Unhappy 20th Birthday, NC-17: 10 Films Burned by Hollywood's Most Restrictive Rating

It was exactly 20 years ago today that Henry & June hit theaters as the first NC-17-rated movie in Hollywood history, a long-overdue reaction to the X-rating having been co-opted by the pornography industry and the R-rating's increasing challenges from serious filmmakers looking to push the boundaries of sexuality and/or violence in mainstream cinema. Two decades on, it remains an imperfect solution for a problem that refuses to go away.

Just yesterday we saw AMC theaters boot Hatchet II -- a graphic slasher film that decided to go out unrated rather than with the black spot of the NC-17 -- after a crushingly poor opening weekend; print and TV media still tend to frown on or outright reject marketing for anything more adult-oriented than an R. (This week's I Spit on Your Grave remake will be next to face the unrated challenge.)

But it's not just glorified grindhouse fare that's been shunned by theater chains and ad outlets over the last 20 years. Internationally renowned auteurs from Ang Lee to David Cronenberg to Darren Aronofsky to Todd Solondz have seen some of their most acclaimed work banished to the NC-17 (or, by extension, unrated) fringe. This Film is Not Yet Rated, Kirby Dick's 2006 expose of the outmoded, hypocritical and (generally) indie-inhospitable ratings system, perhaps predictably wound up saddled with an NC-17 of its own.

On the occasion of that pioneering effort 20 years ago -- and because ratings board chair Joan Graves will still lie to your face about how violence is held to stricter standards than sexuality -- let's pay tribute to those noble breeds who've fought the rating's stigma for better or worse. Usually worse:

1. Henry & June (1990)

Universal greenlit Phil Kaufman's knowing full well what it was getting into, and the NC-17 came as a semi-welcome controversy used to mobilize a erotic literary biopic with essentially no stars and a running time over two hours. But for all the conversation about the value and/or usefulness of the new rating (Roger Ebert, among other high-profile voices, had long lobbied for an "A," or adult, rating), Henry & June remained as notorious as its subjects, more stunt than substance in a filmgoing climate that viewed the whole thing as a smut-tinged scandal. Advocates of the rating like to point out the film's $11 million domestic gross -- the second-highest ever for an NC-17 film. But the fact that only one release -- Showgirls -- has surpassed that figure in 20 years is the more telling reality by far.

2. Whore (1991)

It was probably just a matter of time before noted provocateur Ken Russell purposely wound up flirting with an NC-17. And while far from Russell's best film, as a direct reaction to Pretty Woman's swoony portrayal of prostitution, Whore proved a cheeky, essential example of how Hollywood guards its effed-up values under the guise of "informing parents." (Trailer NSFW)

3. Bad Lieutenant (1992)

With both men arguably at the height of their respective creative powers (and public profiles), Harvey Keitel and Abel Ferrara collaborated on a drama about a New York cop lost in a morass of sex, drugs, gambling, abuse, corruption and general malfeasance. The fact alone that it dared to interweave the avenging of a nun's rape with an addict's tormented climb to salvation -- along with some mimed oral sex and frontal male nudity -- wasn't jake with the MPAA, which wasn't about to find a pushover in Ferrara. The film found some customary notoriety but mostly wound up attracting an audience on video, and via the edited, Blockbuster-ready edition still in circulation today.

4. Crash (1996)

David Cronenberg had it all in his pervy, daring masterpiece, up to and including auto-accident fetishes and a labia-shaped wound on Rosanna Arquette's leg. If ever a film was unfairly and unreasonably stigmatized by the NC-17 -- simply because a singular director was determined to hold fast to his singular vision -- this would probably be the one. (Clip NSFW)

5. Bent (1997)

The NC-17 might as well be automatic for anything seriously addressing or depicting gay sex; Todd Haynes's breakthrough Poison went out unrated as a result of its own frankness in 1991, and the steamy Spader-on-Koteas make-out in Crash didn't help that film's case, either. But the entire point of Martin Sherman's famous play about about the Nazis' persecution of gays is to drive home the practice's despicability -- just one facet of the overall inhumanity of Hitler's regime -- and the extent to which gay men went to outlast their tormentors. MGM execs said at the time that the rating shouldn't affect its reception among specialty audiences; less than $500,000 in domestic grosses later, they were probably reconsidering. One of Clive Owen's least seen, most underrated performances, by the way.

