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 and 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).