A brief history of NC-17

This week's Shame bears the provocative rating---here are more cases of cinema taken to the extreme.

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  • HENRY & JUNE (1990)
    The first film to earn an NC-17 was an ideal test case for categorizing intelligent adult-only movies: It was a sophisticated, sexually frank biopic about libidinous literary hotshot Anas Nin's affair with fellow author Henry Miller and Miller's wife, June. Unfortunately, the new rating didn't erase the stigma of its predecessor's porn associations; newspapers refused to carry ads for the film and several theater chains wouldn't book it. Meet the new X, same as the old X.---DF

  • SHOWGIRLS (1995)
    Never before had an NC-17 feature been given a blockbuster-wide release: Paul Verhoeven's Las Vegas melodrama pushed the boundaries of taste as only the director of Basic Instinct could , with its copious sex and nudity and unabashedly campy tone. The reaction was resoundingly negative (critics lambasted the film and it swept the Razzie Awards), but a strong-headed cult slowly developed. Now Showgirls is the frequent subject of academic papers and rowdy midnight movie screenings. You can't buy that at "Ver-sayce."---KU

  • THE WILD BUNCH (1995)
    If it moves, re-rate it! Sam Peckinpah's bloody western pushed the envelope when it was first released in 1969. The film's slo-mo violence hasn't lost the power to shock---as evidenced by the MPAA slapping an NC-17 on the director's-cut edition when it was resubmitted in 1993. Thankfully, Warner Bros managed to file an appeal and won in time to drop the elevated rating for the film's 25th anniversary rerelease, though the battle set a less-than-preferable precedent regarding older films and modern MPAA standards.---DF

  • CRASH (1996)
    David Cronenberg surely knew he was courting controversy when he adapted J.G. Ballard's notorious novel about a group of people who get their sexual kicks through car crashes. The film, released in two different versions (NC-17 and a ten-minute shorter R-rated cut), garnered extremely polarized reactions and was even banned in certain countries. As the firestorm subsided, though, Crash rose in estimation and it's now routinely cited as one of Cronenberg's best.---KU

  • MYSTERIOUS SKIN (2004)
    Director Gregg Araki took every measure to ensure that his young cast was spared discomfort while shooting this heartbreaking tale of sexual abuse---he even decided to film the actors separately (and not expose them to the adults), creating congress via editing alone. Still, his difficult subject matter riled the ratings board, a body that proved inflexible. The final victory was Araki's: Here was a movie that bumped his career up to its respected perch.---JR

  • BLUE VALENTINE (2010)
    Superproducer Harvey Weinstein was furious when his end-of-the-year prestige picture, a domestic drama starring an unusually exposed Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling, was labeled with the prohibitive rating. (At issue: a scene of cunnilingus, spurring Gosling to rightly point out the MPAA's hypocrisy, given the many R-rated scenes of woman-on-man oral.) In the final hour, their harsh rating was downgraded, but the battles would rage on for other movies.---JR

HENRY & JUNE (1990)
The first film to earn an NC-17 was an ideal test case for categorizing intelligent adult-only movies: It was a sophisticated, sexually frank biopic about libidinous literary hotshot Anas Nin's affair with fellow author Henry Miller and Miller's wife, June. Unfortunately, the new rating didn't erase the stigma of its predecessor's porn associations; newspapers refused to carry ads for the film and several theater chains wouldn't book it. Meet the new X, same as the old X.---DF

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