Curious history of rating NC-17
There’s a distinct possibility that Steve McQueen’s “Shame’’ will be one of the 10 best picture nominees when the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences reels off its list on Jan. 24. And that means there’s a chance it could be the first NC-17-rated film to win the big prize. There’s precedent, but it’s a long way back: “Midnight Cowboy’’ became the only X-rated movie to win the best picture Oscar in 1970 - more than four decades ago. Since then, the ratings have changed (X gave way to NC-17 in 1990) and so has the culture, but the stigma of the MPAA’s most extreme designation has hung on in the form of limited advertising and exhibition options for any films bearing the scarlet letter(s). Since the acclaimed, high-profile “Shame’’ may change the game - in many ways it already has - it’s worth a look back at NC-17’s curious history.
1990 - MPAA head Jack Valenti announces the scrapping of the dreaded X, appropriated since the early 1970s by the porn industry, and unveils the “unstigmatized’’ new NC-17 after heavy industry and media criticism over X ratings for 1989 art-house releases “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover’’ and Pedro Almodovar’s “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!’’ The literary adaptation “Henry & June’’ is the first movie to receive an NC-17; the ratings controversy helps it to a healthy $11 million at the box office. Later that year, Miramax resubmits “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!’’ for a new rating, is given an NC-17, and voluntarily surrenders it to go out unrated. This path will be chosen by a number of envelope-pushing directors in the coming years: Todd Solondz (“Happiness’’), Larry Clark (“Kids’’), Gregg Araki (“Mysterious Skin’’), Darren Aronofsky (“Requiem for a Dream’’), and so on. Audiences don’t seem to care one way or the other.
1992 - Paul Verhoeven’s “Basic Instinct’’ and Louis Malle’s “Damage’’ are two of the higher-profile releases dickering with the MPAA to avoid an NC-17. Both films are re-rated R after trips back to the editing room.
1995 - “Showgirls’’ becomes the highest-grossing NC-17 film ever released, with $20 million in US receipts. Critically reviled and quickly reframed as an unintended camp classic, it’s perhaps not the best advertisement for the rating.
1997 - The MPAA re-rates “Last Tango in Paris’’ as NC-17. It’s still the greatest X-rated movie of all time.
Mid-2000s - NC-17 becomes increasingly accepted by upscale filmmakers and audiences, with limited-release films including Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Dreamers’’ and Ang Lee’s “Lust, Caution.’’
2006 - Documentarian Kirby Dick directs “This Film Is Not Yet Rated,’’ about the follies and flaws of the MPAA’s rating system. It gets an NC-17.
2011 - “Shame’’ is rated NC-17 to the collective shrugs of the film industry. Fox Searchlight snaps up the movie for release and the head of the exhibitors’ lobbying group says 97 out of 100 theater owners he has asked would be willing to show it. Your move, America.