6. Orgazmo (1997)

A year before they would engage the MPAA in cinema's all-time greatest meta-faceoff over South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, Trey Parker and Matt Stone went straight to ratings purgatory with their raunchy tale of a Mormon missionary-turned-porn hero. The movie enlisted real porn stars (Ron Jeremy, Juli Ashton, Chasey Lain) and a sidekick called "Choda Boy." This was dead on arrival with the NC-17; reviewers still getting to know (or outright cool toward) the Parker/Stone brand as South Park got going didn't help matters.

7. Happiness (1998)

Todd Solondz's epic of suburban ennui, loathing, despair, alienation, and -- climactically -- pedophilia didn't stand a chance with the MPAA, going out unrated and earning as much notoriety for its maker's uncompromising ratings stand as its blindingly bold thematic considerations. Solondz would encounter similar challenges three years later with Storytelling, opting to block out Selma Blair and Robert Wisdom's racially charged full-body sex scene with a red box before capitulating to an NC-17. (It still went out unrated, but the point was made -- and the film was not necessarily improved.) Below, a fine example of the material that melted the ratings board's brains 12 years ago. (Clip mostly suitable for work, but so, so wrong otherwise.)

8. Requiem For a Dream (2000)

Darren Aronofsky refused to cut his nightmarish adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr.'s novel, which graphically depicted Ellen Burstyn's emaciating descent into pill addiction and psychosis, Jared Leto's misbegotten heroin fixes and, perhaps most memorably, Jennifer Connelly's junkie subjection to girl-girl anal play for a crowd of horny rich men. It wasn't enough for Aronofsky to show their characters hitting bottom; they needed to fall through the bottom for his and Selby's grander point to be made. To wit, not only should this have not gone out unrated in the art-house margins, it should have been shown to every high-schooler in America still in thrall to mainstream Hollywood's narcotic glam. (The Academy nominated Burstyn for Best Actress, anyway.)

9. Mysterious Skin (2004)

More homophobia from the MPAA, which said "No thanks" to Gregg Araki's acclaimed drama -- and its uncompromising approach to gay sexuality. On the one hand, as MGM acknowledged with its challenging Bent seven years eariier, it's not like Skin was going to go gangbusters in the multiplex anyway. On the other, where it screens isn't the point; where it's welcome to screen is the point. From NC-17 to unrated, one of the best films of 2004 wound up less ghettoized than many of its spiritual predecessors, but stigmatized nonetheless.

nc17_lust_caution.jpg10. Lust, Caution (2007)

Ironically (or not), Ang Lee's Oscar win for directing the landmark Brokeback Mountain earned him the right to follow up with a straight love story that the ratings board couldn't quite abide -- and which neither Lee nor Focus Features were willing to cut. As MPAA signatories under parent company Universal (talk about coming full-circle), Focus accepted its NC-17, and thus began a troubled campaign for a romantic, foreign-language espionage drama overshadowed by its adults-only rating. Worse still, actress Tang Wei only this year emerged from a "media ban" in her native China; it's hard to imagine an R-rated film inspiring the same blacklisting, but there you have it: your ratings system at work. Unhappy 20th, NC-17.


  • 3b producer says:

    Check out Ron Jeremy's first mainstream starring role in "Beaches, Buns and Bikinis."

  • pinkyt says:

    Embarrassing but true: when I saw "Henry & June" at the time I kept waiting for something outrageously, soft-porn-worthy sexy to happen... and it never did. Just a long, boring movie & Fred Ward with a weird shaved bald spot. NC-17 fail!

