Whither the NC-17 Rating

The Motion Picture Association of America adopted an age-based movie rating system in 1967, taking effect the following year. Initially, there were only four ratings.

Rating Restriction
G General Audiences: All Ages
M Mature Audiences: Parental guidance
R Restricted, 16+ with parent
X Adults Only

These ratings replaced the all-or-nothing system in use since the 1930s, colloquially known as the Production Code, and segmented the movie audience by age and allowed for adult-themed movies to proliferate.

The ratings have gradually evolved in the nearly fifty years since their introduction. G and R remain largely intact to this day. M evolved to the confusing GP, meaning General Audiences with Parental Guidance, and then to now-familiar PG. And in the 1980s, PG movies that were considered a tad too violent were rated PG–13 as a middle-ground between PG and R. However, the X rating was something almost mythical. In my adolescent-of-the–1980s mind, an X-rated film was always a pornographic film, and anything X-rated was a sexually explicit, adults-only affair. It might still connote that to the kids of today.

Deep Throat and The Devil in Miss Jones on a New York City theater marquee

Deep Throat and The Devil in Miss Jones at a Times Square theater in New York, May 31, 1980. (AP Photo/Dave Pickoff)

Study film for a few years, and you will learn that the X-rating was applied to many more films, including some that didn’t have much sexual content. For example, the 1969 Haskell Wexler film Medium Cool was initially assigned an X before an appeal reduced it to a more appropriate R rating. The film has no depictions of sex at all, although there is an extended violent sequence of documentary footage, shot by Wexler and his crew, where the Chicago police pummel protestors at the Democratic National Convention. It’s disturbing, but not X-rated disturbing.

Medium Cool has some violent content, unsuitable for young children

Medium Cool (1969) has some violent scenes of the police riot in Chicago.

The X-rating was applied to seventy-two films in its first four years, from 1968 to 1972. This peak coincided with the so-called golden age of porn, beginning in the 1970s.

Year X-Ratings Notable Titles
1968 3 Birds of Peru, The Miracle of Love, Sin with a Stranger
1969 13 Make Me a Angel, Sex of Angels, To Hex with Sex
1970 22 The Dean’s Wife, Satanis: The Devil’s Mass, Sexual Freedom In Denmark
1971 34 Bunny and Clod, The Dirty Movie, Erotic Salad, Snuff

Whither the X rating? In 1990, the Motion Picture Association of America replaced the X rating with NC–17. The rating was designated for films that were for adults but non-pornographic. Initially, films embraced the NC–17 rating as a desirable substitute for being branded with a pornographic rating or marginalized by not being rated at all.

Year NC–17 Ratings Notable Titles
1990 18 The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover, Henry and June, Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down
1991 16 In The Realm Of The Senses, Dice Rules, Rodney Dangerfield ‘Nothin’ Goes Right’
1992 7 Bad Lieutenant, The Loves Of Lady Chatterly

But as video stores and movie theaters began to associate the new NC–17 rating with the old X rating, fewer films would take the NC–17. Instead, they would surrender the rating, remaining an unrated film, or appeal for a milder R rating. Today, the rating is very rarely used. In the last three years, only five films have taken the NC–17 rating.

Year NC–17 Ratings Titles
2011 3 El Infierno, A Serbian Film, Shame
2012 0  
2013 2 Blue is the Warmest Color, Lucky Bastard

For a rating that has been around longer than the original and fabled X rating it replaced, the NC–17 appears to be a bust. Instead of classifying high-brow, adult-themed films and pave the way for more of them, it has mainly marginalized them away from a theater near you.

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