A few thoughts: Rating the Ratings

(Originally written December 9th 2010)

Congratulations must go to The Weinstein Company and director Derek Cianfrance, as the Motion Picture Association of America has agreed to downgrade Blue Valentine’s initial NC-17 rating to a less restrictive R.

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Michelle Williams in Blue Valentine (2010)

The film charts the course of a marriage on a fast and brutal downward spiral. The MPAA’s original NC-17 was incurred by a scene in which Ryan Gosling’s character performs oral sex on his wife, played by Michelle Williams (above). However, the R rating was applied instead after a strong campaign by The Weinstein Company, including hiring Alan Friedman, the lawyer who saw the Weinsteins through a similar battle with Kevin Smith’s Zack and Miri Make A Porno (which infamously went through three cuts before securing an R). Blue Valentine has garnered a lot of awards buzz lately, and this decision by the MPAA could not have come at a better time, generating extra publicity as awards voters cast their ballots.

American readers will probably be familiar with these ratings, but people outside the States may be wondering what all the fuss is about. Very simply, it’s all about money. The NC-17 rating usually spells death at the box office. Since anyone under 17 cannot be admitted, the prospective audience is whittled down, and so is the possible B.O. take. NC-17s are rare, usually because studios will either edit the films to receive an R rating (meaning under-17s can see the film if accompanied by an adult), or they will release it without any rating at all. Some would argue that the box office take on these films may not be adversely affected, since they are most often applied to independent or foreign films that only have a niche audience to begin with. Recent examples of NC-17s include Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, Pedro Almodóvar’s La Mala Educación and Se, jie (Lust, Caution), directed by Ang Lee (below).

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Tony Leung and Tang Wei in Se, jie (Lust, Caution) (2007)

The three examples listed above were all given the NC-17 as a result of their strong sexual content. As explored in Kirby Dick’s This Film Is Not Yet Rated, the MPAA seems to adapt a random and often unfair approach to ratings, especially when it comes to depictions of sexuality onscreen. The main complaint that most people have about the NC-17 is that it is often applied to films that contain strong scenes of sex, a natural human activity, and yet many films with strong gory violence are often only rated R. A frequently cited example is Eli Roth’s R-rated Hostel: Part II. The film contains a scene in which a woman is suspended upside-down from a ceiling whilst another woman lies down underneath her and hacks at her with a machete and bathes in the blood trickling down upon her. Contrast that to the rating Blue Valentine got for a simple scene of oral sex, and there does seem to be a contradiction. It’s OK to hack a girl limb from bloody limb, but showing a scene in which two people physically express their love is apparently more likely to corrupt teenagers. It’s nonsense bordering on the satirical. This is not to suggest that any film that shows overt sexuality should be downgraded, but it is clear that the MPAA needs to adapt a stronger line on film violence. A policy of offering a strong rating or no rating at all, perhaps? The remake of The Hills Have Eyes, Scream and the first Hostel were all cut to secure an R rating, but is this really acceptable policy? If spilling someone’s intestines (one of the reasons 20 seconds had to be cut from Scream, see below) has to be cut, then why not severing an arm or a head? Of course, different contexts would necessitate a case-by-case basis (accidents, historical violence, etc.), but if NC-17s were more commonplace for violence, surely it would lose its stigma over time?

Another argument against the MPAA’s rating system is that it is biased in favour of large studios rather than independent distributors. This is understandable, since the studios finance the MPAA, and is a shocking indictment of how unfair the MPAA really is. Such gems as The Cooler, Boys Don’t Cry and American Psycho have come to grief with the MPAA, and it is to a certain extent because they came from outside the studio system. Studios can afford to compromise their films with edits, but independent directors must fight for every frame. With this in mind, Blue Valentine’s re-rating is a great victory for independent film. It won’t cause MPAA president Jack Valenti to reconsider his position or his policies, but it is still a victory, hard-won and well deserved.

Blue Valentine is available on DVD, rated R. This Film Is Not Yet Rated is available on DVD, rated NC-17, obviously.

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