Mark Harris
January 15, 1993 AT 05:00 AM EST

Has NC-17 succeeded in removing the stigma of pornography from legitimate adults-only films? Two years after the Motion Picture Association of America buckled under a crush of criticism from the industry and replaced its X rating with NC-17, the reviews are in and the NC-17 rating is (drumroll, please):

”Ludicrous! Meaningless! An exercise in crass cynicism!” —film critic Roger Ebert

”Obviously not working at all!” —MGM vice president Kathie Berlin

”Very unsatisfying! I wish there were an alternative!” —Fine Line Features president Ira Deutchman

”Still dirty! It doesn’t matter what they call it! It’s the same as an X!” —director Roman Polanski

In other words, thumbs down. All thumbs down. It may be called NC-17, but to filmmakers, filmgoers, and studios, an X by any other name still smells the same — and lately the ratings board has seemed especially eager to slap on the adults-only label. This winter alone, half a dozen films have faced NC-17’s. MGM’s thriller Body of Evidence, starring Madonna, and New Line’s drama Damage, directed by Louis Malle — both in wide release this month — were originally rated NC-17, then edited to earn R’s. Another current MGM film, the erotic coming-of-age memoir The Lover, appealed its NC-17 and was rerated R without undergoing any trims at all. In contrast, the Harvey Keitel melodrama Bad Lieutenant (released by Aries) and Fine Line’s upcoming adaptation of Jean Rhys’ sexually charged 1966 novel, Wide Sargasso Sea (due in April), are wearing their NC-17’s as a badge of honor.

It’s no accident that the brinkmanship surrounding these films has an awfully familiar ring. Outraged appeals to the ratings board, impassioned defenses of a filmmaker’s artistic freedom, and hushed meetings about whether to scissor out a few frames of bodies writhing in pleasure or pain were all mainstays of the bad old days of X. And a distributor’s public pretense of dismay often masks a savvy understanding of how the game is played. Louis Malle admits that the duel over Damage bought the film a month of press attention before its release: ”My friends at New Line (Damage‘s distributor) told me, ‘We don’t mind if we have an NC-17 for a while, because we’d like to get a little publicity.”’ But he still complains about having had to eliminate seven seconds of shadowy lovemaking to get an R. ”I didn’t want to cut the film,” Malle says. ”But New Line said they wanted an R. It’s a huge difference commercially.”

Distributors who kept their NC-17’s don’t like the rating any better. ”Yes, the NC-17 rating has spotlighted Bad Lieutenant,” says Aries president Paul Cohen. ”The audience knows they’re not seeing something compromised. But as an overall hook, NC-17 is onerous. Replacing one label with another doesn’t help. If someone is mentally ill and you call him psychotic instead, it doesn’t change public perception.”

Hollywood’s stated aversion to NC-17 has long been economic. Conventional wisdom holds that NC-17 films will be barred from all but a few hundred theaters, that newspapers won’t run ads for them, and that major video retailers (including the vast Blockbuster empire) won’t stock them. But those complaints are less valid than they were a few years ago. Many theater chains now say they’ll happily show NC-17 films, video stores that won’t carry NC-17’s (including Blockbuster) are willing to stock movies in uncut versions with no rating at all, and most major newspapers accept or reject ads for NC-17 movies on a case-by-case basis. Except for a few radio stations that refused commercials, Aries has had no difficulty publicizing Bad Lieutenant. And after it took in nearly $300,000 in its first weeks in just three New York houses, ”the response from exhibitors throughout the country was enormous,” says Cohen. Fine Line’s Deutchman also anticipates no trouble with Wide Sargasso Sea. ”It’s a film for a sophisticated audience,” he says, ”and the theaters that will show it aren’t the kind that object to NC-17-rated films.”

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