Two letters and numbers flash on the screen in the first few seconds of a movie trailer. For any kid or teenager who hasn’t passed the age of 17, the letters and symbols can mean everything. What they are dictate where and when they will ever get to see the movie, and how much violence and sex are going to be on show.
Since 1968, every major motion picture has been evaluated by an independent board to receive a certified rating. The Motion Picture Association of America established The Classification & Ratings Administration (CARA) to “provide parents the tools they need to make informed decisions about what their children watch.” The administration, composed of an independent group of parents, carefully scrutinizes every film before it goes to theatres. After the evaluation, they provide a rating based on the contents of the film: G, PG, PG-13, R, NC-17 (a.k.a XXX). On the most extreme end of the rating scale is NC-17, where no one under 17 is admitted, because the film may contain “pain, dismemberment, death[…]gore, sex scenes, explicit content, rape or sexual assault.”
A film rating can make or break a movie at the box office. A movie rated PG-13 will invariably be played in more theatres and have the greatest reach. If the film is rated NC-17 — previously known as XXX, and a rating typically associated with adult material — the movie will have a limited theatrical run and the potential audience will be significantly reduced. Directors really don’t want to be encumbered by the NC-17 rating unless their movie is intentionally explicit (like an adult film). Many of them must fight the CARA through systematic appeals because the board has taken issue with, at times, only seconds of footage or dialogue. It could be a word, image, reference or allusion. In many ways, the NC-17 rating can be a movie death sentence.
The hit movies in the following list are some of the most successful films ever produced. But they were all originally rated NC-17 (and some have retained that rating). Would those that ended up with a lower rating have been as popular if they hadn’t successfully appealed the X rating? Would as many people end up seeing them? Was the rating justified in the first place?
Composed of film industry news sources, these ten films were all originally rated NC-17. Many have beat the CARA and were reassigned a better rating. Others defiantly kept the NC-17 label but became critically-acclaimed works of art.
10. South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut
South Park, the incredibly popular and off-the-wall cartoon, is possibly one of the raunchiest and dirtiest shows ever made. So when the censorship limitations of television were lifted, the movie could do and say things that would have never made it onto the show: everything from a homosexual relationship between Satan and Saddam Hussein, to just about every curse word in the book. South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut was screened before the CARA five times. Each time, it came back with an NC-17 rating. After negotiations that were about as exhaustive as a high-profile legal trial, directors Matt Stone and Trey Parker made only a few cuts to receive the R rating.
9. Kill Bill Volume 1
Director Quentin Tarantino is known for incredibly violent movies like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. He certainly didn’t shy away from any violence in the Kill Bill Trilogy. One of the most memorable scenes comes from Volume 1, when the character played by Uma Thurman fights all of the “Crazy 88” gang. In the scene, she is cutting off limbs, beheading people, slitting throats and spraying their blood everywhere. To avoid the NC-17 rating – which was based on this scene – Tarantino had to render it black and white in the original release. As per their characteristically baffling reasoning, the CARA had no qualms with the amount of blood being sprayed – they just took issue with the fact that it was in full colour.
8. American Pie
American Pie is the quirky comedy about four friends who try to lose their virginity before graduating high school. Jim, one of the main characters, is so sexually inept that, in a fit of desperation, he tries to practise the act with a pie. The CARA took offence to this scene and considered it indecent and obscene. Directors and editors of the film had to try four times to get the R rating they needed for a wide release. To do this, they cut down the scene until CARA was eventually appeased.
7. Zack and Miri Make a Porno
With a movie title that essentially speaks for itself, it’s not surprising Kevin Smith’s Zack and Miri Make a Porno was slapped with an NC-17 rating for scenes featuring “explicit” sex (and the film is rife with them). There is also a brief scene where a cameraman filming a scene is accidentally defecated on. Smith appealed the CARA’s rating decision and, as is often required, made certain cuts to the sexual content to finally receive a more desirable R rating.
Even if Showgirls received a G rating, the film would likely still be considered so bad by critics and fans alike that it would never do any better in box office sales. The film starred Elizabeth Berkeley, the teen darling from the hit sitcom Saved by the Bell. Because of the frequent and graphic scenes of sexual activity (after all, the film is about strippers), the film was instantly given an NC-17 by the strict CARA. But the film stands out as being one of the first films to keep the rating and still be widely released — unfortunately, that didn’t help the film’s popularity, and it bombed at the box office.
5. American Psycho
Based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho starred Christian Bale, a wealthy raving lunatic who periodically goes on savage killing sprees. The film was both violent and disturbing, included sex and torture, and scenes featuring blood and gore. However, strangely enough, the CARA did not give the film an NC-17 for its violence. According to Lions Gate Pictures, CARA took offence to the sex scene between Bale and two sex workers in a ménage à trois. The film had to be “heavily altered” to ensure that audiences understood the movie’s artistic motivations for the scenes.
4. Eyes Wide Shut
Eyes Wide Shut was the last film legendary director Stanley Kubrick ever made. It featured mega stars Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman as husband and wife struggling to keep their marriage together. In the climax of the film, Cruise’s character visits an elite secret society. In the scene, there’s about 65 seconds of group intercourse that the CARA refused to allow an R rating. Instead, they gave it an NC-17. Despite some cries of protest to support the artistic integrity of the film, Warner Bros. had no choice but to digitally alter the party goers to cover parts of the sexual activity.
Shame, directed by Steve McQueen and starring Michael Fassbender, tells the story of a man who struggles with a debilitating sex addiction. Because of the film’s sexual content, it was given the NC-17. But what sets Shame apart from the rest is that its director chose not to appeal. The film opened with a restrictive NC-17 rating. Even with the rating, the film was critically acclaimed and, according to John Fithian, the president of the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO), the film ”is potentially an important step in the legitimate use of the NC-17.”
2. Mysterious Skin
Mysterious Skin stars a young Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a teenage sex worker who engages in sexual activity with adult men. The film contains many scenes featuring disturbing, graphic and violent subject matter that make it extremely difficult to justify any suitability for people under the age of 17—even for the most open-minded cinema goers. In the United States, its NC-17 rating still stands, for the film’s use of profanity, drugs, violence, gore and frightening scenes. Despite the rating, the film is a cult classic, and it received generally positive reviews.
1. Blue is the Warmest Colour
Most movies with love stories have brief, tasteful sex scenes. They usually show the couple kiss, maybe engage in innocent foreplay, and suddenly cut to them lying in bed after the act is done. But Blue is the Warmest Colour, the critically-acclaimed French movie about the love affair of two women, takes the mainstream movie’s sex scene trope and turns it on its head. Not only does it feature multiple scenes of graphic sex (so graphic, in fact, that it could conceivably be confused as real), it also shows a full, unflinching 9-minute sex scene between the two women. Even with the eventual and unrevoked NC-17 for these scenes, the film won the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in France.