  • M. says:

    I agree that the ratings system often gets it wrong. But there needs to be something that parents and others can use to determine what is in a movie--if there will be too much violence for their taste, for example.
    Perhaps a better way would be to just list the possible objectionable material?
    "This movie contains gay sex, drug use, and gory violence" or something similar???

  • bored says:

    The only thing I'm seeing in these recaps is a confirmation that the MPAA did the right thing. The REAL scandal is that Hollywood keeps producing trash in the name of "art" and then decries prudes and families for their failure at the box office. They're free to keep producing it and free to keep losing money but quit blaming ordinary Americans for yawning and not taking the bait.

  • poorbored says:

    You might not be so bored if you spent your time reading articles about topics you care about. Clearly, you do not care about the films discussed here, so why keep reading? Why comment? Don't worry, Hollywood will continue to make your precious A-Team sequels...

  • Daniel says:

    You are missing "Tie me up, tie me down" , Almodovar's sexy, sexy, sexy follow up to "Women on the verge..."

  • SKC says:

    I 100% agree with the review on "Requiem for a Dream". Stop showing high school students yet another segment of Diane Sawyer explaining how meth makes your teeth fall out or media publicity surrounding Lindsay Lohan's 84th time in rehab, and show them something truly terrifying and life-changing about the effects of drug use.

  • I considered it, but as a foreign film already confined to the art house, the controversy only helped it. (The same _kinda_ goes for Bertolucci's _The Dreamers_, though it was English language.) TMUTMD didn't really suffer the same effects as the other films on this list. Almodovar's _Bad Education_ comes closer, I think -- another gay-themed film that the MPAA couldn't stand -- but even that found its audience in markets where the rating didn't preclude marketing and outreach etc.

  • Someone With Half a brain says:

    On the contrary, if you show adolescent boys just how far a girl will go when she is desparate for another hit of drugs, then they will go out of their way to get more girls strung out on drugs. I mean seriously, you want to show guys how they can get a girl as hot as Jenifer Connely to do anything they want?

  • point of clarification says:

    Tang Wei got blacklisted because the character was said (at least in the view of the Chinese Communist Party) of glorifying traitors. That is, the character betrays her country to save the traitor whom she "loves" (I guess). It's not for the sex scene which led to the NC-17 rating.
    On Requiem for a Dream and half-brain said: you would probably have someone to talk about it with the kids and to be honest most kids don't have the tools to be in the game. I mean, maybe you wouldn't show it to the inner city school kids like in The Wire...okay, it's not the best or safest idea.

  • NotAmerican says:

    I'll never understand the puritanical values (and practices) of Americans. I mean, in Canada we have a ratings system that a) has a rating that would be equivilent to the 'NC-17'; b) ANY movie that comes out in Canada has to "be rated" [so none of this "Dukes of Hazzard - UNRATED!" stuff, which just leaves a parent with the question, "So what's in the "Unrated" version? Are we talking scenes worthy of an NC-17, or two extra expletives?"; c) As a continuation of (b), anything that plays in a Canadian cinema, or is released on home video [including TV shows], even if the movie came out 70 years ago, must be rated by the Canadian government; d) No matter what the movie is rated [with the exception of pornography], it can play on any screen, be sold in any store, or be rented from any video shop. So why do you guys have such a problem with it??

  • Beth says:

    NOTAMERICAN, I think you misunderstood the article. NC-17 films can be screened at any cinema, sold and rented at any video store in the United States. We don't have laws banning NC-17 films. The problem is that NC-17 films are stigmatized, and that the rating system is not consistent. Sexuality explicit films are more likely to get an NC-17 rating than graphically violent films.

  • Skegee says:

    Totally agree, M. I'd rather they just list out all the crap in the movie so that I have the info needed to say yay or nay for my child's sake (or mine!). I don't dig super hard-core violence (a la "Saw" or "Hostel") nor do I particularly want to view gay sex. I think that would work a whole lot better than a bunch of goofy, ambiguous letter ratings.

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