferrara, 1992)
“Sexual violence, strong sexual situations and dialogue, graphic drug use,” runs the MPAA’s reasoning for the NC-17 rating in this case – all tangible infractions that give little indication of just how aggressively bonkers Ferrara’s heady Catholic guilt-flavored cop drama is. (They don’t even mention “full-frontal Harvey Keitel,” which really is something people deserve to be warned about.) Werner Herzog’s in-name-only 2009 remake picked up on the titular protagonist’s corrupt behaviour, removed the religion and added singing iguanas, but is positively family fare by comparison – and not half as dementedly powerful.
9. “Henry & June” (Philip Kaufman, 1990)
The film for which the NC-17 rating was invented now stands as one of its more well-behaved recipients. Any film that studies the lives of “Tropic of Cancer” author Henry Miller and erotic diarist Anaïs Nin in bohemian Paris is going to have to deal pretty frankly with sex, but the plentiful action in Kaufman’s film is, via Philippe Rousselot’s gorgeous, Oscar-nominated lensing, pretty gauzy. More sexy than erotic, then, the film is best viewed today as a grown-up arthouse biopic – with the curio value of having linked Uma Thurman and Maria de Medeiros four years prior to “Pulp Fiction” – but it will forever own that “first” status.
8. “Showgirls” (Paul Verhoeven, 1995)
“Nudity and erotic sexuality throughout,” screams the faintly tautological MPAA warning for Verhoeven’s equally reviled and adored tack-fest, as if anyone might approach something titled “Showgirls” expecting high Victorian collars and courtly romance. I must confess that, having seen the film before it acquired (or I became aware of) its camp classic status, I never thought it particularly terrible, much less particularly shocking: rather, it’s a slimy but grandly entertaining update of the fluffiest strain of Hollywood backstage melodrama, albeit with heavier breathing. That was enough to make it the highest-grossing NC-17 release to date: well played, all.
7. “Blue Valentine” (Derek Cianfrance, 2010)
No camp classic in the making here: the latest high-profile recipient of the MPAA’s scarlet letter is also, as I wrote last week, among the most inexplicable. We have yet to get to the bottom of what offended the board so profoundly about Cianfrance’s harsh but heartfelt portrait of a doomed marriage – some say a loveless love scene, others a pretty inexplicit oral sex act, others a nervy scene in an abortionist’s office. None push any notable boundaries, but the film is most harrowing in internal ways that no ratings board can measure or discipline; should the rating stick, shock-hungry kids seeking the film on DVD are in for a grim but worthwhile surprise.
6. “Man Bites Dog” (Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel, Benoît Poelvoorde, 1992)
“This is honestly the most fucked-up film you will ever see,” enthused my friend Ari in the video store years ago, brandishing a copy of this blackly comic Belgian mockumentary – a more enticing promise than the MPAA’s comparatively mild claim of “strong graphic violence.” That said, they aren’t kidding: as the film charts the progress of a deranged serial killer whose exploits are chaperoned and documented by a film crew, the violence reaches numbing, if smartly self-reflexive, proportions. It’s a remarkable work that predated the US wave of reality-TV satire by a decade.
5. “Bad Education” (Pedro Almodóvar, 2004)
Pedro Almodóvar is hardly unaccustomed to run-ins with US censors; a number of his earlier, raunchier titles like “Matador” and “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” had fallen foul of their sensibilities. Still, by 2004 – by which time the polished-up director was a double Oscar-winning arthouse titan – it was a surprise to see him dipping back into NC-17 territory, for a rich, challenging noir that nonetheless didn’t court outrage. (If anything, “Talk to Her” covered more brittle moral territory.) Perhaps board members were so lulled by his mainstream acceptance that the film’s thematic buffet of sexual abuse, Catholicism and transsexuality caught them off-guard.
4. “Lust, Caution” (Ang Lee, 2007)
And so we come to our second consecutive auteur who followed up an Oscar-winning hit with something that frightened the horses a little more. Oddly, the MPAA downplay the erotic content of Lee’s glorious WWII espionage romance, citing only “some explicit sexuality” as the offending factor. As it turns out, there’s rather a lot of it, but even its roughest love scenes are so sensual, so rife with dense emotional subtext, as to render idiotic the “ZOMG Ang Lee’s made a PORNO” cries that greeted the film upon its divisive (but ultimately, and deservingly, triumphant) Venice premiere.
3. “Requiem for a Dream” (Darren Aronofsky, 2000)
When the MPAA stamped Aronofsky’s sophomore feature with the NC-17 badge – for crimes including “intense depiction of drug addiction, graphic sexuality, strong language and some violence” – the director refused to make cuts, opting to go the unrated route instead. His reward was a film that wound up becoming something of a Generation Y touchstone, and the first with its rating to receive Oscar recognition in an above-the-line category. The film lays on its transgressions pretty thick – that final sequence, throwing in everything from rough sex to electroshock therapy, surely put it over the edge with the board – but no Hubert Selby adaptation has any business playing safe.
2. “Poison” (Todd Haynes, 1992)
Inspired by the writing of Jean Genet and splicing together faux-documentary, sci-fi and queer romance narratives, Todd Haynes’s feature debut is such a brazen study of social and sexual difference and isolation that it would scarcely have been appropriate for the MPAA to approve of it: “explicit sexuality” ensured that wasn’t a problem. More aggravated by the film, however, was the American Family Association, who objected to the National Endowment for the Arts funding this and other gay-themed works. No matter: Haynes took top honors at Sundance and grew into one of America’s most vital auteurs, though he has yet to vex the censors again.
1. “Crash” (David Cronenberg, 1996)
“Cronenberg has done fuller justice to the permutations—the options—of how and who we fuck than any other living filmmaker,” wrote critic Tim Robey in a recent essay on the Canadian auteur, and no film underlines this point more emphatically than his brilliantly unhinged examination of the fragile psychological ties between sex, death and risk – or, as its more excitable detractors were keen to remind you, “that movie where people get off on car crashes.” The inevitable NC-17 rating wasn’t even its greatest distribution obstacle: bizarrely, it was banned outright in London’s West End district, proving that it’s not just the Yanks who have their sore points.
Which of these have you seen? What other NC-17 movies burned a hole in your memory? Share your thoughts in the comments section.
[Photos: Universal Pictures, Lionsgate Films, MGM, The Weinstein Company, Criterion Collection, Sony Pictures Classics, Focus Features, Zeitgeist Films, Fine Line Features]