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NC-17 Rated: Stories Behind Some of Hollywood’s HOTTEST Titles

November 30, 2016

Last year, the NC-17 rating celebrated its 25th anniversary, though most filmmakers would call the restriction anything BUT a celebration. Here’s a little history:

In response to complaints of undue censorship from movie makers and film critics, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) got rid of its X movie rating on September 26, 1990 and replaced it with the NC-17 (No One 17 and Under Admitted) classification. According to an article that ran in the Los Angeles Times a day later, “The new rating category is expected to clear the way for strong adult-themed films to be released and marketed in theaters without the taint of pornography now associated with an X rating.”

Filmmakers were hopeful that the stigma the X rating carried with it would be abolished as well, with distributors embracing the NC-17 rating as nothing more than an “adults-only category,” but that did not happen. It soon became the new “X” rating, with distributors and movie theaters turning away films classified as NC-17. As recently as 2015, The Hollywood Reporter called the rating “box-office poison” because the largest theater chains refuse to show films limited to those 17 years of age or older. Filmmakers will often cut and re-submit their film in hopes of earning an R rating. Others who anticipate the NC-17 rating won’t submit their film to the MPAA and label it as “Unrated.”

Below we’ve gathered some of Hollywood’s HOTTEST titles that have had both their struggles, and triumphs, with explicit MPAA ratings. And be sure to tune into HDNET MOVIES this month when we premiere the highest-grossing NC-17 film ever, Showgirls.


'Army of Darkness' on HDNET MOVIES
Bruce Campbell in Army of Darkness (1992)

That’s right, the entire Evil Dead Trilogy including The Evil Dead (1981), Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn (1987), and Army of Darkness (1992) have had their “run-ins” with an explicit rating. The reasoning? Because of the extreme amount of violence in all three pics. The story behind the first two films is that both were given an X rating, but director/screenwriter Sam Raimi refused it and released the films “unrated.” Here is a little more info:

The Evil Dead (1981) – rated NC-17 (per MPAA, but DVD says “Not Rated”)
New Line Cinema, the film’s distributor, was on board with Raimi’s decision to make it unrated due to the stigma the X rating carried and probability that they would lose money. According to Bill Warren who wrote The Evil Dead Companion, New Line toyed with the idea of editing the film to earn it an R rating, but their “decision to release the film unrated created a real notoriety for the modest (but in-your-face) movie, and it got more notice than it probably would have if it had been released rated R.” Since the film technically was rated X, the MPAA revised this rating to NC-17 in 1994 to follow the current system. However, home video copies produced by companies like Anchor Bay Entertainment are still free to use the “Not Rated” designation since they are not a major studio contractually obligated to provide an MPAA rating with their film. The film is still banned theatrically in Germany due to the graphic violence.

Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn (1987) – rated R (per MPAA, but DVD says “Not Rated”)
De Laurentiis Entertainment Group (DEG) was originally going to release this film, but when DEG execs and Raimi could not agree on cuts, DEG sold the US rights to Rosebud Releasing Corp. DEG technically had to sell the rights because they were a signatory member of the MPAA and would have had to submit the film and release it rated X. Knowing it would be given an X rating, Rosebud decided not to submit the film to the MPAA and release it unrated. Luckily, DEG had already booked the theaters for the film’s release, ensuring a successful opening. Raimi was contractually obligated to DEG to deliver an R rated film, but it would have been way too short if they had made all the necessary cuts. The film was released, unrated and uncut, in 1987. However, for video release in 1988, Raimi was forced to re-edit it after appealing the MPAA’s rating decision and losing.

Army of Darkness (1992) – rated R
When Raimi first submitted his third installment to the MPAA board, it was given an NC-17 rating for a shot of a female Deadite being decapitated early on in the film. Universal Studios, the film’s distributor, wanted a PG-13 rating, so Raimi made a few cuts and secured an R rating. However, this did not please Universal who then turned the film over to outside editors and received two cuts of the film, releasing the 81 minute version in the U.S, and the 87 minute version internationally. Both were given R ratings. MGM later released the director’s cut, running 96 minutes with Raimi’s original ending, to home video.

Evil Dead (2013) – rated R
Not only did Sam Raimi have issues with the MPAA board, but so did director Fede Alvarez with his 2013 installment of Evil Dead, produced by Bruce Campbell and Raimi. Unlike Raimi though, Alvarez embraced the rating and tweeted, “Was proud of scoring a NC17 when submitted!” Yet, that was followed by, “But we had to cut stuff out to get an R and get the film into theaters.” So, despite taking pride in earning the NC-17 status, Alvarez was forced to acknowledge the curse it also carries and edit it for theatrical release.

