May 15, 2001 The Motion Picture Association of America
by Dustin Putman
Since 1968, the vast majority of major studio motion pictures have been released with a rating brandished on them. These ratings, made and approved by the Motion Picture Association of America, are supposed to act as guidelines for parents, who want to know what possible offending material is in the movies that they are considering letting their children watch. The original MPAA ratings G (General Audiences), PG (Parental Guidance Suggested), and R (Restricted) have had a couple additions over the years, with PG-13 (Parents Strongly Cautioned) being created in late-1984, and NC-17 (No Children Under 17 Permitted) in 1990. While the purpose of MPAA ratings began innocently enough, they have become notably more strict over the years, with the organization acting as rigid advocates out to "save" the youth of America, fearing that films actually have the power to warp and destroy the minds of children. Today, theater chains are asked by the MPAA to cut down so much on the ratings that even the direct permission of the parent is not good enough to allow them to view a movie. What once was supposed to simply be a guideline to the material in any given movie has now become a ludicrously harsh crusade that gives the MPAA power to overrule the real guardians of children: the parents.
What makes the Motion Picture Association of America so controversial is their confused inconsistencies and contradictory nature, particularly in dealing with the R ("Children 17 and Under Require a Parent or Adult Guardian") and NC-17 ratings ("No One Under 17 Permitted"). NC-17, originally supposed to be a kosher rating that would act as a way for studio films to receive what is more or less akin to the much-maligned X-rating, has since fallen through the cracks, used very sporadically and with many theater chains barred from showing any movie carrying this rating. Because of this, major motion pictures from the large studios (20th Century Fox, Universal, Paramount, Columbia, etc.) are required by law to receive an R-rating, no matter what. The problem with this is that, in their voyage to theater screens, some movies are forced to compromise their creative vision for the sake of a measly rating that holds no real power after their theatrical releases. One such example is the late Stanley Kubrick's 1999 drama, Eyes Wide Shut, starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. In order to get an R rating in the United States, the offending scene, in which Cruise journeys through an orgy occurring in a mansion, was "digitally altered to strategically place figures over much of the offending material"¹. This 65-second sequence was released in all other countries in its original form, but in the U.S. where Hollywood is located(!) Kubrick, who ultimately died before its release, left a final movie that will probably never be seen here in the way he meant for it to be seen. Making this whole controversy all the more ridiculous is that the figures that obscure the sexual acts do just that obscure them, but not completely hide what is occurring. Watching the movie, it is so evident what is going on behind the digital figures that it deeply cheapens the integrity of the MPAA. Upon the release of the film, critics argued that Eyes Wide Shut was made for adults, to begin with, and that an NC-17 would have made perfect sense. Of the MPAA, one New York critic stated, "The fundamental issue underlying this controversy is that the Classification and Ratings Administration of the Motion Picture Assn. of America (MPAA) is out of control. It has become a punitive and restrictive force, effectively trampling the freedom of American filmmakers"¹.
If the MPAA² had clearly stated rules about what gives a movie a certain rating, it would work more successfully. Unfortunately, the MPAA, headed by President Jack Valenti, constantly play favorites to certain filmmakers and their work. For example, 1998's World War II drama, Saving Private Ryan, included one of the most realistic and graphic depictions of war ever put on film. The movie was far more gory and violent than any slasher film. Because Steven Spielberg, arguably the most successful and popular filmmaker working today, directed it, Saving Private Ryan received an R rating without a single cut. As many criticized at the time of its release, had the very same film been directed by someone making their filmmaking debut, it would have been stamped an NC-17 and gotten at least several minutes sliced off the running time. It is fairly safe to say that Steven Spielberg, unlike the majority of directors, has never had a problem getting the rating he has wanted from the MPAA.
Also inconsistent with the MPAA is their leniency of comedies, when the same material in a drama would be chastised immediately. Such examples of this have been last year's horror spoof, Scary Movie, which included graphic sex and male nudity, and the recently Tom Green comedy, Freddy Got Fingered, which features simulated sex involving humans and animals, bestiality, and other perverse humor. Scary Movie and Freddy Got Fingered are so extreme in their subject matter that, given the strictness of the MPAA, it can only be hypothesized that they have no problem showing penises (some erect), scrotums, and ejaculations as long as it is done in a comedic way, rather than for a serious, dramatic purpose. So, while Scary Movie and Freddy Got Fingered get R-ratings, Eyes Wide Shut receives an NC-17 for visuals that were not nearly as extreme. Furthermore, an innocent, light-hearted motion picture such as last year's Billy Elliot, which has some profanity, but no violence, nudity, or sex, and realistically portrays the life of an 11-year-old, gets an R the very same rating as those movies that show girls being shot to the ceiling in an explosion of semen (Scary Movie), or a man masturbating a horse, and later an elephant (Freddy Got Fingered) ³.
While theaters can be strict moderators of who gets in to R-rated movies, none of them are perfect in upholding the rating. In my personal experiences of going to the Hoyts Cinemas theaters in Frederick, MD, I have witnessed children clearly under 17 buying tickets for PG-13 movies and then slipping into the R-rated theater undetected. Moreover, once a film ends its theatrical release and goes to video, any person of any age can rent and watch them in the privacy of their own homes. Ultimately, the MPAA overspends a whole lot of time and energy into movie ratings that, frankly, are not very important, and do not make much of a difference. After all, an average 15-year-old's life would easily be rated NC-17.
¹ Gorman, Steve. "Censoring Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut," Melon Farmers Web Site. Online. 1999.
² Motion Picture Association of America, The. Online. 2001.
³ Robischon, Noah. "Back in Blecch," Entertainment Weekly. April 20, 2001, 24-29.