X-Rated Movies at Yerba Buena

Some films are just too strong to get an R rating. And for the first 22 years of the rating system, those films were saddled with the notorious X. Through November and December, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts will celebrate that controversial and now-dead label with an eight-film series, X: The History of a Film Rating.

In 1968, the MPAA replaced the 35-year-old-and-creaking Production Code with the rating system, and finally allowing Hollywood to make films for adults. Only two of the four original ratings are with us today–G and R. M became GP, then PG. The PG-13 rating wouldn’t appear until 1984. But it was the X rating–no one under 16 (later 17) permitted–that caused the biggest problems.

The MPAA made X an exception from the start. Unlike the other ratings, it wasn’t trademarked. Studios could bypass the ratings board and give a film a self-imposed X. When Deep Throat made porn big business in the early 70s, adult movie theaters x-rated marqueand strip joints began to plaster big Xes on their marques. Or even XXX. Soon, that letter was associated with exploitation and hard-core pornography. Respectable movie theaters refused to show X-rated films, and newspapers refused to advertise them. In a classic example of guilt by association, Last Tango in Paris was classed with Behind the Green Door. By the middle of the decade, an X rating could sink a respectable film at the box office.

Effectively speaking, the MPAA was back in the censorship business. If you wanted your serious piece of art properly released, it had to be at least clean enough for an R. Filmmakers and critics complained, arguing that X should be discontinued and replaced with something that lacked the scandalous taint. In 1990, they got their way when the MPAA replaced X with NC-17.

Unfortunately, it didn’t work. Everyone saw that NC-17 was just a new name for X–even if this time it was trademarked. Those who condemned anything rated X did the same for NC-17.

To celebrate Hollywood’s first years of censorship freedom, the YBCA has put together a varied and intelligent selection of X-rated films, from the serious to the sexy to the silly. Many of them aren’t really that shocking, and would probably get an R today.

To see how the attitudes to this rating changed, consider Midnight Cowboy, screening December 12. Distributor United Artists chose to self-impose an X, rather than letting the ratings board decide–an unthinkable act today. It went on to become the only X-rated film to win a Best Picture Oscar. Years later, it was finally brought to the board, and received an R without cutting a single frame.

Also in the program, Bernardo Bertolucci’s controversial Last Tango in Paris, the Roger Ebert-penned Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, and the only X-rated cartoon, Fritz the Cat. You can see the rest on the series’ web page. Other X-rated films of interest include Medium Cool, The Devils, A Clockwork Orange, Flesh Gordon, and Alice in Wonderland (which YBCA showed last year).

Changing Film Technologies Reflected in Best Picture Nominees

If either The Artist or Hugo wins the Best Picture Oscar, it will say something interesting about how the Hollywood community accepts the technical changes around them. If Hugo wins, it will be the first 3D movie, and the first shot digitally, to win the prize. If The Artist wins (which would please me far more than Hugo), it will be only the third black-and-white film to win Best Picture since 1956, and only second silent to ever win.

That will be an anomaly, of course, but there’s no question that a digitally-shot film will one day win Best Picture. Each of the last two years, a digitally-shot motion picture was considered a likely winner: The Social Network for 2010, and Avatar for 2009. Each lost to a movie shot on film. But the 2009 winner was another technical record-breaker; The Hurt Locker was the first movie shot in a low-budget, small-gauge format–in this case Super-16–to win Best Picture.

No one who loves cinema views the Best Picture Oscar as a sign that a movie was actually the best picture of the year (although that has happened). But it has always been a sign of what makes Hollywood employees proud of their industry.

Here are some similar Best Picture technical firsts–and lasts.

  • First Best Picture winner and last silent (so far): Wings, 1927/28
  • First talkie winner: The Broadway Melody, 1928/29
  • First color winner: Gone with the Wind, 1939 (three-strip Technicolor)
  • Second color winner: An American in Paris, 1951 (also three-strip Technicolor, but a long wait after the first)
  • First color winner to immediately follow another color winner: The Greatest Show on Earth, 1952 (yes, it was also three-strip)
  • Last black & white winner to follow another black & white winner: Marty, 1955
  • First widescreen winner, first single-strip color winner, first winner shot in large format, and first winner presented in 70mm: Around the World in 80 Days, 1956
  • First winner shot in Cinemascope: Bridge of the River Kwai, 1957
  • Last black & white winner for more than 30 years, and only b&w winner shot or shown in scope: The Apartment, 1960
  • First shot in anamorphic scope and blown up to 70mm: Oliver!, 1968
  • Last winner shot in a large format: Patton, 1970.
  • First winner released in Dolby Stereo: The Deer Hunter, 1978
  • Last winner shot in black & white: Schindler’s List, 1993 (The Artist was actually shot on color film, and digitally converted to b&w.)
  • First winner shot in Super-35, and the last released in 70mm: Titanic, 1997

Moving from technological information to censorable material, the rating system replaced the Production Code in 1968, making Oliver! the first Best Picture with a rating. It was rated G.

The next year, Midnight Cowboy became the first X-rated Best Picture winner.

Those were the last films with those ratings to ever win Best Picture. No NC-17 film has ever won.

Good News on Blue Valentine Rating

I just received word that the MPAA has agreed to The Weinstein Company’s request to rate Blue Valentine
R rather than NC-17. It appears that parents have the right to decide if their 16-year-olds can watch simulated cunnilingus.

Ratings, Censorship, and the Weinstein Company

I just received word that the Weinstein Company is appealing ratings on two upcoming films. They’re objecting to the MPAA’s NC-17 rating for Blue Valentine, and an R rating for The King’s Speech.

I saw The King’s Speech at a press screening for the Mill Valley Film Festival, and liked it very much. (You’ll find my quick opinion here; my complete review that will go live on December 1st–two days before the film’s Bay Area release.) That this film would get an R rating seems utterly bizarre to me, except in the sense that bizarre ratings are, in themselves, pretty normal.

Yes, there’s one scene where Colin Firth says the word fuck multiple times. If he had said it only once, the film would get a PG-13 rating. I guess hearing it once will not hurt a 16-year-old’s purity, but three times will have them out on the street turning tricks.

I’ve seen PG-13 movies with sexually tinged torture scenes (Casino Royale) and discussions of oral sex (I Love You, Man). Those are apparently acceptable. But repeated use of an old, Anglo-Saxon word is out of the question.

I haven’t seen Blue Valentine, and thus have no opinion on it. But I’ll offer two opinions on the NC-17 rating:

  1. The real problem with this rating is cultural. If theaters didn’t refuse to show NC-17 movies, if newspapers didn’t refuse to accept advertising from them, and if churches didn’t protest them, these pictures would be economically viable. People should be able to make, distribute, present, and watch films too graphic for an R rating.
  2. In a world of home video, there’s no practical difference between the R and NC-17 rating. You can’t take your children to see an NC-17 movie in a theater, but you can show it to them at home. Thus, the distinction is meaningless.
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