Henry & June (1990) – rated NC-17

This was the first film to be released with the NC-17 rating (Predator 2 originally received an NC-17 rating, but was edited to qualify for an R rating). The film stars Uma Thurman, Fred Ward, and Maria de Medeiros, and is about the love triangle between US writer Henry Miller, his wife, and French writer Anais Nin. Universal released the picture with the rating, which was met with some resistance from religious organizations and conservative groups. In Boston, one theater pulled it because a local organization threatened to take the theater’s license, and in Birmingham, the largest newspaper would not carry ads for the film, or any NC-17 picture. But after opening in 76 theaters in about 20 cities and grossing near $1 million on opening weekend, other cities took note and it was eventually shown in over 175 theaters in 60 cities. It is currently the second highest grossing NC-17 film ($12 million in US box office), behind Showgirls, and was nominated for the American Film Institute’s 100 Years…100 Passions list in 2002.

Clerks (1994) – rated R

Filmmaker Kevin Smith’s cult classic was given the NC-17 rating for “strong language.” Luckily, it was being distributed by Miramax and that meant co-founder Harvey Weinstein was involved. The distribution company hired lawyer Alan Dershowitz, who went on to be an appellate adviser for the defense in the 1995 O.J. Simpson case, and he pled their case to the MPAA. The board eventually relented and gave the film an R rating without Smith having to cut any footage.

The Wild Bunch (1969) – rated R

'The Wild Bunch' on HDNET MOVIES
William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Ben Johnson and Warren Oates in The Wild Bunch (1969)

A year before director Sam Peckinpah released The Wild Bunch, the MPAA rating system took effect. Thanks to a broader parameter with the R-rating, Peckinpah was able to cut out 6 minutes and make the film suitable for theatrical release. Prior to the new system, the film’s violent gunfights would have been too explicit. In 1993, Warner Brothers resubmitted the film to the MPAA ratings board in preparation to re-release the film in theaters for its 25th anniversary and the studio was shocked when the board came back with an NC-17 rating. This director’s cut had an additional 10 minutes added, none of which contained any violence. WB appealed the decision, which the MPAA finally gave into, but it held up the film’s re-release for several months.

American Pie (1999) – rated R

It is not totally shocking that this movie received an NC-17 rating when it was first presented to the MPAA board, but it is not for that bedroom scene between Jim and the naked Nadia. Rather, it was for the apple pie scene and the vulgar language coming from Stifler’s mouth. All the filmmakers had to do was edit out a few of Jim’s thrusts to the pie and cut out some F-bombs and they sailed into “R” territory. An “Unrated Version” was eventually released to home video.

Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013) – rated NC-17

In its native country, France, this Palme D’Or (top prize at the Cannes Film Festival) winning film earned a “12” rating, meaning anyone over that age can attend. That makes it equivalent to a PG-13 rated film in America. However, in America, the lesbian romance film earned an NC-17 rating, and it did not surprise anyone. Nearly fifteen minutes of its three-hour run time is devoted to an explicit, and extremely authentic looking, sex scene between the two young, female actresses. IFC’s Sundance Selects, the US distributor of Blue is the Warmest Color, booked the film regardless and at the IFC Center in NYC, they chose to let anyone of high school age and above into the film, blatantly ignoring the MPAA regulation that anyone under 17 is banned from an NC-17 film (which theaters voluntarily abide by). In the US, the film had a limited release in four theaters and earned more on a per-screen average than any film that opening weekend. Per Rolling Stone magazine, “After five weeks, the film [had] earned about $1.5 million and [was] playing at 138 venues, the sixth widest distribution pattern of any NC-17 film ever released.” It was an exceptional case, however, for an NC-17 rated film. Most don’t see this kind of attention and probably never will.

Blue Valentine (2010) – rated R

Filmmaker Derek Cianfrance was shocked when his film got an NC-17 rating. He had been trying to make the film for 12 years and nearly flipped out when he got the news. But with the help of Harvey Weinstein, co-founder of Miramax and the Weinstein Company, and his two main stars, Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, he got the board to change their decision. Gosling and Williams wrote letters to the MPAA shaming them for supporting films with sexual torture while denying films that show an honest, sexually complex relationship, and Weinstein laid out the case for an R rating to the appeals board. He also secured lots of free publicity around this issue and the film, which helped the film find its audience when it was released. Executive producer Jack Lechner says, “The NC-17 rating was almost certainly the best thing that ever happened to Blue Valentine. It became so much more attractive to audiences to think that there might be something sexy and taboo and forbidden about the movie…” Cianfrance is still haunted to this day by the battle and admits that he worries about a possible NC-17 rating with all his films, going so far as to make sure the violence is “thoughtful” and sexual depictions of love are true.

Scream (1996) – rated R

'Scream' on HDNET MOVIES
Ghostface in Scream (1996)

When the MPAA board first set their eyes on this movie, they did not know what to make of it. It was new and daring, “perverse and very satirical, but very real,” says its screenwriter Kevin Williamson. Director Wes Craven never anticipated having so many quarrels with the MPAA, but he, along with the Weinstein brothers, definitely had their share. After he received the initial NC-17 rating, Craven refused to make any cuts to the film. But Bob Weinstein, who founded Dimension Films (the company producing Scream), insisted he make the cuts and Craven agreed. In the end, the director had to submit the film nine times before the film got an R rating. Craven said, “A lot of times the MPAA just said to me ‘it’s just too intense, take the intensity back.’” He had to write several letters to the MPAA asking them to expedite their process, receiving the new rating just weeks before the film’s release date. The film went on to earn $173 million internationally, as did its sequel, Scream 2, which the MPAA gave an R rating on the first go around despite Craven providing them with a gorier version than he expected to release.

Kids (1995) – Unrated

Filmmaker Larry Clark’s indie-skater cult classic had everything from teens having sex to underage drinking and drug use to a brutal beating in broad daylight, but luckily Clarke had Harvey Weinstein on his side who stepped in and did everything he could to get this film released. Miramax was in charge of distributing the film. At the time, Miramax was owned by Disney which meant they would never agree to distribute a movie with violence and teenage sex. So, Weinstein launched a whole new production company specifically for the purpose of distributing Kids. He also vehemently fought the NC-17 rating, gathering a team of lawyers to consult on the film and lobbying against the rating. Despite his best efforts, the MPAA board refused to change the rating, forcing Weinstein to release the film unrated, but all this fuss only proved to help the movie in the end. It went on to earn $7 million at the U.S. box office (nearly five times what it cost to make) and launched the careers of actresses Rosario Dawson (Sin City, Clerks II, Men in Black II) and Chloë Sevigny (Bloodline, American Horror Story, Big Love).

Shame (2011) – rated NC-17

This is the movie that Michael Fassbender (famously) fully exposed himself for, along with his female costar Carey Mulligan, so it was no shock to director Steve McQueen or Fox Searchlight when the MPAA rated the film NC-17. Neither Fox Searchlight nor McQueen had any intention of appealing the rating or making edits for an R rating. Fox Searchlight bragged about the rating in an attempt to garner some free publicity and Shame is amongst the top grossing NC-17 films. It also received rave reviews upon its limited release and over 50 various awards from festivals and organizations, though McQueen says he was snubbed by the Oscars because “In America they’re too scared of sex…”

Midnight Cowboy (1969) – rated R

This film, like The Wild Bunch, was released one year after the MPAA rating system went into effect. When it went to the MPAA board, it was given an X rating, the only rating above R at that time. Since there was no link between an X rating and the porn industry yet, director John Schlesinger went with the X. Schlesinger knew the subject matter, male prostitution, and the gritty nature of the film would probably offend people, and he figured it would not be that popular amongst audiences or critics. However, it went on to win three Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Writing) and earn box office riches ($44.8 million). After winning the Oscars, the MPAA board told Schlesinger if he cut just one scene (suspected to be a scene where two men make eyes at each other implying sexual feelings), they’d give the film an R rating. The director, along with the film’s distributor, United Artists, refused to make any cuts and the MPAA decided to change the rating anyway. It was re-released in theaters with the R rating, which it still maintains today. This film did set the stage, however, for the MPAA board to apply harsher ratings to films with explicit sex, especially homosexual sex, over films with explicit violence.

Showgirls (1995) – rated NC-17

'Showgirls' on HDNET MOVIES
Elizabeth Berkley in Showgirls (1995)

Three years prior to making Showgirls, director Paul Verhoeven and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas made the film Basic Instinct (1992). Due to a graphic love scene that hinted at oral sex, the film was slapped with an NC-17 rating. Verhoeven cut out less than a minute of the film to get an R rating. Three years later, the filmmakers ran into a similar dilemma when the MPAA slapped the NC-17 rating on Showgirls for “nudity and erotic sexuality throughout, and for some graphic language and sexual violence.” But this time, they did not edit and re-submit the film; they accepted the rating, which proved to be a smart choice. It was shown in about thirteen hundred theaters, the most ever for an NC-17 title in the United States, and is currently the highest grossing NC-17 film ever at $20 million for US box offices ($38 million worldwide). Plus, it went on to earn over $100 million from video rentals. Filmmakers were hopeful that this would breathe new life into the NC-17 rating, but instead the movie’s success drove people’s fears and led to further boycotts of NC-17 films and a call to ban them all together.

Want to watch the highest grossing NC-17 movie of all time? Tune into HDNET MOVIES this month for the network premiere of Showgirls on Sunday, December 4th at 9pE.

For further airings throughout the month, go to http://www.hdnetmovies.com/schedule-by-title/ and search by title.